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For other uses, see Escapement (disambiguation).
Animation of anchor escapement, widely used in pendulum clocks.

An escapement is a device in mechanical watches and clocks that transfers energy to the timekeeping element (the "impulse action") and allows the number of its oscillations to be counted (the "locking action"). The impulse action transfers energy to the clock's timekeeping element (usually a pendulum or balance wheel) to replace the energy lost to friction during its cycle and keep the timekeeper oscillating. The escapement is driven by force from a coiled spring or a suspended weight, transmitted through the timepiece's gear train. Each swing of the pendulum or balance wheel releases a tooth of the escapement's escape wheel gear, allowing the clock's gear train to advance or "escape" by a fixed amount. This regular periodic advancement moves the clock's hands forward at a steady rate. At the same time the tooth gives the timekeeping element a push, before another tooth catches on the escapement's pallet, returning the escapement to its "locked" state. The sudden stopping of the escapement's tooth is what generates the characteristic "ticking" sound heard in operating mechanical clocks and watches.

Escapements are used elsewhere as well. Manual typewriters used escapements to step the carriage as each letter (or space) was typed.


The importance of the escapement in the history of technology is that it was the key invention that made the all-mechanical clock possible.[1][2] The invention of the first all-mechanical escapement, the verge escapement, in 13th-century Europe initiated a change in timekeeping methods from continuous processes, such as the flow of water in water clocks, to repetitive oscillatory processes, such as the swing of pendulums, which could yield more accuracy.[2] Oscillating timekeepers are used in every modern clock.

Liquid-driven escapements[edit]

Greek washstand automaton of the 3rd century BC working by the earliest known instance of an escapement mechanism[3]

The earliest liquid-driven escapement was described by the Greek engineer Philo of Byzantium (3rd century BC) in his technical treatise Pneumatics (chapter 31) as part of a washstand.[3] A counterweighted spoon, supplied by a water tank, tips over in a basin when full, releasing a spherical piece of pumice in the process. Once the spoon has emptied, it is pulled up again by the counterweight, closing the door on the pumice by the tightening string. Remarkably, Philo's comment that "its construction is similar to that of clocks" indicates that such escapement mechanisms were already integrated in ancient water clocks.[3]

In China, the Tang dynasty Buddhist monk Yi Xing along with government official Liang Lingzan made the escapement in 723 (or 725) to the workings of a water-powered armillary sphere and clock drive,[4] which was the world's first clockwork escapement mechanism.[5] Song dynasty (960–1279) horologists Zhang Sixun (fl. late 10th century) and Su Song (1020–1101) duly applied escapement devices for their astronomical clock towers,[6] before the technology stagnated and retrogressed. According to historian Derek J. de Solla Price, the medieval Chinese escapement spread west and was the source for Western escapement technology.[7] According to Ahmad Y. Hassan, a mercury escapement in a Spanish work for Alfonso X in 1277 can be traced back to earlier Arabic sources.[8][unreliable source?] Knowledge of these mercury escapements may have spread through Europe with translations of Arabic and Spanish texts.[8][9]

However, none of these were true mechanical escapements, since they still depended on the flow of liquid through an orifice to measure time. For example, in Su Song's clock, water flowed into a container on a pivot. The escapement's role was to tip the container over each time it filled up, thus advancing the clock's wheels each time an equal quantity of water was measured out. The time between releases depended on the rate of flow, which decreased with water pressure as the level of water in the source container dropped. The development of mechanical clocks depended on the invention of an escapement which would allow a clock's movement to be controlled by an oscillating weight. Unlike the continuous flow of water in the Chinese device, the medieval escapement was characterized by a regular, repeating sequence of discrete actions and the capability of self-reversing action:

Both techniques used escapements, but these have only the name in common. The Chinese one worked intermittently; the European, in discrete but continuous beats. Both systems used gravity as the prime mover, but the action was very different. In the mechanical clock, the falling weight exerted a continuous and even force on the train, which the escapement alternately held back and released at a rhythm constrained by the controller. Ingeniously, the very force that turned the scape wheel then slowed it and pushed it part of the way back.... In other words, a unidirectional force produced a self-reversing action—about one step back for three steps forward. In the Chinese timekeeper, however, the force exerted varied, the weight in each successive bucket building until sufficient to tip the release and lift the stop that held the wheel in place. This allowed the wheel to turn some ten degrees and bring the next bucket under the stream of water while the stop fell back.... In the Chinese clock, then unidirectional force produced unidirectional motion.[10]

