Popular Science Monthly/Volume 46/November 1894/The Swiss Watch Schools

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search



ONE need not be specially interested in watchmaking in order to be fascinated with what he will see of watches and watch work in Switzerland.

The great number of jewelers' shops in the cities, displaying watches in every conceivable form and setting—as eight-day watches, watches in pencils, studs, cane-heads, bracelets, rings, etc.—will be sure to make him loiter fascinated in front of each window he passes. For minute and ingenious work the Swiss outdo the world. Indeed, to what an extent the Swiss are furnishing the world with its pocket time may be guessed from the estimated exports in that line, which are now said to exceed twenty million dollars annually, and this figure can hardly include that unknown amount of such wares bought to some extent by almost every tourist as a present or a souvenir. In almost every European country the watches offered for sale are in large part Swiss. The only rival of the Swiss watch is the American, and even here, despite our development of the industry and high tariffs, the smaller patterns are chiefly Swiss.

The writer was greatly interested in this nation of watchmakers, and gave some attention, during a recent visit to that country, to the Swiss methods of making watchmakers, as well as of making and marketing watches.

The Écoles d'Horlogerie—schools of watchmaking—are under the municipal management in Switzerland precisely as are our PSM V46 D073 Watch plate on which the movement is built.jpgFig. 1.—Plate. common schools. Special permission must be obtained by any one desiring to visit either the watch or the common schools. There are watchmaking schools at Geneva, Neufchâtel, Chaux-de-Fond, Locle, Bienne, Ste. Imier, and Porentruy.

The idea of going to school to learn to make watches would strike an American schoolboy as queer enough. Doubtless many of them who find the arithmetic and geography and grammar to go rather heavily, but who are fond nevertheless of seeing "the wheels go round," would think it a blessed existence to study nothing at school except these wheels, how to make them, and make them go round. But the reality loses the novelty and charm with which the American schoolboy might invest it long before the slow, thorough, exacting work is done which entitles the Swiss boy to graduate an accredited watchmaker.

The school the writer visited is the extensive one at Geneva. Being provided with the requisite permission, and escorted by an "alumnus" of the institution, he was shown every courtesy and afforded every opportunity to observe.

One is first ushered into the beginners' room. To enter, a boy must be at least fourteen. He will first be introduced to a woodturning lathe and set at turning tool handles. He will be kept at this from eight days to several weeks, according to aptitude. Then he will be advanced to the work of filing and shaping screwdrivers and similar' tools. These, and all other tools which he may afterward make, will be his own. Being in course of time to some extent provided with tools, he will undertake making a large wooden pattern of a watch frame perhaps as large as a dining plate. After he has learned just how this frame is to be shaped, he is given a ready-cut one of brass of the ordinary size, and he begins drilling the holes for the wheels and screws (Fig. 1). All along the masters stand over him and instruct him. The circular pieces of brass which are put into his hands here he will go on with, and when the watch is completed that, too, will be his own.

He is then taught to make other fine tools, and to finish the frame, ready to receive the wheels.

Then he will leave the first room, and pass up into one where he is taught to fit the stem-winding parts, and to do other fine cutting and filing by hand, to make watches that will strike the hour, minute, etc., for which class of work the Swiss are so famous. One can readily conceive how exceedingly minute and exact such workmanship must be, particularly on the minute snail—that is, the guide which permits and arrests the striking, so that, in addition to the hour and the quarter, the very minute shall be sounded.

The master in this room had been thirty-eight years in that office, directing, inspecting, criticising, and it was interesting to

PSM V46 D074 Wheels of the train of watches.jpg

Fig. 2.—Wheels of Train.

observe that his eyesight was still perfect, a fact which tends to confirm the statement sometimes made that it is rare to find a working jeweler an inmate of an eye infirmary.

When the student has mastered the work on these fine file-dressed parts, he is ready to pass on into the train room—i. e., the room in which the wheels are cut. Here he will be taught how to handle the beautiful little machines which cut the cogs. Some of them are so fine that they can be adjusted to cut twenty-four hundred cogs on one small wheel.

In this room are to be seen large working models of watch movements, perfect watches in every respect though large as a saucer, which enable the student to study very important matters of the angles of cogs, the bearing and adjustment of the matched parts, etc. Many of the numerous jewelry shops over the city have these mammoth watch movements running in the windows as a means of engaging the attention of the passer-by of mechanical tastes.

