Born in 1736 in Bodmin, Cornwall, a lonely and isolated spot in England, John Arnold was apprenticed to his father as a clockmaker and most likely also worked with his uncle as a gunsmith. In 1755, he had an argument with his father which resulted in him making the decision to leave home, travel and see the world. He reached as far as The Hague where for two years he worked as a watchmaker. The following year, he decided it was time to return to Britain where he established a small chronometer factory. Here Arnold began to develop his skills as a watchmaker and over time established an excellent reputation as a watchmaker, specialising particularly in smaller timepieces. His business was helped considerably by the fact that Arnold also happened to possess a good brain for business and the ability to promote himself – skills which have always been much in demand.
In 1762 Arnold make contact with a well to do watchmaker called William McGuire. McGuire had faith in Arnold’s ability and so he invested in him and enabled Arnold to set himself up in business at Devereaux Court in The Strand in London. The following year Arnold successfully constructed the smallest-ever repeating and striking watch. Remarkably, it was set into a ring which was duly gifted King George III. There is an almost identical timepiece created by Arnold which still exists.
Some seven years later in 1769, Arnold’s son, John Roger Arnold, was born. With a thriving busine Arnold proceeded to develop further small, easily portable timekeepers of great precision, following on very much in the footsteps of one of the other great British horologists, John Harrison. This was an era when Britain and not Switzerland was considered the most notable centre for horology in the Western world.
Harrison had travelled to London some five years before Arnold was born, where he too was financed by another British horological legend, George Graham. Harrison competed for the Longitude Prize. The Longitude Prize was a competition sponsored by the Royal Navy to develop a reliable method for the calculation of longitude at sea to avert heavy maritime losses and accelerate the expansion of Britain’s empire.
Arnold’s solution all these years later was elegant in its simplicity, consistently accurate and mechanically reliable. It was also easy to manufacture so that it was economically priced and easy to maintain. It is largely thanks to this technology that Britain developed the enviable reputation of being the ruler of the waves.
Arnold was appointed joint winner of the Longitude Prize in 1770. He had dedicated six years to perfecting his solution. Captain James Cook used Arnold’s new chronometer on his travels South Sea voyages from 1772 to 1775. Arnold had incorporated a high-tech design feature in the form of a bimetallic strip which allowed for temperature compensation. At the same time Arnold solved the problem of friction in the balance spring, friction being the enemy of all precise timekeeping.
In a revision and improvement upon his original design, Arnold introduced a larger chronometer in 1777. The chronometer was signed Invenit et Fecit and created in a limited edition of just 36. These technical advances meant Arnold needed to take out patents in order to protect his most important inventions. Arnold & Son grew to become the leading supplier of chronometers to the Royal Navy, and the basic design of the chronometer developed by Arnold remained unchanged until late into the twentieth century.
Company becomes Arnold & Son
Arnold became Arnold & Son in 1787 and the firm J. Arnold & Son has survived as a manufacturer of precision watches and chronometers. Arnold produced the first pocket chronometer in 1787, which so impressed the Astronomer Royal that he decided to give it a new name, that of ‘chronometer’ and the term has remained to this day.
It always helps technology when there is a sense of keen rivalry. Arnold’s key competitor was Thomas Earnshaw, (1749 – 1829). Based on Arnold’s work, Earnshaw, further simplified the process of marine chronometer production, making them available to the general public. There remained debate about Arnold’s contribution to the solution of Longitude and it was only after his death in 1805 that the Board of Longitude awarded is son the sum of £3000.
John Arnold and Abraham-Louis Breguet
A contemporary and good friend of Arnold’s was the great French watchmaker Abraham-Louis Breguet. In these simpler times Arnold was happy to give Breguet a free hand to introduce or develop any of his inventions and techniques into his own watches. These included Arnold’s balance designs, his helical springs made of steel or gold, the spring detent escapement, the overcoil balance spring as well as Arnold’s clean and elegant dial design.
In fact the classic Breguet dial is identical in layout to the enamel dial Arnold had designed for his small chronometers, first appearing in 1783. It also interesting to note that the world’s leading authority on Breguet, the late George Daniels, styled his dials on some of Breguet’s design concepts, so in effect the Daniels’ dial design returned to British hands some 200 years after Breguet took his inspiration from another great British watchmaker. Arnold’s son John Roger was also apprenticed to Abraham-Louis Breguet as well as his own father.
It’s no exaggeration to state that between them Arnold and Breguet invented the modern mechanical watch as we know it today. And one of Arnold’s most important inventions, the overcoil balance spring is still used in most contemporary mechanical wristwatches.
John Arnold died in 1799 at the age of sixty-three and is buried in Chislehurst, Kent. John Roger his son continued the business successfully after his death. His business partner was Edward John Dent (1790 -1853), a famous English watchmaker noted for his highly accurate timepieces. Dent is the man who built the clock we know today as Big Ben. In Bodmin, where Arnold began his illustrious career there is a street named Arnold’s Passage. Just off Fore Street, a commemorative plaque marks the spot.
Today J. Arnold & Son belong to a select group of watchmaking companies based in Switzerland. They are allowed to call themselves a manufacture, a French term reserved exclusively for watch manufacturers who develop and produce their own movements in-house.
At least two new movements have been launched by the company each year and for each model they make: a feat which puts Arnold & Son on the same level as some of the most dynamic manufactures in the watch industry.
The brand still retains the same product philosophy established well over two hundred years ago that of traditional, hand-finished craftsmanship with state-of-the-art technology. Nowadays, CNC (Computer Numerical Control) machinery delivers the microscopic precision that were always one of John Arnold’s major preoccupations.