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King of the watchmakers.

IT was the precision engineering skills of workers involved in Coventry's watchmaking industry that laid the foundations for the city's later successes in the field of cycles, motorbikes and cars.

In the first half of the 19th century Coventry was the main centre of clock and watchmaking in Britain, with Coventry timepieces synonymous with quality and reliability.

Few people in the city will have heard of Samuel Watson, but he almost single-handedly paved the way for Coventry's involvement in the clock and watch business.

He was at the forefront of the watchmaking revolution in the 1680s, with his clocks snapped up by King Charles II and Isaac Newton among others.

Coventry came late to the revolution in clock and watchmaking and it is not known how Watson became involved in the trade, but he was a trailblazer for others.

For most of the middle ages people had relied on simple sundials to tell the time, although one English model did compensate for seasonal changes in the sun's altitude.

It was in the early to mid 14th century that the first mechanical clocks began to appear in the towers of several large Italian cities.

Spring powered clocks made their debut between 1500 and 1510, when the first portable clock also appeared.

The famous Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei is credited with inventing the pendulum theory in 1584, but it was not until 1656 that the first pendulum clock was built by Christiaan Huygens, a Dutch scientist.

Then the pace of change quickened. Huygens developed the balance wheel and spring assembly, still found in some of today's wrist watches. A London clockmaker, William Clement, began building clocks with a new "anchor" or "recoil" motion which did not affect the swing of the pendulum.

The stage was set for Samuel Watson to make a name for himself.

Not much is known about his early life. There was another Samuel Watson who was a contemporary and who was the third choice to be chamberlain in 1679. He was a barber who owned property in Cross Cheaping.

There was a third Samuel Watson who lost both a daughter, Mary, and a son, Joseph, in 1669.

But the Samuel Watson who went on to become a famous clockmaker is likely to have married Elizabeth Milburn at Holy Trinity in 1672, and fathered a daughter, Phebee, and son, Samuel, in the next four years.

We do know that he took part in the annual election of the city officers as one of the electoral jury chosen from leading Coventry people in 1680.

He made his name in 1682 when he sold a clock to Charles II and was invited to be the King's mathematician.

The following year he began work on an astronomical clock for the King, complete with planets and signs of the zodiac, which took seven years to build. It not only told the time of day but also the positions of the planets.

Queen Mary acquired the astronomical clock in 1691 and it is still owned by the Royal family more than three hundred years on, being kept at Windsor Castle.

Inscribed on the dial is "Samuel Watson. Coventriae fecit".

In 1686 Watson, with his profession noted as watchmaker, was appointed one of the Coventry sheriffs and he continued to serve on the electoral jury.

He built several other clocks, and by now the clamour for Watson's clocks was such that he left Coventry to live in London in 1690/1.

Testament to his standing in the growing industry, Watson became Master of the London Clockmakers' Company in 1692.

In 1695 he met with Isaac Newton, who had been a professor at Cambridge University when he came up with the concept of gravity. Famous for his work in astronomy and physics, Newton had turned his back on the academic world, becoming Warden of the Royal Mint in 1696, but was still highly thought of.

As well as the Royal family and people like Isaac Newton, Samuel Watson is also known to have mixed with the famous diarist Samuel Pepys, although it is not known whether he made a clock for him.

Watson continued to make clocks. Following the great fire of Warwick, some time between 1697 and 1704, he made the clock for the tower of St Mary's church in the town.

It is inscribed with his name as a London clockmaker. Today the clock face is still as he made it, although the works are modern.

In 1712 Samuel Watson's name disappears from the records of the London Clockmakers' Company and it is likely he died in that year.

In his place came a new generation of Coventry clockmakers, like John Carte, who was recorded working in London in 1695 and may have been Watson's apprentice.

Benjamin Brockhurst, who was elected mayor of Coventry in 1708, made a clock for the Grammar School and also New Gate, one of the Coventry gates in what is today Spon End.

The clock and watch makers had arrived to change Coventry's fortunes forever.
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Author:Forster, Mark
Publication:Coventry Evening Telegraph (England)
Date:Feb 12, 2000
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