Timepiece document questions watch origin

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The Independent Online

A 17th-century document which suggests that the forerunner of the modern wristwatch was invented by an Englishman, not a Dutchman as commonly believed, must not be exported from the UK, the Government has ruled.

The physicist and astronomer Christiaan Huygens has been credited with the invention of the balance-spring for portable timepieces, a development that led to the modern wristwatch. But a draft of a royal warrant for a patent to be issued for the invention of a "watch with springs" indicates that there could be another version of the history of time.

The English physicist Robert Hooke, a contemporary of Huygens, claimed that he invented the balance spring, but the draft of the royal warrant, which dates from the mid-1660s, is the only known evidence to support this.

Yesterday, Estelle Morris, the Arts minister, placed a temporary export ban on the document, thought to be worth almost £80,000, on the advice of the Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art.

"The warrant is an outstanding document in the history of horology," said a spokesman for the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. "It provides unique contemporary evidence that Robert Hooke was seeking a royal patent in the mid-1660s. This gives Hooke a primary place in a development that led to a dramatic improvement in time-keeping."

The document first came to the attention of experts in the early 1990s, when it was bought at auction by a US-based collector. It has not been exhibited.

Hooke, a physicist and instrument maker, is thought to have conceived the idea of regulating clockwork with the use of a spring around 1660. But his patent application was never completed because of a number of disagreements. In 1675, Huygens patented his portable watch, made in Paris.