Mechanical escapements[edit]

Although some sources claim that French architect Villard de Honnecourt invented the first escapement around 1237 due to a drawing in his notebooks of a rope linkage to turn a statue of an angel to follow the sun,[11] the consensus is that this was not an escapement.[12][13][14][15][16][17] The first mechanical escapement, the verge escapement, was used in a bell ringing apparatus called an alarum for several centuries before it was adapted to clocks.[18] In 14th-century Europe it appeared as the timekeeper in the first mechanical clocks, which were large tower clocks.[19] Its origin and first use is unknown because it is difficult to distinguish which of these early tower clocks were mechanical, and which were water clocks.[20] However, indirect evidence, such as a sudden increase in cost and construction of clocks, points to the late 13th century as the most likely date for the development of the modern clock escapement.[19] Astronomer Robertus Anglicus wrote in 1271 that clockmakers were trying to invent an escapement, but hadn't been successful yet.[21] On the other hand, most sources agree that mechanical escapement clocks existed by 1300.[22][23][19]

Actually, the earliest description of an escapement, in Richard of Wallingford's 1327 manuscript Tractatus Horologii Astronomici on the clock he built at the Abbey of St. Albans, was not a verge, but a variation called a strob escapement.[24][25][19] It consisted of a pair of escape wheels on the same axle, with alternating radial teeth. The verge rod was suspended between them, with a short crosspiece that rotated first in one direction and then the other as the staggered teeth pushed past. Although no other example is known, it is possible that this was the first clock escapement design.[24]

However the verge was the standard escapement used in every other early clock and watch, and remained the only escapement for 400 years. Its friction and recoil limited its performance, but the accuracy of these verge and foliot clocks was more limited by their early foliot type balance wheels, which because they lacked a balance spring had no natural "beat", so there was not much incentive to improve the escapement.

The great leap in accuracy resulting from the invention of the pendulum and balance spring around 1657, which made the timekeeping elements in both watches and clocks harmonic oscillators, focused attention on the errors of the escapement, and more accurate escapements soon superseded the verge. The next two centuries, the "golden age" of mechanical horology, saw the invention of perhaps 300 escapement designs, although only about 10 stood the test of time and were widely used in clocks and watches.[26] These are described individually below.

The invention of the crystal oscillator and the quartz clock in the 1920s shifted technological research in timekeeping to electronic methods, and largely put an end to escapement design.


The reliability of an escapement depends on the quality of workmanship and the level of maintenance given. A poorly constructed or poorly maintained escapement will cause problems. The escapement must accurately convert the oscillations of the pendulum or balance wheel into rotation of the clock or watch gear train, and it must deliver enough energy to the pendulum or balance wheel to maintain its oscillation.

In many escapements, the unlocking of the escapement involves sliding motion; for example, in the animation shown above, the pallets of the anchor slide against the escapement wheel teeth as the pendulum swings. The pallets are often made of very hard materials such as polished stone (for example, artificial ruby), but even so they normally require lubrication. Since lubricating oil degrades over time due to evaporation, dust, oxidation, etc., periodic re-lubrication is needed. If this is not done, the timepiece may work unreliably or stop altogether, and the escapement components may be subjected to rapid wear. The increased reliability of modern watches is due primarily to the higher-quality oils used for lubrication. Lubricant lifetimes can be greater than five years in a high-quality watch.

Some escapements avoid sliding friction; examples include the grasshopper escapement of John Harrison in the 18th century, This may avoid the need for lubrication in the escapement (though it does not obviate the requirement for lubrication of other parts of the gear train).


The accuracy of a mechanical clock is dependent on the accuracy of the timing device. If this is a pendulum, then the period of swing of the pendulum determines the accuracy. If the pendulum rod is made of metal it will expand and contract with heat, shortening or lengthening the pendulum; this changes the time taken for a swing. Special alloys are used in expensive pendulum-based clocks to minimize this distortion. The degrees of arc which a pendulum may swing varies; highly accurate pendulum-based clocks have very small arcs in order to minimize the circular error.

Pendulum-based clocks can achieve outstanding accuracy. Even into the 20th century, pendulum-based clocks were reference time pieces in laboratories.