The next step upward is into the escapement room, where those steel parts that constitute the escapement—the scape-wheel, lever, and balance—are cut (see Figs. 4, 5, 6).

The essential difference between the American manner of making a watch and the Swiss is brought to mind in the course of your stay in this room. Take the lever in illustration. The PSM V46 D075 An american watch lever.jpgFig. 3.—An American Lever. American manufacturer cares little how a lever looks, provided only it serves its purpose properly. The Swiss workman, however, must needs dress down the lever until it shall have a delicacy and comeliness all its own. The difference between a Swiss and an ordinary American lever has been likened to that between an antelope and a bear (compare Figs. 3 and 5).

Having remained in the escapement room long enough to master the principles and the practice required for making those delicate and critical parts the boy, or rather young man—for he has added several years to his age by this time—is ready to enter the last or timing room. Here he learns to do the very fine work which makes a watch a fine timekeeper. Without this work a watch may run a little faster when wound up tight than when partly run down. It will often run a little faster in the cold than in the warm pocket. It may not keep quite the same time when hung up that it does when lying down.

To get rid of all these imperfections requires very careful, patient, and skillful work. It will suffice for the ordinary reader if we give but a few suggestions as to the manner of procedure.

The tendency of a watch to vary by reason of the varying pressure of the mainspring is overcome by means of the hairspring. Experimentation has proved that if certain peculiar

PSM V46 D075 Watch escape wheel swiss lever and balance.jpg
Fig. 4.—Scape-wheel. Fig. 5.—Swiss Lever. Fig. 6.—Balance.

curves and inclinations are given to portions of the hairspring it will compel the balance to beat equal time for a longer or shorter swing. What these curves are the student learns from drawings which he follows as closely as he can, and then proceeds on the "cut and try" principle. Timing for heat and cold is a simpler matter, and is accomplished by adjusting the screws on the balance. Every respectable balance is made, by means of a combination of brass and steel hoops, to adjust itself more or less accurately in changes of temperature. But to bring about great accuracy in this respect requires much patience and experimentation. Then comes the adjustment for changing positions. If a watch runs a little faster lying down, the bearing affected by that position must be made a little coarser. Here the "cut and try" method must again be patiently applied.

At length, when the young man can get his watches so that they will not vary more than two and a half seconds a day, whether cold or warm, and no matter how many times they are changed in position, he is entitled to a certificate from the astronomical observatory where the watches are tested, that he is a competent watchmaker.

In the United States men or women or boys learn to run, perhaps, one little machine in a large factory, which cuts or polishes one small part, and do not try or need to understand the whole trade of watchmaking. But in Switzerland the man who makes a watch or any part of it is a watchmaker always, although he will sooner or later decide what part of watchmaking he prefers, and manufacturers will then bring him just that work to do. One man may make a business of merely polishing screw-heads, another does nothing but time watches, etc. There are no large watch factories in Switzerland, such as we have, but all their myriads of watches have been passed round through the little shops of these watchmakers before they have got all their parts and are ready for the pocket.

One of the consequences of the Swiss mode of making a watch is, that its every part is made for that particular watch. This is true not only of the movement but the case. Cases are not interchangeable as with us. Each case is made to fit a given movement, and will not, unless by sheer accident, fit another. A dealer requiring watches must give his order—say for a dozen—to the watchmaker who is making a specialty of the earlier parts of the work, and then the dealer must follow his order on until it is completed and cased.

After observing the thoroughness of the training of which the Swiss workman has the advantage, one hardly wonders that the Swiss are able to produce at once the quantity and quality of watch work for which they are justly famed.

Concerning famines in India, which were formerly often terrible, Mr. C. E. D. Black, in his third decennial report of progress, does not deny the existence of "habitually starving millions," but maintains that, taking the country as a whole, it can always furnish food enough for all its inhabitants. The difficulty has hitherto been in moving the surplus of one or other locality to the spots where deficiency exists. This has now been mainly overcome, and the days when grain was selling at famine prices in one district and rotting on the ground in another are gone. Registered meteorological observations indicate that, as a rule, two thirds of India are affected each year, either favorably or prejudicially, differently from the other third. There is no record of a universal failure of crops, any more than of a general harvest above the average.