ENGLISH WATCHMAKER (1736 – 1799)
Born in Cornwall, he left England for the Netherlands at the age of 19 and returned to London speaking fluent German. This stood him in good standing at the court of King George III, from the House of Hanover, to whom Arnold presented a ring with the smallest half-quarter repeater ever made.
John Arnold is known as one of the most innovative watchmakers of his day and held patents for a Detent escapement, a bimetallic balance and a helical balance spring. Arnold also played a central role in the significant events of his age, such as the competition to determine longitude at sea, and won several grants and awards offered by the British Board of Longitude.
Arnold left England for the Netherlands at the age of 19 after completing his apprenticeship to hone his watchmaking skills. He returned two years later speaking excellent German, which stood him in good stead later at the court of King George III and had established himself as a watchmaker of repute in London’s Strand by his mid-twenties.
It is said that Arnold encountered a certain William McGuire for whom he repaired a repeating watch. The latter gave him a loan, enabling him to set up in his watch business in Devereux Court, London’s Strand.
John Arnold gained an introduction to King George III by presenting him with a ring containing a half-quarter repeater.
In 1847, The Religious Tract Society wrote : “Arnold is also celebrated for the manufacture of the smallest repeating-watch ever known; it was made for his majesty George III, to whom it was presented on his birthday, the 4th of June 1764. Although less than six-tenths of an inch in diameter, it was perfect in all its parts, repeated the hours, quarters and half-quarters, and contained the first ruby cylinder ever made. […] The king was so much pleased with this rare specimen of mechanical skill, that he presented Mr. Arnold with 500 guineas; and the emperor of Russia afterwards offered Mr. Arnold 1,000 guineas for a duplicate of it, which he declined.”
The earliest marine chronometers Arnold completed for official trial were from the series he made in the early 1770's. Arnold presented to the Board of Longitude a timekeeper that estimated could be produced for just 60 guineas and was granted £ 200 by the Board, the first of several sums for his support.
Admiral Sir Robert Harland was a Royal Navy officer. Appointed Commander-in-Chief of the East Indies Station in 1771, he took the first Arnold’s chronometer on his journey to Madagascar.
Between 1768 and 1779, James Cook led three ambitious voyages of discovery to the Pacific. These were opportunities to test the astronomical and timekeeper methods of finding longitude over great distances. John Arnold marine chronometer No. 3, accompanied Cook on the second voyage (1772–75). It was looked after by two astronomers appointed by the Board of Longitude.
Following his invention of a detent escapement and other significant design improvements, John Arnold builds his first pocket chronometer (No. 8).
The same year, Constantine John Phipps, English explorer and officer in the Royal Navy, navigates with an Arnold chronometer and wrote in his book "A Voyage towards the North Pole: “The Board of Longitude sent two watch machines for keeping the longitude by difference of time; one constructed by Mr. Kendal, on Mr. Harrison’s principles; the other by Mr. Arnold. I had also a pocket watch constructed by Mr. Arnold, by which I kept the longitude to a degree of exactitude much beyond what I could have expected; the watch having varied from its rate of going only 2’ 40’’ in 128 days.”
John Arnold knew that the less contact there was between the balance and the escapement, the more likely the chronometer would be to keep accurate. By 1772, this led him to develop a pivoted detent escapement and three years later he was granted a patent for a compensation bimetallic balance and a helical balance spring.
The most famous of all Arnold’s timekeepers is probably his pocket watch No. 1/36. The watch, sent to the Royal Observatory at Greenwich for trial is applauded for its precision.
Following this success, Arnold published the results in a pamphlet "An Account kept during Thirteen Months in the Royal Observatory at Greenwich of the Going of a Pocket Chronometer, made on a new Construction".
The term "chronometer" subsequently became general currency and is still in use today to denote mechanical timepieces tested and certified to meet certain precision standards. In Switzerland, only timepieces certified by the Contrôle Officiel Suisse des Chronomètres (COSC) may use the term "chronometer".
In its report on Arnold’s pocket chronometer No. 2, the Board of Longitude mentioned: "So far as this watch has been tried, it must be acknowledged by all, that it is superior to every one that had been made before it. Nothing therefore seems to remain but for, Mr. Arnold, to make other watches, to entitle him to the second reward offered by Parliament for improvements in this branch of mechanics, and also to the universal approbation and applause of his fellow-citizens."
One major invention of Arnold’s was his conception of "terminal curves" for the helical balance spring. He patented the design in May 1782 (British patent No. 1382) along with a spring detent escapement and epicycloid teeth.
John Arnold officially retired, transferring the company to his son, John Roger Arnold (1769-1843) who was an accomplished watchmaker. In 1792, two years after his apprenticeship at his father's facility, he was sent to Paris to study with great French watchmaker Abraham Louis Breguet, friend of John Arnold.
Abraham Louis Breguet presents his first tourbillon escapement, mounted in one of Arnold’s pocket chronometers. In reverent memory of John Arnold, an homage is engraved in French on the main plate: "Hommage de Breguet à la mémoire révérée d’Arnold, offert à son fils. An 1808."
The Arnold’s chronometer No. 2109 goes with Rear-Admiral Sir William Edward Parry on his voyage toward the North Pole. Parry was an English explorer of the Arctic and probably the most successful in the long quest for the Northwest Passage.
John Roger Arnold granted a patent for his 'U'-shaped balance. He also became a predominant supplier to the Admiralty. Of the 129 chronometers belonging to the Royal Navy, no fewer than 84 are signed by him, his father John Arnold or Arnold & Son.
After the death of John Roger Arnold, Arnold & Son is continued by Charles Frodsham, renown English watchmaker, until mid of the 19th century.
Arnold & Dent's No. 4575 chronometer accompanies Dr David Livingstone on his expedition to South Africa.
Swiss Watchmaking with English Roots
After a relaunch in 1995, Arnold & Son becomes a fully integrated Swiss manufacture, developing and producing in-house all of its movements, perpetuating the legacy of John Arnold through mechanical features such as the true beat second or design elements.