See Inside A Matter of Time

A Chronicle of Timekeeping [Preview]

Our conception of time depends on the way we measure it

Portable Clocks
FOR CENTURIES AFTER the invention of the mechanical clock, the periodic tolling of the bell in the town church or clock tower was enough to demarcate the day for most people. But by the 15th century a growing number of clocks were being made for domestic use. Those who could afford the luxury of owning a clock found it convenient to have one that could be moved from place to place. Innovators accomplished portability by replacing the weight with a coiled spring. The tension of a spring, however, is greater after it is wound. The contrivance that overcame this problem, known as a fusee (from fusus, the Latin term for “spindle”), was invented by an unknown mechanical genius probably between 1400 and 1450 [see middle left illustration in box on opposite page]. This cone-shaped device was connected by a cord to the barrel housing the spring: when the clock was wound, drawing the cord from the barrel onto the fusee, the diminishing diameter of the spiral of the fusee compensated for the increasing pull of the spring. Thus, the fusee equalized the force of the spring on the wheels of the timekeeper.

The importance of the fusee should not be underestimated: it made possible the development of the portable clock as well as the subsequent evolution of the pocket watch. Many high-grade, spring-driven timepieces, such as marine chronometers, continued to incorporate this device until after World War II.

Share this Article:


You must sign in or register as a member to submit a comment.
Scientific American Back To School

Back to School Sale!

12 Digital Issues + 4 Years of Archive Access just $19.99

Order Now >


Email this Article