Tompion, Thomas

SUBJECT AREA: Horology
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baptized 25 July 1639 Ickwell Green, England
d. 20 November 1713 London, England
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English clock-and watchmaker of great skill and ingenuity who laid the foundations of his country's pre-eminence in that field.
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Little is known about Tompion's early life except that he was born into a family of blacksmiths. When he was admitted into the Clockmakers' Company in 1671 he was described as a "Great Clockmaker", which meant a maker of turret clocks, and as these clocks were made of wrought iron they would have required blacksmithing skills. Despite this background, he also rapidly established his reputation as a watchmaker. In 1674 he moved to premises in Water Lane at the sign of "The Dial and Three Crowns", where his business prospered and he remained for the rest of his life. Assisted by journeymen and up to eleven apprentices at any one time, the output from his workshop was prodigious, amounting to over 5,000 watches and 600 clocks. In his lifetime he was famous for his watches, as these figures suggest, but although they are of high quality they do not differ markedly from those produced by other London watchmakers of that period. He is now known more for the limited number of elaborate clocks that he produced, such as the equation clock and the spring-driven clock of a year's duration, which he made for William III. Around 1711 he took into partnership his nephew by marriage, George Graham, who carried on the business after his death.
Although Tompion does not seem to have been particularly innovative, he lived at a time when great advances were being made in horology, which his consummate skill as a craftsman enabled him to exploit. In this he was greatly assisted by his association with Robert Hooke, for whom Tompion constructed a watch with a balance spring in 1675; at that time Hooke was trying to establish his priority over Huygens for this invention. Although this particular watch was not successful, it made Tompion aware of the potential of the balance spring and he became the first person in England to apply Huygens's spiral spring to the balance of a watch. Although Thuret had constructed such a watch somewhat earlier in France, the superior quality of Tompion's wheel work, assisted by Hooke's wheel-cutting engine, enabled him to dominate the market. The anchor escapement (which reduced the amplitude of the pendulum's swing) was first applied to clocks around this time and produced further improvements in accuracy which Tompion and other makers were able to utilize. However, the anchor escapement, like the verge escapement, produced recoil (the clock was momentarily driven in reverse). Tompion was involved in attempts to overcome this defect with the introduction of the dead-beat escapement for clocks and the horizontal escapement for watches. Neither was successful, but they were both perfected later by George Graham.
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Principal Honours and Distinctions
Master of the Clockmakers' Company 1703.
Bibliography
1695, with William Houghton and Edward Barlow, British patent no. 344 (for a horizontal escapement).
Further Reading
R.W.Symonds, 1951, Thomas Tompion, His Life and Work, London (a comprehensive but now slightly dated account).
H.W.Robinson and W.Adams (eds), 1935, The Diary of Robert Hooke (contains many references to Tompion).
D.Howse, 1970, The Tompion clocks at Greenwich and the dead-beat escapement', Antiquarian Horology 7:18–34, 114–33.
DV

Biographical history of technology. - Taylor & Francis e-Librar. . 2005.

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