Ferdinand Berthoud,
a watchmaking genius in the service of mariners

by Michel Jeannot, Publisher and Editor in Chief WtheJournal.com

Details of the new FERDINAND BERTHOUD watch, inspired by the marine chronometer created by the master watchmaker.

An exceptional piece

L.U.CEUM, Chopard's historic watchmaking museum in Fleurier, houses a marine chronometer that carries the name Ferdinand Berthoud: the Marine chronometer M.M. No 6 dating from 1777. The chronometer is suspended from a gimbal, allowing it to maintain its horizontal movement and ensure precise operation. Its regulator dial displays the hours, minutes and seconds, and it is also equipped with a constant-force device, a fusee chain transmission and a bimetallic gridiron balance system. The rods in the gridiron expand and contract according to the temperature, opposing the spring and thus ensuring constant tension and reliability.

This remarkable marine chronometer from Ferdinand Berthoud is a source of inspiration that guides the renaissance of the brand today.

Marine clock No. 6, Ferdinand Berthoud, Paris, circa 1777
Marine clock No. 6, Ferdinand Berthoud, Paris, circa 1777

Calculating longitude, or the conquest of the seas

In the 18th century, conquering the seas required precise instruments, in particular reliable marine chronometers allowing longitude to be calculated. This challenge of engineering inspired the greatest engineers of the time, including Ferdinand Berthoud.

The history of watchmaking is peppered with scientific breakthroughs that represent milestones in the development of humanity - discoveries born from an inventive spirit never satisfied by existing solutions, on a constant quest for improvement. Watchmaker Ferdinand Berthoud was one of those who continually pushed the boundaries of time measurement, particularly at sea. In the 18th century, the conquest of the seas had become a major preoccupation for all the Western powers; the development of long sea journeys and the subsequent rise of intercontinental trade - and therefore the assertion of colonial imperialism - had become strategically important.

However, although the calculation of latitude had already been mastered, that was far from the case for longitude, often a cause of shipwrecks resulting in both commercial and human losses. In order to remedy this, throughout the voyage the local solar time had to be compared to the exact time at the point of departure to deduce the longitude. With its proven reliability and its resistance to the harshest environmental conditions and the natural elements, a marine chronometer was essential.

Marine clock No. 1 - Plan view and development, 1761
Marine clock No. 1 - Plan view and development, 1761
Extract from "Traité des horloges marines", Ferdinand Berthoud, 1773
Extract from "Traité des horloges marines", Ferdinand Berthoud, 1773

Young but already famous

It is therefore not at all surprising that under these conditions, the governments of the major continental powers launched contests with generous rewards to inspire the scientists of the period. In the first half of the 18th century, the European contests in which Ferdinand Berthoud took part were all in the area of invention and innovation. Born in Plancemont, just above Couvet (Neuchâtel, Switzerland) in 1727, he made a name for himself in Paris and, in 1753, received his master’s degree by decree of the King’s Council. He never stopped perfecting the marine chronometers of the time, and he released his first model in 1754. Despite his youth, he was already well known and was responsible for writing several articles destined for the Diderot and d'Alembert Encyclopaedia. This desire to write would never leave him, and Ferdinand Berthoud was the author of many works on the measurement of time, such as L’art de conduire et de régler les pendules et les montres, à l’usage de ceux qui n’ont aucune connaissance en horlogerie – The art of operating and adjusting clocks and watches, for use by those with no knowledge of horology – (1759), or the Traité des montres à Longitudes – Treatise on longitude clocks – (1792), to mention just two examples. It should be noted that, unlike his contemporaries, who were reluctant to reveal their secrets, Ferdinand Berthoud demonstrated an unusually open mind, recording the progress of his work through prolific literature, which even at the time was considered essential reference.

Exceptional longevity

Marine chronometry would remain Ferdinand Berthoud’s lifelong passion. And although he was not the first watchmaker to develop a mechanism that met the required degree of accuracy, he nonetheless produced a series of timepieces that have proved to be milestones in the history of horology. In 1762, the H4 by Englishman John Harrison was just 5 seconds slow, corresponding to a longitudinal error of one nautical mile after 117 days at sea. This was a record. However, this did not prevent Ferdinand Berthoud from pursuing his own research and developing several marine chronometers that were duly tested, notably in 1768 on the ten-month voyage of the corvette Isis around the coast of Africa, to the Antilles and Newfoundland, where it allowed the longitude to be measured to within almost half a degree. These successes resulted in Ferdinand Berthoud receiving the title of Mécanicien du Roi et de la Marine (Watchmaker-Mechanic to the King and to the Marine) from Louis XV in 1770. Already a member of the Royal Society of London since 1764, he became a member of the Institut de France in 1795, and was decorated with the Légion d’honneur in 1804.

From then on, orders continued to increase. He continued to expand his knowledge and develop his techniques, leading to timepieces with a spring action which were more reliable than pendulum clocks. Between 1760 and 1787, Ferdinand Berthoud also produced 45 marine clocks and watches, as well as longitudinal clocks powered by more than 20 different calibres. He moved to Groslay in Val-d’Oise in 1767 and never stopped working throughout both the Revolution and the Empire, earning widespread renown for his watchmaking talent and his inventive genius. He died in 1807 at the age of 80 years.

Discover our other newsletters:
- Ferdinand Berthoud - his contribution to horology ; an article by Catherine Cardinal

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