||This article may be too technical for most readers to understand. (November 2009)|
A balance spring, or hairspring, is a part used in mechanical timepieces. Attached to the balance wheel, it controls the speed at which the wheels of the timepiece turn, and thus the rate of movement of the hands. A regulator lever on the spring is used to adjust the speed so the timepiece keeps accurate time.
The balance spring is a fine spiral or helical torsion spring used in mechanical watches, alarm clocks, kitchen timers, marine chronometers, and other timekeeping mechanisms to control the rate of oscillation of the balance wheel. The balance spring is an integral part of the balance wheel, because it reverses the direction of the balance wheel causing it to oscillate back and forth. The balance spring and balance wheel together form a harmonic oscillator, which uses resonance to oscillate with a precise period or "beat" resistant to external disturbances, which is responsible for their timekeeping accuracy.
The addition of the balance spring to the balance wheel around 1657 by Robert Hooke and Christiaan Huygens greatly increased the accuracy of portable timepieces, transforming early pocketwatches from expensive novelties to useful timekeepers. Improvements to the balance spring are responsible for further large increases in accuracy since that time. Modern balance springs are made of special low temperature coefficient alloys like nivarox to reduce the effects of temperature changes on the rate, and carefully shaped to minimize the effect of changes in drive force as the mainspring in the clockwork runs down. Before the 1980s, balance wheels and balance springs were used in virtually every portable timekeeping device, but in recent decades electronic quartz timekeeping technology has replaced mechanical clockwork, and the major remaining use of balance springs is in mechanical watches.
There is some dispute as to whether it was invented around 1660 by British physicist Robert Hooke or Dutch scientist Christiaan Huygens, with the likelihood being that Hooke first had the idea, but Huygens built the first functioning watch that used a balance spring. Before that time, balance wheels or foliots without springs were used in clocks and watches, but they were very sensitive to fluctuations in the driving force, causing the timepiece to slow down as the mainspring unwound. The introduction of the balance spring effected an enormous increase in the accuracy of pocketwatches, from perhaps several hours per day to 10 minutes per day, making them useful timekeepers for the first time. The first balance springs had only a few turns.
A few early watches had a Barrow regulator, which used a worm drive, but the first widely used regulator was invented by Thomas Tompion around 1680. In the Tompion regulator the curb pins were mounted on a semicircular toothed rack, which was adjusted by fitting a key to a cog and turning it. The modern regulator, a lever pivoted concentrically with the balance wheel, was patented by Joseph Bosley in 1755, but it didn't replace the Tompion regulator until the early 19th century.
In order to adjust the rate, the balance spring usually has a regulator, a moveable lever with a narrow slit on the end through which the last turn of the spring passes. The portion of the spring after the slit is held stationary, so the slit controls the usable length of the spring. Moving the regulator slides the slit up or down the spring, changing its effective length. Moving it away from the spring's attachment point (stud) shortens the spring, making it stiffer, increasing the balance's oscillation rate, and making the timepiece gain time.
In older watches, the slit is the gap between two tiny pins, called the Curb Pins.
The regulator interferes slightly with the motion of the spring, causing inaccuracy, so precision timepieces like marine chronometers and some high end watches are free sprung, meaning they don't have a regulator. Instead, their rate is adjusted by timing screws on the balance wheel.
There are two principal types of Balance Spring Regulator.
- The Tompion Regulator, in which the Curb Pins are mounted on a sector-rack, moved by a pinion. The pinion is usually fitted with a graduated silver or steel disc.
- The Bosley Regulator, as described above, in which the Pins are mounted on a lever pivoted coaxially with the Balance, the extremity of the lever being able to be moved over a graduated scale. There are several variants which improve the accuracy with which lever can be moved, including the "Snail" regulator, in which the lever is sprung against a cam of spiral profile which can be turned, the Micrometer, in which the lever is moved by a worm gear, and the "Swans Neck" or "Reed" regulator in which the position of the lever is adjusted by a fine screw, the lever being held in contact with the screw by a spring in the shape of a curved swans neck. This was invented and patented by the American George P. Reed, US patent No. 61,867 dated February 5, 1867.
There is also a "Hog's Hair" or "Pig's Bristle" regulator, in which stiff fibres are positioned at the extremities of the Balance's arc, and bring it to a gentle halt before throwing it back. The Watch is accelerated by shortening the arc. This is not a Balance Spring Regulator, being used in the earliest Watches before the Balance Spring was invented.
There is also a Barrow Regulator, but this is really the earlier of the two principal methods of giving the Mainspring "set-up tension"; that required to keep the Fusee chain in tension but not enough to actually drive the Watch. Verge Watches can be regulated by adjusting the set-up tension, but if any of the previously described Regulators is present then this is not usually done.
