Innovation and watchmaking

About a month ago, Erik Hoel wrote a post about how the decline in great minds has been caused by ‘aristocratic tutoring’ being replaced by ordinary education. This post tries to connect this idea with ‘geniuses’ in watchmaking, and what that means for the future of watchmaking innovation.

After reading that post by Hoel, I met up with a fellow collector @watchthetime with whom I debated the point further, referencing the children in my own kid’s class, and how teachers can’t be expected to cater to the top performers; Instead, they focus more of their time on bringing up the slower students to a median level, which is of course, the democratic / equitable option. This got me thinking about the watchmakers who we regard as geniuses, and whether we would see more of them emerge in the coming decades or not.

Hoel’s post

First, let’s see what Hoel says… According to his post, we’re short of geniuses nowadays:

Consider how rare true world-historic geniuses are now-a-days, and how different it was in the past. In “Where Have All the Great Books Gone?” Tanner Greer uses Oswald Spengler, the original chronicler of the decline of genius back in 1914, to point out our current genius downturn. […]

He goes on to do a quasi-literature review:

There are a bunch of other analyses (really, laments) of a similar nature I could name, from Nature’s “Scientific genius is extinct” to The New Statesman’s “The fall of the intellectual” to The Chronicle of Higher Education’s “Where have all the geniuses gone?” to Wired’s” “The Difficulty of Discovery (Where Have All The Geniuses Gone?) to philosopher Eric Schwitzgebel’s “Where are all the Fodors?” to my own lamentation on the lack of leading fiction writers.

If you disagree, I’ll certainly admit that finding irrefutable evidence for a decline of genius is difficult—intellectual contributions are extremely hard to quantify, the definition of genius is always up for debate, and any discussion will necessarily elide all sorts of points and counterpoints. But the numbers, at least at first glance, seem to support the anecdotal. Here’s a chart from Cold Takes’ “Where’s Today’s Beethoven?” Below, we can see the number of acclaimed scientists (in blue) and artists (in red), divided by the effective population (total human population with the education and access to contribute to these fields).

From “Where’s Today’s Beethoven?

Suffice to say, he does prove that many geniuses such as Einstein, and John von Neumann received tutoring, and he suggests that the lack of such tutoring (due to democratic norms rather than because people don’t have the money – as per the example in my kid’s class) might be why we don’t see geniuses of such stature anymore.

That being said, it seems that his conclusion is probably missing the mark. As Scott Alexander has argued… Suppose that half of past geniuses were specially tutored and the other half were not. Even if every tutored genius owed his genius entirely to said tutoring, the tutoring could only explain half of all geniuses! That means that after the tutoring stopped, we would expect half as many geniuses. Instead, Hoel’s argument is claiming that there are almost no geniuses today. To add to that, there are in fact many other geniuses have lived – who have not had any aristocratic tutoring at all… these include Newton, Mozart, Darwin and Edison to name a few.

Cause of “genius decline”

For starters, there are actually far fewer ‘big’ and ‘new’ ideas to be found, right?

Archimedes has gone down in history as the guy who ran naked through the streets of Syracuse shouting “Eureka!” — or “I have it!” in Greek. The story behind that event was that Archimedes was asked to prove that a crown made for Hieron, the king of Syracuse, was not pure gold as the goldsmith had claimed. The story was first written down in the first century B.C. by Vitruvius, a Roman architect

Archimedes had struggled to come up with a method for proving that the crown was not solid gold. After a while, he filled a bathtub and noticed that water spilled out as he got in and he realised that the quantity of water displaced by his body was equal to the weight of his body. Knowing that gold was heavier than other substitute metals the crown maker could have used, Archimedes had found his method of proving the crown was not pure gold! Forgetting that he was undressed, he went running naked down the streets from his home to the king shouting “Eureka!” That discovery was huge, but discoveries of that magnitude are much less common today, because we’ve simply come a long way in terms of our collective knowledge and understanding.

