Tompion may well be described as the father of British clockmaking. He was born in 1639, the son of a blacksmith with a family tradition for smiths work. He went to London and became a brother of the Clockmakers Company in 1671. By 1674 he was established at the sign of the Dial and Three Crowns in Water Lane. He was a supreme craftsman, although possibly lacking in originality. Fortunately for him he became friendly with the great scientist, Dr Hooke, who commissioned a Quadrant to be made. This Tompion did to Hooke’s satisfaction in 1675. Dr Hooke had invented a spiral balance spring for watches and this he introduced to Tompion and sought the help of Tompion in support of his invention. Tompion was brought to the attention of Charles II and was commissioned to make two clocks for Greenwich Observatory in 1676. Huygens’ balance spring watches were being made in Paris by the great French maker Thuret, but Tompion produced watches of such quality that two of his watches were purchased by the Dauphin. At this time, he was producing a standard bracket timepiece in ebonised wood with repeating mechanism. Many of these survive.
In 1695, he patented a horizontal escape-wheel mechanism for watches and in this year he was joined in his work by George Graham who had married Tompion’s niece. During this year he also made a superb timepiece which is in Buckingham Palace. It was made for William III and goes for a year. It has equation work, meaning that it shows the difference between solar and mean time. Edward Banger married another of Tompions nieces and was taken into partnership in 1701, continuing to work with Tompion until 1708 when the partnership was dissolved. Graham was taken into partnership in 1711 and so continued until Tompions death in 1713. In 1703 Tompion was Master of the Clockmakers Company. He made a number of special and very beautiful clocks and a considerable number of the standard type longcase clock and bracket clock. It is thought that many of his advance designs could be ascribed to the help he got from Dr Hooke.
Tompion was primarily concerned with making watches and of these he made some 5,500 examples. His clocks were numbered from 1680 and go up to no. 542. Numbering of watches was continued after his death by Graham, the numbers being in series, depending on whether they were standard, repeaters and alarms or special. Tompion also worked in constructing barometers with Dr Hooke. There is a barometer by Tompion at Hampton Court Palace. In later life he travelled and there is a clock by him in the pump room at Bath, a town which he visited in 1709.
Tompion was a bachelor. His portrait was painted by Kneller and he is painted holding a watch. He died in 1713 and was buried in Westminster Abbey. He left most of his estate to his nephew, Thomas Tompion, a youth who does not appear to have followed in the footsteps of his illustrious uncle.
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