Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Tompion, Thomas

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TOMPION, THOMAS (1639–1713), ‘the father of English watchmaking,’ is said to have been born at Northhill, Bedfordshire, in 1639, but the statement cannot be authenticated, as the registers of Northhill go back only to 1672. Tompion, at his death, owned land at Ickwell in this parish. E. J. Wood (Curiosities of Clocks and Watches, 1866, p. 293) quotes from Prior's ‘Essay on Learning’—a work that cannot be identified—the statement that ‘Tompion, who earned a well-deserved reputation for his admirable improvements in the art of clock and watch making but particularly in the latter, originally was a farrier, and began his great knowledge in the equation of time by regulating the wheels of a jack to roast meat.’

Tompion was apprenticed in 1664 to a London clockmaker, and was made free of the Clockmakers' Company on 4 Sept. 1671. The statutes of the Clockmakers' Company compelled every member to work as a journeyman for two years after completing his apprenticeship. But within three years of his setting up in business for himself Tompion had attained so high a reputation that when the Royal Observatory was established in 1676 he was chosen to make the clocks, on whose accuracy important calculations depended. One of these clocks was presented to the Royal Society in 1736; it bears this inscription: ‘Sir Jonas Moore caused this movement to be made with great care Anno Domini 1676 by Thomas Tompion.’ It is a year-going clock. Under the direction of Robert Hooke [q. v.] he made in 1675 one of the first English watches with a balance spring. It was presented to Charles II, inscribed, ‘Robert Hooke inven. 1658. T. Tompion fecit 1675.’ When Edward Barlow, alias Booth [q. v.], applied for a patent for repeating watches, the watch produced in court in March 1687 was made by Tompion for Barlow. Britten says: ‘The theories of Dr. Hooke and Barlow would have remained in abeyance but for Tompion's skilful materialisation of them. When he entered the arena the performance of timekeepers was very indifferent. The principles upon which they were constructed were defective, and the mechanism was not well proportioned. The movements were regarded as quite subsidiary to the exterior cases, and English specimens of the art had no distinctive individuality. After years of application he, by adopting the invention of Hooke and Barlow, and by skilful proportion of parts, left English watches and clocks the finest in the world, and the admiration of his brother artists.’

In November 1690 Tompion was established in business at the corner of Water Lane in Fleet Street (No. 67), where he remained until his death. Besides watch and clock making, he made barometers and sundials. A fine ‘wheel’ barometer still hangs in King William's bedchamber at Hampton Court bearing the royal monogram. An elaborate and complicated sundial made by him for the king after Queen Mary's death in 1694 is still in its place in the Privy Garden at the same palace. The prices paid to Tompion for these royal commands are not extant, but in 1695 he received 235l. for three ‘horariis’ of gold and silver sent with the mission to the regent of Algiers, and three others to be sent to Tripoli.

In this year (1695) Tompion, in conjunction with William Houghton and Edward Barlow, patented the cylinder escapement, the invention of Barlow (patent dated 7 Will. III, pars. 18 I. No. 1). ‘This invention, although not brought into use immediately, had the most remarkable effect on the construction of watches, for by dispensing with the vertical crown wheel, it admitted of their being made of a flat and compact form and size instead of the cumbrous and ponderous bulk of the earlier period’ (Octavius Morgan).

In 1703 the ‘Master of the Clockmakers' Company and Mr. [Daniel] Quare [q. v.] produced letters from Patrick Cadell of Amsterdam stating that Cabrière Lambe and others at Amsterdam had set the names of Tompion, Windmills, and Quare on their work, and called it English’ (Journal of the Clockmakers' Company). The following year (1704) Tompion became master of the company.

In the ‘Affairs of the World’ (October 1700) Tompion was stated to be making a clock for St. Paul's to go for a hundred years without rewinding, to cost 3,000l. or 4,000l., ‘and be far finer than the famous clock at Strasburg.’ If such a project was entertained, it was never carried out.

In his old age Tompion visited Bath, and a memorial of this visit, and possibly of his gratitude to the healing waters, exists in the fine long-case clock in the Pump-room inscribed, ‘The Watch and Sundial was given by Mr. Thos. Tompion, of London, Clockmaker, Anno Dom. 1709.’ It is nine feet high, wound once a month, and is still in going order.

It has been stated that Tompion was a fellow of the Royal Society, but his name does not appear in any of the annual lists of the society.

Tompion died on 20 Nov. 1713, and was buried in Westminster Abbey. In the same grave, thirty-eight years later, George Graham, Tompion's favourite pupil and nephew by marriage, was laid. By his will, dated 21 Oct. and proved 27 Nov. 1713, Tompion, who was apparently a bachelor, left his houses, land, &c., at Ickwell in the parish of Northhill to his nephew Thomas, son of his brother James. There are legacies to a niece, wife of Edward Banger (who carried on business as a watchmaker with the younger Thomas Tompion), and a great-niece, but the bulk of the property was left to George Graham and his wife Elizabeth, daughter of Tompion's brother James.

The inscribed stone over Tompion's grave, removed early in the nineteenth century, was replaced by order of Dean Stanley in 1866.

Tompion's portrait was painted by Sir Godfrey Kneller; it is now in the Horological Institute. He is represented in a plain coat and cravat, with a watch movement, inscribed with his name, in his hand. J. Smith made a mezzotint from it in 1697, inscribed ‘Tho. Tompion Automatopœus.’

[Royal Wardrobe Accounts (Record Office); Atkins and Overall's Account of the Clockmakers' Company; Britten's Former Clock and Watch Makers; Noble's Memorials of Temple Bar; Octavius Morgan's Art of Watchmaking; Noble's Continuation of Granger; Chester's Westminster Abbey Register; Stanley's Memorials of Westminster Abbey; Weld's History of the Royal Society; Notes and Queries, 9th ser. iii. 202.]

E. L. R.