While he was flying across Arctic Canada near the Magnetic North Pole, John Taylor’s compass stopped working. Without panicking, he and his co-pilot navigated 500 miles on the map “down that river, across this lake, to that island, round that mountain”. Eventually, they landed in Alaska, and Mr Taylor found a new interest in navigation which soon developed into a passion for timepieces.
Mr Taylor, 79, has always had a mind for the mechanical: he invented the switch which causes modern kettles to shut off when the water has boiled. In 1999 he retired from Strix, the company he founded to make safety control systems for domestic appliances, and has since amassed a globally important collection of early English clocks. (He invents clocks too: he designed and funded the Chronophage, a large gold-plated clock on display in Cambridge which has a metal grasshopper atop it, “eating” the seconds.)
“I’ve collected more clocks than watches,” he says. “Good watches are rarer than good clocks. It’s odd that [Thomas] Tompion, the most famous of the makers, in round figures made something like 500 clocks and 5,000 watches.” But only 200 watches survive — and rarely in their original state: they “tend to be butchered along the way because people would try and make them more accurate”.
A quarter repeater watch (1697) by Thomas Tompion
This is Tompion’s earliest surviving quarter repeater, which Taylor bought at auction in 2002. It sounds the number of quarters since the last hour, as well as the number of hours, when the plunger is pressed. This helped people tell the time in the dark, rather than getting out of bed to light a candle. “That mechanism is uncommon on a clock and exceptionally uncommon on a watch,” says Mr Taylor, who was awarded the OBE in 2011 for services to business and horology. “Tompion was a perfectionist and he worked with [natural philosopher] Robert Hooke, who was a spring man, and he would use springs to bias the mechanism one way or another so there was no possibility of the watch striking the incorrect time.”
An astronomical verge watch (c1660) by Joseph Munday
While Mr Taylor admires the beauty of his pieces, he takes particular pleasure from looking at their internal workings. “I view all clocks and watches from a manufacturer’s point of view, an inventor’s point of view,” he says. He tries to understand how a design evolved.
He therefore appreciates the “very, very clever mechanism” within Munday’s rare astronomical verge watch. “The moon goes round the earth in about 29-and-a-quarter days,” says Mr Taylor, who bought the watch at auction in 2002. “You’ve got to get a mechanism which will turn a cog, which will turn a disc, which will display a moon, which does one revolution in 29-and-a-quarter days. It’s not something that fits in with round numbers . . . any people have a watch today which tells you the phase of the moon?”
A Puritan watch (1630) by James Vautrollier
Mr Taylor is also fascinated by the context in which his 17th-century watches were produced. His Puritan watch, which he bought in 1999, is so called because of its undecorated case, even if it is made of gold and has an elaborate, expensive mechanism. “It’s got a little calendar on it so it will tell you the date, which is quite a thing for a 400-year-old mechanism,” he says.
A Rolex Oyster Perpetual (1957)
He does not wear his antique pieces, which would originally have been carried around the neck on a ribbon. For “high days and holy days”, he uses the engraved stainless steel Rolex Oyster Perpetual he received on his 21st birthday in 1957. “It was a bribe,” he admits. “My parents offered me the Rolex if I didn’t smoke before I was 21.”
“It went to Spitsbergen [in northern Norway] with me in 1958 and I specifically set it accurately to time before I left. It never left my wrist in a hundred days and in all that time we were cutting samples of geomagnetic rock out of cliffs, hammering away with a hammer and chisel, sleeping in tents in cold weather and man-hauling sledges.” It lost just over a minute, “quite exceptional” given its treatment.
Breitling minute repeater (1998)
That his Rolex fell short led Mr Taylor to buy a digital quartz watch; he likes the Breitling because he has both digital and analogue modes. He sets this minute repeater — his “everyday” watch — to show both GMT and local time wherever he is. It’s perfect, he says, for navigation — which sparked his love of watches in the first place.