If history has taught us anything, it’s that new technology drives out old. Ballpoints drove out the fountain pen, which had driven out the stick pen; mobile phone cameras have driven out the video camera, which had driven out the 8mm colour film camera, which earlier had driven out the 9.5mm monochrome camera; word processing programmes drove out the dedicated Wang word processor, which in turn had driven out the electric typewriter; and, as everyone knows, the quartz watch has driven out the mechanical watch… OK, that last one is wrong, but why?
The mechanical wristwatch is one of the few technologies that have not succumbed to a newer, cheaper, better one – instead it has hauled itself out of its freshly dug grave, dusted itself off and strolled into the sunset. But the mechanical watch has done more than just survive, it has thrived, immune to technological Darwinism. So, was it a Lazarus-style miracle or was there a saviour, someone who by their tenacity and inventiveness saved the industry?
There are any number of claimants to that title – Nicolas Hayek, Philippe Stern and André Heiniger, all are in the running, but the two people I believe really deserve the title are Soviet husband and wife physicists Boris and Natalia Lazarenko. You have probably never heard of them, but give me a moment to explain. They were the folks that devised the first workable method of electro-discharge machining during the depths of the Second World War.
Known by the more common names of “spark erosion” or “wire erosion”, this is a method of contactless machining, reliant on a phenomenon first observed by Sir Joseph Priestley (scientist, religious free thinker and inventor of soda water). Priestley noted that when two electrical contacts are brought together, immediately before they touch, a spark will shoot between them resulting in a minute amount of surface material being eliminated from each of them.
To understand the relevance of spark erosion to watchmaking we only need look back 200 years, to the invention of the tourbillon – Abraham-Louis Breguet, 1801, solved the problem of positional error, yada yada yada. But let’s look at what isn’t so well known regarding the tourbillon – between 1801 and 1986, only around 600 tourbillons were made, in other words a little over three every year. Not only were few made, but almost every one of them was fitted to a pocket watch with less than 20 being found in wristwatches.
We know the name of the men who made every single one of those tourbillons for the same reason we know the name of every gold medal winner at every Olympic Games: completion was a major achievement. Back in the day, an apprentice craftsman would need to make an item known as a “masterpiece” to mark his passage from a journeyman to membership of the guild that he aspired to join. Often it would be the finest piece he would make in his life; for many of the watchmakers of the past two centuries, their masterpiece would be a tourbillon.
Although spark erosion was the original technology, today there are a number of different electro-erosion technologies grouped under the term of Electro Discharge Machining (EDM). The real breakthrough came in the early-1980s when a Japanese company made the first EDM machine linked to a numerically controlled (NC) computer. This enabled parts to be produced to extremely fine tolerances and, because there are no stresses on the material being worked, pieces can be made with incredibly fine detailing and tight corners and radii, thereby reducing the need for hand finishing of parts.
EDM machines were designed for tool and die making – one of the most highly skilled jobs in manufacturing. It is a labour-intensive job, requiring years of training, and a small mistake by one of the operatives can mean an entire production run of the finished items has to be discarded. So being able to replace these operatives by a machine was a huge financial saving in manufacturing industries.
Although the tools produced by these new machines were made to extremely fine tolerances, the Swiss watch industry in the 1980s was in no hurry to adopt this new technology because it was too busy closing factories, selling spare parts for scrap value and scouring the employment ads for janitorial positions. But there were a few folks who not only thought that the Swiss watch business HAD a future, but saw how that future could be radically different and immune to the changes imposed by the quartz revolution.