Pointless complication #2: the minute repeater

Repeating the hours, quarters of hours or minutes through a sound mechanism was the first way to announce time. It started out as a practical necessity. Today building them it's the greatest the challenge for any watchmakers. But this article is not just dedicated to minute repeaters, it is about its current Amazing uselessness.


In Europe, the first fully mechanical watches had no dial. They would have been created in the Middle Ages, in the 13th century, and they did not show the hours, they played them, in a church. The word "Clock" itself comes from the Latin: "clocca" which means bell. In the Middle Ages, clocks were only used to call people to public events, they were audible reminders. Later, and before the church clocks rang automatically, it was the priests who rang the bells, after consulting their pocket watches. The fact that sounds arise automatically from the orders of a clock has become the rule in all churches. However, they were very inaccurate mechanisms. It was with the creation of two revolutionary pieces that these sound making watches gained precision: the rack and the snail.

The Rack and the Snail - two musical pieces

Snail © Paulo Pires / Espiral do Tempo

The rack and the snail are two pieces that are still part of many current watches. I remember discovering their usefulness when taking apart a Junghans mantel watch. At the time it seemed like an incredible invention, one of those so simple and brilliant that it was just waiting to be invented! The author would have been Edward Barlow, in 1676. The improvement in the accuracy of these musical clocks reduced the need for human intervention and led to their diffusion. When they passed from the church towers to the houses, they were especially useful for checking the hours in the dark. In some of them, by pulling a wire, it was possible to activate the sound mechanism that chimed the hour by means of chimes. From the mantelpiece of the fireplaces, tables and walls, these audible clocks went over to the wrist. Arriving at the wrist, they started to be called minute repeaters if activated manually, or sonnerie if activated automatically. However, they were a serious problem whenever someone wanted to know the hours during the opera, or even in a trench in the First World War. Radium turned out to be a perfect solution that allowed reading of the hours in the dark: this luminescent substance was applied to hands and markers.

Rack © Paulo Pires / Espiral do Tempo

The silence of radioactivity

Especially in the United States, radium was applied with brushes whose bristles were aligned with the lips and the tongue. This work was mainly done by ladies in a period when it was believed that this substance was miraculous and excellent for health.

Over time, the real and dangerous implications of radium have been discovered, but also covered up. The radium, after all, was highly carcinogenic and the effects of prolonged contact with this substance began to be felt - in this regard it is worth reading the book Radium Girls, a work that tells in detail the struggle of a group of women against the company of watch faces that had hired the.

Of course, from the moment the harmful effects associated with radio became known, more and more safe non-radioactive substances started to appear. Watching the time in the dark is no longer a problem nowadays and minute repeaters can finally become pointless!

The delicious uselessness

Utility is a very important barrier that all big watches must overcome. Free from the need to be useful tools, watches can aspire to be artistic objects. Now it is no longer necessary to hear the time, but watchmakers continue to create minute repeaters and sonneries. These mechanisms are part of the most incredible watches and are currently the maximum complications of watchmaking. It’s not about being useful, it’s about being Amazing. It was exactly when they lost their usefulness that watchmakers were able to have the freedom to create fantastic works such as the Grand Sonnerie by Greubel Forsey, the Sonnerie Souveraine (Caliber 1505) by F.P. Journe, or the Bird Repeater from Jacket Droz (Ref. J031033204).

Snail © Paulo Pires / Espiral do Tempo

This article was initially published in the online version of Espiral do Tempo on 2020-1-30.

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