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Fathers of Time: John Arnold

by Michael Weare
4 May, 2011
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About the author

Michael Weare has been a professional writer for 30 years, writing about Japanese technology, German and Italian cars, British tailoring and Swiss watches. Michael manages the editorial content of Click Tempus and will be keeping the magazine fresh and informative with regular features, as well as bringing great writers to the magazine. Email:

John Arnold, Watchmaker

Each month we focus on the founders of some of the most successful or reputable watch brands available today.

In this article we focus on one of the most important English watchmakers John Arnold.

John Arnold

John Arnold was born in 1736 in Bodmin, Cornwall in England. He was apprenticed to his father as a clockmaker and probably also worked with his uncle as a gunsmith.

In 1755, following an argument with his father he did what many young men do and branched out on his own, and travelled to the Hague for two years where he worked as a watchmaker.

In 1756 he returned to Britain, this time to London where he set up a small chronometer factory at Chigwell. As his skills grew, so did his reputation as a fine watchmaker, particularly of smaller time pieces.

As well as watchmaking skills Arnold was also blessed with a good deal of business and social acumen.

Founds John Arnold, Watchmaker

Arnold sufficiently impressed watchmaker William McGuire to the point where in 1762 he funded Arnold to set himself up in business at Devereaux Court in the Strand, London.

In 1764 he constructed the smallest ever repeating and striking watch, which was set into a ring and presented to King George III as a gift. A similar timepiece made by Arnold still exists to this day.

In 1769 Arnold’s son, John Roger Arnold was born. From around 1770, Arnold continued the development of portable precision timekeepers picking up from where John Harrison’s precision timekeeper had ended.

Compared to Harrison’s watch, the basic design of Arnold’s was very simple whilst being both consistently accurate and mechanically reliable. Importantly, the relatively conventional design of the movement facilitated its production in quantity at a reasonable price, also at the same time enabling easier maintenance.

Development of the chronometer

john arnold Marine Chronometer number 12

With the world opening up through exploration a solution to the problem of calculating longitude aboard ships was the scientific quest of the day. The solution lay in accurate chronometers.

A competition set-up by the Royal Navy to find a reliable method for calculating longitude at sea to stop heavy maritime losses and accelerate the expansion of Britain’s empire provided the opportunity for John Arnold to present his skills.

Wins the Longitude Prize

In 1770, he became the joint winner of the Longitude Prize after dedicating six years to finding the perfect solution for measuring the longitude.

Arnold turned his attention to the manufacture of more accurate timepieces and invented one of such quality and reliability that Captain James Cook used it on his South Sea Voyages from 1772 to 1775.

One of the most innovative design features was the temperature compensation using a bi-metallic strip. He also solved the problem of friction in the balance spring.

In about 1777 Arnold redesigned his chronometer to make it larger, probably to accommodate the new balance that worked with his pivoted detent escapement and patented helical spring.

The first chronometer of this pattern was signed “Invenit et Fecit” and given the fractional number 1 over 36, as it was the first of this new design.

Arnold’s ingenious technical advances enabled the wide production of Marine Chronometers for use on board ships from 1782 onwards and he took out patents to protect his most important inventions.

By the late 18th century, Arnold & Son had become the leading supplier to the Royal Navy. The basic design of these, with a few modifications went unchanged until the late twentieth century.

Company becomes Arnold & Son

Barometer and Timepiece By John Roger Arnold and Charles Frodsham

In 1787 father and son founded the firm of J. Arnold & Son, which still survives as a manufacturer of precision watches and chronometers.

In 1788 they produced the first pocket chronometer which so impressed the Astronomer Royal that he decided to test it himself at Greenwich . The watch, no. 1/36 performed so well in trials that he decided to give it a new name, that of chronometer and was thus the first person to use that term in its modern sense.

It was Thomas Earnshaw and John Arnold who really perfected the design. The two were fierce competitors and there was great controversy about Arnold’s contribution to the solution and his work was only recognised by the Board of Longitude after his death, when in 1805 his son was awarded the sum of £3000.

John Arnold and Abraham Louis Breguet

The important French watchmaker Abraham-Louis Breguet was a great friend of Arnold, so much so that he gave Breguet carte blanche to incorporate or develop any of Arnold’s inventions and techniques into his own watches.

These included his balance designs, helical springs made of steel or gold, the spring detent escapement, the overcoil balance spring and even the layout of an Arnold dial design which Breguet incorporated into his own.

These were made from engine-turned gold or silver, this pattern becoming the classic and distinctive “Breguet dial”, which in terms of design are identical in layout to the enamel dials which Arnold had designed for his small chronometers, these first appeared in 1783.

Arnold’s son John Roger was apprenticed to both his father and with Abraham-Louis Breguet.

John Arnold’s legacy

Both Arnold and Abraham-Louis Breguet largely invented the modern mechanical watch as we know it today. Certainly one of his most important inventions, the Overcoil balance spring is still to be found in most mechanical wrist watches to this day.

John Arnold’s death

Early photograph of Fore Street, Bodmin

John Arnold died in 1799 at the age of 63 and is buried in Chislehurst, Kent. His son John Roger continued the business after his death with John Dent. He also went on to become Master of the Clockmaker’s Company in London in 1817.

In Bodmin, where Arnold originally worked, is a street named Arnold’s Passage. It is to be found just off Fore Street and a commemorative plaque marks the spot.

For his development of the modern chronometer, for his mastery of the longitude and inventions leading to the modern mechanical watch, Englishman John Arnold is considered a true Father of Time.

Michael Weare | Website

Michael Weare has been a professional writer for 30 years, writing about Japanese technology, German and Italian cars, British tailoring and Swiss watches. Michael manages the editorial content of Click Tempus and will be keeping the magazine fresh and informative with regular features, as well as bringing great writers to the magazine. Email:

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  1. Dent Watches | Dent Denison Limited Edition | Big Ben Clock | Online Watch and Pocket Watch Magazine

    […] 1830, Dent joined forces with John Roger Arnold, son of the great John Arnold, and together they made many exquisite […]

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