Escapements play a big part in accuracy as well. The precise point in the pendulum's travel at which impulse is supplied will determine how closely to time the pendulum will swing. Ideally, the impulse should be evenly distributed on either side of the lowest point of the pendulum's swing. This is called "being in beat." This is because pushing a pendulum when it's moving towards mid-swing makes it gain, whereas pushing it while it's moving away from mid-swing makes it lose. If the impulse is evenly distributed then it gives energy to the pendulum without changing the time of its swing.[27]

Contrary to popular opinion, the time taken for a pendulum swing is not constant regardless of the size of the swing; the swing time changes with the size of the swing, see Pendulum. If the amplitude changes from 4° to 3°, the period of the pendulum will decrease by about 0.013 percent, which translates into a gain of about 12 seconds per day. This is caused by the restoring force on the pendulum being circular not linear; thus, the period of the pendulum is only approximately linear in the regime of the small angle approximation. To be time independent, the path must be cycloidal. To minimize the effect with amplitude, pendulum swings are kept as small as possible.

It is important to note that as a rule, whatever the method of impulse the action of the escapement should have the smallest effect on the oscillator which can be achieved, whether a pendulum or the balance in a watch. This effect, which all escapements have to a larger or smaller degree is known as the escapement error.

Any escapement with sliding friction will need lubrication, but as this deteriorates the friction will increase, and, perhaps, insufficient power will be transferred to the timing device. If the timing device is a pendulum, the increased frictional forces will decrease the Q factor, increasing the resonance band, and decreasing its precision. For spring driven clocks, the impulse force applied by the spring changes as the spring is unwound, following Hooke's law. For gravity driven clocks, the impulse force also increases as the driving weight falls and more chain suspends the weight from the gear train; in practice, however, this effect is only seen in large public clocks, and it can be avoided by a closed-loop chain.

Wristwatches and smaller clocks do not use pendulums as the timing device. Instead, they use a balance spring: a fine spring connected to a metal balance wheel that oscillates (rotates back and forth). Most modern mechanical watches have a working frequency of 3 to 4 Hz (3 - 4 cycles, or 6 - 8 beats per second, 21,600 - 28,800 beats per hour or bph). Faster or slower speeds are used in some watches (33,600 bph or 19,800 bph). The beats per minute depend on the balance spring's stiffness (spring constant); to keep time, the stiffness should not vary with temperature. Consequently, balance springs use sophisticated alloys; in this area, watchmaking is still advancing. As with the pendulum, the escapement must provide a small kick each cycle to keep the balance wheel oscillating. Also, the same lubrication problem occurs over time; the watch will lose accuracy (typically it will speed up) when the escapement lubrication starts failing.[citation needed]

Pocket watches were the predecessor of modern wristwatches. Pocket watches, being in the pocket, were usually in a vertical orientation. Gravity causes some loss of accuracy as it magnifies over time any lack of symmetry in the weight of the balance . The tourbillon was invented to minimize this: the balance and spring is put in a cage which rotates (typically but not necessarily, once a minute), smoothing gravitational distortions. This very clever and sophisticated clock-work is a prized complication in watches, even though the natural movement of the wearer tends to smooth gravitational influences much more than for a pocket watch.

The most accurate commercially produced mechanical clock was the electromechanical Shortt-Synchronome free pendulum clock invented by W. H. Shortt in 1921, which had an uncertainty of about 1 second per year.[28][29] The most accurate mechanical clock to date is probably the electromechanical Littlemore Clock, built by noted archaeologist E. T. Hall in the 1990s. In Hall's paper,[30] he reports an uncertainty of 3 parts in 109 measured over 100 days (an uncertainty of about 0.02 seconds over that period). Both of these clocks are electromechanical clocks: they use a pendulum as the timekeeping element, but electrical power rather than a mechanical gear train to supply energy to the pendulum.

Mechanical escapements[edit]

Since 1658 when the introduction of the pendulum and balance spring made accurate timepieces possible, it has been estimated that more than three hundred different mechanical escapements have been devised, but only about 10 have seen widespread use.[31] These are described below. In the 20th century, electric timekeeping methods replaced mechanical clocks and watches, so escapement design became a little-known curiosity.