A number of materials have been used for balance springs. Early on, steel was used, but without any hardening or tempering process applied; as a result, these springs would gradually weaken and the watch would start losing time. Some watchmakers, for example John Arnold, used gold, which avoids the problem of corrosion, but retains the problem of gradual weakening. Hardened and tempered steel was first used by John Harrison and subsequently remained the material of choice until the 20th century.
In 1833, E. J. Dent (maker of the Great Clock of the Houses of Parliament) experimented with a glass Balance Spring. This was much less affected by heat than steel, reducing the Compensation required, and also didn't rust. Other trials with glass revealed that they were difficult and expensive to make, and there was a widespread opinion that they must be fragile. This latter objection is proved false by glass-fibre loft insulation and fibre-optic cables.
Effect of temperature
The modulus of elasticity of materials is dependent on temperature. For most materials, this temperature coefficient is large enough that variations in temperature significantly affect the timekeeping of a balance wheel and balance spring. The earliest makers of watches with balance springs, such as Robert Hooke and Christiaan Huygens observed this effect without finding a solution to it.
John Harrison, in the course of his development of the marine chronometer, solved the problem by a "compensation curb" – essentially a bimetallic thermometer which adjusted the effective length of the balance spring as a function of temperature. While this scheme worked well enough to allow Harrison to meet the standards set by the Longitude Act, it was not widely adopted.
Around 1765, Pierre Le Roy (son of Julien Le Roy) invented the compensation balance, which became the standard approach for temperature compensation in watches and chronometers. In this approach, the shape of the balance is altered, or adjusting weights are moved on the spokes or rim of the balance, by a temperature-sensitive mechanism. This changes the moment of inertia of the balance wheel, and the change is adjusted such that it compensates for the change in modulus of elasticity of the balance spring. The compensating balance design of Thomas Earnshaw, which consists simply of a balance wheel with bimetallic rim, became the standard solution for temperature compensation.
While the compensating balance was effective as a way to compensate for the effect of temperature on the balance spring, it could not provide a complete solution. The basic design suffers from "middle temperature error": if the compensation is adjusted to be exact at extremes of temperature, then it will be slightly off at temperatures between those extremes. Various "auxiliary compensation" mechanisms were designed to avoid this, but they all suffer from being complex and hard to adjust.
Around 1900, a fundamentally different solution was created by Charles Édouard Guillaume, inventor of elinvar. This is a nickel-steel alloy with the property that the modulus of elasticity is essentially unaffected by temperature. A watch fitted with an elinvar balance spring requires either no temperature compensation at all, or very little. This simplifies the mechanism, and it also means that middle temperature error is eliminated as well, or at a minimum is drastically reduced.
A balance spring obeys Hooke's Law: the restoring torque is proportional to the angular displacement. When this property is exactly satisfied, the balance spring is said to be isochronous, and the period of oscillation is independent of the amplitude of oscillation. This is an essential property for accurate timekeeping, because no mechanical drive train can provide absolutely constant driving force. This is particularly true in watches and portable clocks which are powered by a mainspring, which provides a diminishing drive force as it unwinds. Another cause of varying driving force is friction, which varies as the lubricating oil ages.
Early watchmakers empirically found approaches to make their balance springs isochronous. For example, John Arnold in 1776 patented a helical (cylindrical) form of the balance spring, in which the ends of the spring were coiled inwards. In 1861 M. Phillips published a theoretical treatment of the problem. He demonstrated that a balance spring whose center of gravity coincides with the axis of the balance wheel is isochronous.
In general practice, the most common method of achieving isochronism is through the use of the Breguet overcoil. which places part of the outermost turn of the hairspring in a different plane from the rest of the spring. This allows the hairspring to "breathe" more evenly and symmetrically. Two tyes of overcoils are found - the gradual overcoil and the Z-Bend. The gradual overcoil is obtained by imposing a two gradual twists to the hairspring, forming the rise to the second plane over half the circumference; and the Z-bend does this by imposing two kinks of complementary 45 degree angles, accomplishhing a rise to the second plane in about three spring section heigths. The second method is done for esthetic reasons and is much more difficult to perform. Due to the difficulty with forming an overcoil, modern watches often use a slightly less effective "dogleg", which uses a series of sharp bends (in plane) to place part of the outermost coil out of the way of the rest of the spring
Period of oscillation
The balance spring is an essential part of the balance wheel; together they form a harmonic oscillator. The balance spring provides the linear restoring force that reverses the motion of the wheel so it oscillates back and forth. The motion of the balance wheel is approximately simple harmonic motion, i.e., a sinusoidal motion of constant period. Its resonant period is resistant to changes from perturbing forces, which is what makes it a good timekeeping device. The stiffness of the spring, its spring coefficient, in N-m/radian, along with the balance wheel's moment of inertia, in kg-m2, determines the wheel's oscillation period in seconds:
This period controls the rate of the timepiece.
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- M. Phillips, "Sur le spiral reglant", Paris, 1861.