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A tour of the British Horological Institute

A tour of the British Horological Institute

As part of my internship with Culture Syndicates I am going to be working with the British Horological Institute Museum Trust (a bit of a mouthful!), a museum of time and timekeeping based in Upton Hall in Nottinghamshire, set inside lovely grounds. One of my first activities on starting my placement was a tour of the museum, to learn more about it’s amazing collection of time pieces and the history of the BHI. I was lucky enough to accompany a group of engineers on a guided tour, which was led by former curator and horological expert Alan Middleton. This provided me with a great introduction to the museum’s collection and to the work of the BHI, as well as some fascinating facts about the history of timekeeping.

The BHI has been around since 1858. At that time Britain’s watchmaking industry was not hugely successful as certain regulations, such as restrictions on mixing metals in order to make watches cheaper, meant that Britain struggled with competing markets. The BHI was set up by Daniel Edward Johnson to improve standards in British horology. During both the first and second world wars, watchmaking factories were repurposed and the Swiss had made such advances in watchmaking by the time World War II had ended, that the watchmaking industry in Britain could no longer compete. Nevertheless, the BHI continues to exist and train horologists in the art of watchmaking, and publishes a journal each month.

During the tour I saw one of the earliest clock designs, the lantern clock, which came about in around 1600. These are sometimes known as Cromwellian clocks. We also saw one of the enormous hands from the clock at St Pancras station, the first speaking clocks used by the Post Office, and the watch worn by South Pole Explorer Captain Scott.

Particularly interesting and unusual clocks included a Japanese clock that tells the time through the burning of incense, which then burns through strings attached to metal balls. When the balls fall and land on the metal surface below every hour, you can tell from the pitch of the sound what the hour is.

Time Keeping
Apart from seeing the museum’s fantastic collection, I also learnt some interesting facts about the history of time telling. For instance, the fixed hour was only introduced in the 14th century. Prior to that, as the number of daylight hours changed depending on the time of year, the length of each hour was extended or shortened to account for this.

Clocks first started to be made around 1275. The earliest clock that is still in use today is at Salisbury Cathedral and dates from around 1386. It does not have a dial, so the time is known when it strikes each hour. Actually, horologists use the word clock to refer to audible clocks. Those that do not strike are referred to as timekeepers.

I’m looking forward to learning more about horology throughout my internship!
By Emma Raymond, Resilience Syndicate Intern at the British Horological Institute

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