Verge escapement[edit]

Main article: Verge escapement
Verge escapement showing (c) crown wheel, (v) verge rod, (p,q) pallets. Orientation is shown for use with a pendulum. When used with a foliot, the wheel and rod are vertical.
Verge and foliot of De Vick clock, built 1379, Paris

The earliest escapement in Europe (from about 1275)[citation needed] was the verge escapement, also known as the crown-wheel escapement. It was used in the first mechanical clocks and was originally controlled by a foliot, a horizontal bar with weights at either end. The escapement consists of an escape wheel shaped somewhat like a crown, with pointed teeth sticking axially out of the side, oriented horizontally. In front of the crown wheel is a vertical shaft, attached to the foliot at the top, and which carries two metal plates (pallets) sticking out like flags from a flag pole, oriented about ninety degrees apart, so only one engages the crown wheel teeth at a time. As the wheel turns, one tooth pushes against the upper pallet, rotating the shaft and the attached foliot. As the tooth pushes past the upper pallet, the lower pallet swings into the path of the teeth on the other side of the wheel. A tooth catches on the lower pallet, rotating the shaft back the other way, and the cycle repeats. A disadvantage of the escapement was that each time a tooth lands on a pallet, the momentum of the foliot pushes the crown wheel backwards a short distance before the force of the wheel reverses the motion. This is called "recoil" and was a source of wear and inaccuracy.

The verge was the only escapement used in clocks and watches for 350 years. In spring-driven clocks and watches it required a fusee to even out the force of the mainspring. It was used in the first pendulum clocks for about 50 years after the pendulum clock was invented in 1656. In a pendulum clock the crown wheel and staff were oriented so they were horizontal, and the pendulum was hung from the staff. However the verge is the most inaccurate of the common escapements, and after the pendulum was introduced in the 1650s the verge began to be replaced by other escapements, being abandoned only by the late 1800s. By this time, the fashion for thin watches had required that the escape wheel be made very small, amplifying the effects of wear, and when a watch of this period is wound up today, it will often be found to run very fast, gaining many hours per day.

Cross-beat escapement[edit]

Jost Bürgi invented the cross-beat escapement in 1584, a variation of the verge escapement which had two foliots which rotated in opposite directions.[32] According to contemporary accounts, his clocks achieved remarkable accuracy of within a minute per day,[32] two orders of magnitude better than other clocks of the time. However, this improvement was probably not due to the escapement itself, but rather to better workmanship and his invention of the remontoire, a device which isolated the escapement from changes in drive force.[32] Without a balance spring, the crossbeat would have been no more isochronous than the verge.[32]

Anchor escapement[edit]

Main article: Anchor escapement
Anchor escapement.

Invented around 1657 by Robert Hooke, the anchor (see animation at top of page) quickly superseded the verge to become the standard escapement used in pendulum clocks through the 19th century. Its advantage was that it reduced the wide pendulum swing angles of the verge to 3–6°, making the pendulum nearly isochronous, and allowing the use of longer, slower-moving pendulums, which used less energy. The anchor is responsible for the long narrow shape of most pendulum clocks, and for the development of the grandfather clock, the first anchor clock to be sold commercially, which was invented around 1680 by William Clement, who disputed credit for the escapement with Hooke. The escapement increased the accuracy of pendulum clocks to such a degree that the minute hand was added to the clock face in the late 1600s (before this, clocks had only an hour hand).

The anchor consists of an escape wheel with pointed, backward slanted teeth, and an "anchor"-shaped piece pivoted above it which rocks from side to side, linked to the pendulum. The anchor has slanted pallets on the arms which alternately catch on the teeth of the escape wheel, receiving impulses. Mechanically its operation has similarities to the verge escapement, and it has two of the verge's disadvantages: (1) The pendulum is constantly being pushed by an escape wheel tooth throughout its cycle, and is never allowed to swing freely, which disturbs its isochronism, and (2) it is a recoil escapement; the anchor pushes the escape wheel backward during part of its cycle. This causes backlash, increased wear in the clock's gears, and inaccuracy. These problems were eliminated in the deadbeat escapement, which slowly replaced the anchor in precision clocks.

Deadbeat escapement[edit]

Main article: Anchor escapement
Deadbeat escapement.[33] showing: (a) escape wheel (b) pallets (c) pendulum crutch.

The Graham or deadbeat escapement was an improvement of the anchor escapement first made by Thomas Tompion to a design by Richard Towneley in 1675[34][35][36] although it is often credited to Tompion's successor George Graham who popularized it in 1715.[37] In the anchor escapement the swing of the pendulum pushes the escape wheel backward during part of its cycle. This 'recoil' disturbs the motion of the pendulum, causing inaccuracy, and reverses the direction of the gear train, causing backlash and introducing high loads into the system, leading to friction and wear. The main advantage of the deadbeat is that it eliminated recoil.[18]

In the deadbeat, the pallets have a second curved "locking" face on them, concentric about the pivot on which the anchor turns. During the extremities of the pendulum's swing, the escape wheel tooth rests against this locking face, providing no impulse to the pendulum, which prevents recoil. Near the bottom of the pendulum's swing the tooth slides off the locking face onto the angled "impulse" face, giving the pendulum a push, before the pallet releases the tooth. This was the first escapement to separate the locking and impulse actions of the escapement.[citation needed] The deadbeat was first used in precision regulator clocks, but due to greater accuracy superseded the anchor in the 19th century. It is used in almost all modern pendulum clocks[27] except for tower clocks which often use gravity escapements.

