In search of horology’s future

The future always holds our individual and collective hopes and dreams, and they’re often played out in industry. In technology, the sci-fi future we were all promised might finally be on the horizon with self-driving cars and fully immersive virtual reality. Maybe even the colonization of Mars is there as well, if Elon Musk can continue to will his vision into existence with SpaceX. By comparison, it’s tough to imagine too far into the future in the watchmaking world. In part, this has to do with the fact that much of that future remains behind closed doors, unlike the tech industry where visionaries often pitch the public continuously. Last week’s post and subsequent discussion centered on how to use the past to build a better future. This post is about looking solely at the future through research and innovation.

So what can we do to help trigger our collective imagination of the future of watchmaking? Where can we catch a glimpse of the direction and possibilities of horology’s future?

One avenue can be found at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) and its Instant-Lab. For those who do not know, Instant-Lab is Patek Philippe’s partner in the advanced research (yes, also a core partner in the Advanced Research). As their mission statement dictates,

“The laboratory specializes in creating new mechanisms featuring kinematic and technological innovation at the centimeter scale using a scientific approach inspired from mechanical design in fields such as classical horology, robotics, and aerospace … Beyond its academic mission to pursue excellence in fundamental research and teaching, the laboratory is also committed to establish ties with Swiss watchmaking culture and welcomes industrial collaboration with all Swiss watchmaking companies.”

Though the laboratory occupies a very low-profile position in the watch world, it’s an extremely important conduit to think about and imagine the watchmaking world 15-30 years into the future. To the watch fanatic, this is our sci-fi future. So what have they been working on?

Since the inception of the lab in 2013, the IsoSpring has been the center of its ongoing research efforts. One can observe the development of this mechanical concept on a high-level by reading through the lab’s publicly available annual reports, 2013-2018 (2019, presumably coming soon!).

The IsoSpring is an attempt to move beyond a fundamental constraint on mechanical timekeeping thus far: the escapement. The technology relies on a series of elastic oscillators that allow for the kinetic energy of the barrel to be dispersed in a manner that swings and sways, rather than stops and starts. Its effect, the overcoming of the drag of stop-and-go escapements, is a massive increase in efficiency. The prototype of the IsoSpring was implemented successfully into a clock in 2017, and removed the underlying acoustic reason mechanical clocks and watches tick. Simon Henein, Head of Laboratory, says that it is “a departure from chopped up ticking time and a return to continuous time as seen in nature by the motion of the stars.” Since 2017, phase II of research and development began after the success of the clock, and remains focused on the miniaturization of the IsoSpring mechanism to wristwatch scale. The progress of Instant-Lab continues to push modern horology toward the rise of the post-escapement era.

The only reason I focus most of the attention on Instant-Lab and the IsoSpring in this post is primarily because the lab and its research is a recent discovery of mine. There are, of course, many others outside of the academy at the cutting edge of horological R&D as well. Firehouse Horology, North Thin Ply Technology, Master Dynamic, Positive Coating are all private companies focused on pushing the limits of silicon hairspring and material sciences innovation.

As an exercise in imagination, digging into these “labs” and the cutting edge of horology R&D frees the mind of its sunken-ness in history. I’ve always been a believer that we don’t need many more bridges to the past – history is nothing but the activity of man pursuing his aims. What we do need are more bridges built into the future. We need to have our own aims.

Another day with the beast,

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