Craftsmanship of Mechanical Watchmaking and Art Mechanics as UNESCO World Heritage

Text and image: Corinna Heumann

‘It shivers with love…’ – the mechanical heart of Olympia: Craftsmanship of Mechanical Watchmaking and Art Mechanics have recently been inscribed on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity

Love of perfection and precision

With an exquisite sense of humor the composer Jacques Offenbach plays with the human longing for perfection in his opera The Tales of Hoffmann. During her aria, the artificial figure, the puppet Olympia, falls apart. Is the human soul so overwhelmed by the supposed chaos in the world? Do only machines bring a tangible order into the world? Can perfection only be achieved technically, in robots or artificial intelligence? Or does the love of perfection and precision represent unattainable utopias?

Since 2021, watchmaking and art mechanics have been included in the Unesco Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Unlike buildings or outstanding cityscapes, this intangible part of human heritage describes communal practices and social interactions. It was a joint candidacy of France and Switzerland. The centuries-old European traditions of precision mechanical inventiveness in watchmaking in the French and Swiss Jura, Geneva and Schaffhausen, Biel and Besançon are duly honored and safeguarded for the future. 

Timekeeping shapes the developments of navigation and industrialization 

In 1714, the British Parliament passed “An Act for providing a public Reward for such Person or Persons as shall discover the Longitude at Sea”. The carpenter and clockmaker John Harrison solved the problem of Longitude with the accuracy of his ship’s clock. The Greenwich Meridian at Transit House at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich and the Greenwich Time Ball still remind us today that the ships leaving London harbor set their clocks according to Greenwich Time. Years later, the time clock set the pace for the workers in the factories. In the Industrial Age, it became a symbol of exploitation and class struggle. To ensure that workers and employees arrive on time for work, regardless of when the sun rises. Workshops and smaller factories in the Black Forest began to build inexpensive, robust wooden clocks with an alarm function.

Metalworking and arithmetic – the complex technology of toothed wheels

Traditional techniques of working a wide variety of metals, calculating gears, and making cog wheels and pinions lead to amazing, highly complicated mechanical systems. The Chinese astronomical clock of Su Song (from 1086) already has an escapement. In Europe English watchmakers succeed in the invention of the escapement, based on the three classical oscillating systems (pendulum, balance, foliot or scales) in 1685 and 1720. 

More and more the clocks are also equipped with additional systems: striking mechanisms and complicated displays that show planetary movements, moon phases or the date. Musical clocks let mechanically generated melodies resound to magnificently decorated, dancing figurines. With the invention of the balance and mainspring around 1500, the first portable pocket watch was created. 

Astronomical clocks

The Epiphany Clock in Strasbourg Cathedral was built by an unknown master between 1352 and 1354. Today you can admire the fully functional third version of this impressive astronomical clock. It was set in motion for the first time on October 2, 1842, on the occasion of the 10th Congress of Sciences in France. It displays the Earth and Moon orbits, those of the planets known at that time, equinoxes, sunrise, sunset, eclipses, planetary locations, sidereal time and many other astronomical dates. The calendar shows leap years, movable holidays, equinoxes of the sun and moon and beyond. Every major church used to have an astronomical clock in the previous centuries. They determined the rhythm of life in the community. In Münster and Lübeck the astronomical clocks could also be preserved until today.

Socio-cultural context

In the clockmaker’s trade, traditional handicraft techniques come to blossom in a socio-cultural context. They are passed on from one generation to the next and continue to contribute to the development of mankind to this day. The complex functionalities require not only technical but also mathematical expertise. Clocks and their gearwheels were systematized further and further. Eventually, mechanical calculating machines were built. Today, they are considered the analog predecessors of computer technology. In Germany today, the CS2 caesium atomic clock in Braunschweig sets the pace. Nevertheless, we are still a little way away from the perfection we dream of…

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