Pin wheel escapement[edit]

Pin wheel escapement of South Mymms tower clock

Invented around 1741 by Louis Amant, this version of a deadbeat escapement can be made quite rugged. Instead of using teeth, the escape wheel has round pins that are stopped and released by a scissors-like anchor. This escapement, which is also called Amant escapement or (in Germany) Mannhardt escapement, is used quite often in tower clocks.[citation needed]

Detent escapement[edit]

First detent escapement by Pierre Le Roy 1748.
Earnshaw's detent escapement, used widely in chronometers.

The detent or chronometer escapement is considered the most accurate of the balance wheel escapements, and was used in marine chronometers, although some precision watches during the 18th and 19th century also used it.[38] The early form was invented by Pierre Le Roy in 1748, who created a pivoted detent type of escapement, though this was theoretically deficient.[39][40][41] The first effective design of detent escapement was invented by John Arnold around 1775, but with the detent pivoted. This escapement was modified by Thomas Earnshaw in 1780 and patented by Wright (for whom he worked) in 1783, however as depicted in the patent it was unworkable. Arnold also designed a spring detent escapement but, with improved design, Earnshaw's version eventually prevailed as the basic idea underwent several minor modifications during the last decade of the 18th century. The final form appeared around 1800, and this design was used until mechanical chronometers became obsolete in the 1970s.

The detent is a detached escapement; it allows the balance wheel to swing undisturbed during most of its cycle, except the brief impulse period, which is only given once per cycle (every other swing).[39] Because the driving escape wheel tooth moves almost parallel to the pallet, the escapement has little friction and did not need oiling. For these reasons among others the detent was considered the most accurate escapement for balance wheel timepieces.[42] John Arnold was the first to use the detent escapement with an overcoil balance spring (patented 1782) and with this improvement his watches were the first really accurate pocket timekeepers, keeping time to within 1 or 2 seconds per day. These were produced from 1783 onwards.

However, the escapement had disadvantages which limited its use in watches: it was fragile and required skilled maintenance; it was not self-starting, so if the watch was jarred in use so the balance wheel stopped, it would not start up again; and it was harder to manufacture in volume. Therefore, the self-starting lever escapement became dominant in watches.

Cylinder escapement[edit]

Cylinder escapement

The horizontal or cylinder escapement, invented by Thomas Tompion in 1695[43] and perfected by George Graham in 1726,[44] was one of the escapements which replaced the verge escapement in pocketwatches after 1700. A major attraction was that it was much thinner than the verge, allowing watches to be made fashionably slim. Clockmakers found it suffered from excessive wear, so it was not much used during the 18th century, except in a few high-end watches with the cylinders made from ruby. The French solved this problem by making the cylinder and escape wheel of hardened steel,[43] and the escapement was used in large numbers in inexpensive French and Swiss pocketwatches and small clocks from the mid-19th to the 20th century.

Rather than pallets, the escapement uses a cutaway cylinder on the balance wheel shaft, which the escape teeth enter one by one.[43][44] Each wedge-shaped tooth impulses the balance wheel by pressure on the cylinder edge as it enters, is held inside the cylinder as it turns, and impulses the wheel again as it leaves out the other side. The wheel usually had 15 teeth, and impulsed the balance over an angle of 20° to 40° in each direction.[43] It is a frictional rest escapement, with the teeth in contact with the cylinder over the whole balance wheel cycle, and so was not as accurate as "detached" escapements like the lever, and the high friction forces caused excessive wear and necessitated more frequent cleaning.[44]

Duplex escapement[edit]

Duplex escapement, showing (A) escape wheel, (B) locking tooth, (C) impulse tooth, (D) pallet, (E) ruby disk. The pallet and disk are attached to the balance wheel arbor, but the wheel is not shown.