The other thing that has happened over time, is that we have exponentially more researchers and so, the progress being made in all areas of research is more evenly spread across hundreds of minds, rather than a handful. This means that it is more unlikely that one genius will come up with a new amazing theory from scratch, without other researchers tapping into this thinking before they get to some Eureka moment of their own. This means that the likelihood of some scientist coming up with something groundbreaking enough to declare themselves a genius, is quite low!

The fact of the matter is that it is easy to stand out in when you’re small and new, and much more difficult when you’re big and old.

What about watches?

I think the same principles apply, to a certain extent, but I also think there will always be much more room for innovation, because there is no real limit to what challenges a watchmaker can put their mind to solving; they simply need to find someone who finds their work interesting enough to pay for it! If you compare this with scientific research grants – it is probably much more challenging to get funding to pursue some random idea which benefits nobody, other than to satisfy curiosity of some science geek… as opposed to watchmaking, where the genius just needs to find some billionaire who is excited by the idea of a particular watch enough to pony up the cash and fund it.

Historical innovation

We can look back at the Egyptian Amenemhet, who produced a water clock between 1417–1379 BC, which he described on his own epitaph: “I […] made a water clock for His Majesty Amenophis I, which was correct in every season. Summer and winter it showed the hour in its place. Nothing like it has been made since prehistoric times.”

Another worthy innovator is Ismail Al-Jazari, who made the elephant clock between 1136-1206 BC. The device was a weight powered water clock in the form of an Asian elephant. The various elements of the clock are in the housing (howdah) on top of the Asian elephant.

The elephant clock in a manuscript by Al-Jazari (1206 AD) from The Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices

Or how about the inventor of dead seconds, Jean-Moïse Pouzait,  who in 1777, created a mechanism for powering the second hand which was independent from movement.

Then there’s our good friend Abraham-Louis Breguet who was undoubtedly a genius in the watchmaking industry, surely one of the most important and famous watchmakers the world has ever seen, or will ever see.

At this point, I realised I would be writing for a long time trying to list out all the important geniuses in watchmaking… so if you’re into that sort of thing, check out this page for more. This is an entire topic on its own…

Modern innovation

Practicality was perhaps the primary driver of historical innovation. Tourbillons may look impressive, but they were made to solve an actual problem related to gravity and accuracy. That didn’t stop Anthony Randall from inventing the double-axis tourbillon, nor did it stop Robert Greubel and Stephen Forsey creating a Quadruple Tourbillon à Différentiel (QDT), using two double-tourbillons working independently! Separately, check out this wiki page on tourbillons – it’s short but really interesting.

Not everything is about practicality though, and leads to my conclusion on this topic. Sometimes, watchmakers just have a burning desire to accomplish something that has not been done before, and many of them persevere for decades to achieve their objectives. For instance, the idea of resonance in watchmaking is very old, and the few watchmakers (Journe, Haldimann etc) who have managed to achieve this were technically inspired by Breguet and Janvier, the pioneers of resonance. Yet, even after numerous successes, we saw last week that Vianney Halter has revealed yet another addition to the lineup of resonance related watches.

La Resonance – Credit:


So what’s my point? As long as we, as collectors, continue to be appreciative of these horological marvels… horological geniuses will have a reason to make them. We all love to see innovation, and we all appreciate the mechanical micro-wizardry we see on our wrists each day -that’s what this passion is all about. It is helpful to keep the passion for horological innovation alive, rather than become obsessed with new dial colours and value appreciation.

What is also true, and even more relevant today as we have an influx of price speculators joining the hobby, is that the watchmakers themselves love passionate collectors more than anyone else. Sure, they’re trying to run a business, but I recall when I met Stephen Forsey; Seeing his reaction to being asked really technical questions about his watches, was the MOST exciting part of the conversation for him. Guess what he cared about the least? Yes, that’s right… Price.

Sure, they need to make the economics work to sustain their businesses, but they got into the profession because they’re passionate, and they have the grit and determination to remain at the top of their game. The challenge today, is to keep the passion in the genre alive, so that we continue to champion the next generation of rising-star watchmakers such as Remy Cools and Petermann-Bedat.

Lots of older watchmakers are supportive of young talent, and for us as consumers, I just thought it was worth remembering that a little passion goes a long way.


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