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Atom Heart Mother (Part One of Two)

I popped in to see Richard Hoptroff, of Hoptroff London, a couple of weeks ago. A friend had kindly arranged an hour with Richard who was generous enough to put up with my slight geekiness, and utter awe at seeing the atomic made mechanical.

Richard hasn’t always made watches, although he did make / design a rather cool clock¬†about a decade ago, and has some very interesting views on complications. Before getting into watchmaking, he was a physicist, and has lived in Paris, as well as the States. Last year, at the Daniels Auction, he bid and won on George’s Trafalgar watch¬†and he even has a patent on a left-(or right-)handed quartz movement. In fact, until he started flying, Richard didn’t even own a watch. Now he’s producing some of the most interesting #smartwatches I’ve seen, as well as the most accurate.

The quest for accuracy is often seen as a slightly spurious endeavour by mechanical watch lovers, perhaps due to the almost continual challenge we seem to get from those who are able to survive with a simple quartz. Of course, there are a few of us who seem to be able to wear both – and Richard certainly straddles these two worlds.

Influenced by Daniels as much as the Department of Defence, Hoptroff’s atomic pocket watch – the catchily-named “No. 10” – is a mechanical marvel, powered by electricity, but regulated by a Chip Scale Atomic Clock (CSAC).

The CSAC is almost exactly like a quartz movement, except that, instead of oscillating at 32.768 kHz, the caesium atoms in the CSAC are emitting 4,596,315,885 microwaves a second. Well. And there’s an oven. And a laser. But it’s basically the same thing. Probably.

Front and back

As you can see, the CSAC is a little bit larger than your average movement – hence the pocket watch design. The example in the photo is not being powered though the micro-USB, a Union Fortune Lithium Polymer battery pack is sandwiched between the two ‘plates’, but rather is being calibrated. This prototype is only showing hours, minutes and seconds, but you can see where the plate has been drilled for the various Soprod-manufactured bimotors, monomotors and PIC microcontrollers.

Seeing the pocket watch connected to a computer was illuminating: obviously, the movement itself is incredibly accurate – “good to within one and a half seconds every 1,000 years” – but there is still a challenge for any hyper-accurate mechanical clock: how to set the time? The chip might know the time, but how does it know where the hands are? The bimotors – the v-shaped black / copper-coiled elements in the photo above – allow the hands to move both forwards and backwards, so the hands can be set remotely.

Londini Invenit et Fecit

And I’ve not even got on to the dial yet…

Published inbritish watchmaking

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