The duplex watch escapement was invented by Robert Hooke around 1700, improved by Jean Baptiste Dutertre and Pierre Le Roy, and put in final form by Thomas Tyrer, who patented it in 1782.[45] The early forms had two escape wheels. The duplex escapement was difficult to make but achieved much higher accuracy than the cylinder escapement, and could equal that of the (early) lever escapement and when carefully made was almost as good as a detent escapement. [45] [46] [47] It was used in quality English pocketwatches from about 1790 to 1860, [48][49] [50] and in the Waterbury, a cheap American 'everyman's' watch, during 1880-1898.[51] [52]

In the duplex, as in the chronometer escapement to which it has similarities, the balance wheel only receives an impulse during one of the two swings in its cycle. [48] The escape wheel has two sets of teeth (hence the name 'duplex'); long locking teeth project from the side of the wheel, and short impulse teeth stick up axially from the top. The cycle starts with a locking tooth resting against the ruby disk. As the balance wheel swings counterclockwise through its center position, the notch in the ruby disk releases the tooth. As the escape wheel turns, the pallet is in just the right position to receive a push from an impulse tooth. Then the next locking tooth drops onto the ruby roller and stays there while the balance wheel completes its cycle and swings back clockwise (CW), and the process repeats. During the CW swing, the impulse tooth falls momentarily into the ruby roller notch again, but isn't released.

The duplex is technically a frictional rest escapement; the tooth resting against the roller adds some friction to the balance wheel during its swing[48][53] but this is very minimal. As in the chronometer, there is little sliding friction during impulse since pallet and impulse tooth are moving almost parallel, so little lubrication is needed. [54] However it lost favor to the lever; its tight tolerances and sensitivity to shock made duplex watches unsuitable for active people. Like the chronometer, it is not self-starting and is vulnerable to "setting;" if a sudden jar stops the balance during its CW swing, it can't get started again.

Lever escapement[edit]

Main article: Lever escapement
Inline or Swiss lever escapement.

The lever escapement, invented by Thomas Mudge in 1750, has been used in the vast majority of watches since the 19th century. Its advantages are (1) it is a "detached" escapement; unlike the cylinder or duplex escapements the balance wheel is only in contact with the lever during the short impulse period when it swings through its center position and swings freely the rest of its cycle, increasing accuracy, and (2) it is a self-starting escapement, so if the watch is shaken so that the balance wheel stops, it will automatically start again. The original form was the rack lever escapement, in which the lever and the balance wheel were always in contact via a gear rack on the lever. Later, it was realized that all the teeth from the gears could be removed except one, and this created the detached lever escapement. British watchmakers used the English detached lever, in which the lever was at right angles to the balance wheel. Later Swiss and American manufacturers used the inline lever, in which the lever is inline between the balance wheel and the escape wheel; this is the form used in modern watches. In 1867 Georges Frederic Roskopf invented an inexpensive, less accurate form called the Roskopf or pin-pallet escapement, which was used in cheap "dollar watches" in the early 20th century and is still used in cheap alarm clocks and kitchen timers.

Grasshopper escapement[edit]

Grasshopper escapement, 1820
(1) Animation of one form of grasshopper escapement.

A rare but interesting mechanical escapement is John Harrison's grasshopper escapement invented in 1722. In this escapement, the pendulum is driven by two hinged arms (pallets). As the pendulum swings, the end of one arm catches on the escape wheel and drives it slightly backwards; this releases the other arm which moves out of the way to allow the escape wheel to pass. When the pendulum swings back again, the other arm catches the wheel, pushes it back and releases the first arm and so on. The grasshopper escapement has been used in very few clocks since Harrison's time. Grasshopper escapements made by Harrison in the 18th century are still operating. Most escapements wear far more quickly, and waste far more energy.

Gravity escapement[edit]

Double three-legged gravity escapement

A gravity escapement uses a small weight or a weak spring to give an impulse directly to the pendulum. The earliest form consisted of two arms which were pivoted very close to the suspension spring of the pendulum with one arm on each side of the pendulum. Each arm carried a small dead beat pallet with an angled plane leading to it. When the pendulum lifted one arm far enough its pallet would release the escape wheel. Almost immediately another tooth on the escape wheel would start to slide up the angle face on the other arm thereby lifting the arm. It would reach the pallet and stop. The other arm meanwhile was still in contact with pendulum and coming down again to a point lower than it had started from. This lowering of the arm provides the impulse to the pendulum. The design was developed steadily from the middle of the 18th century to the middle of the 19th century. It eventually became the escapement of choice for turret clocks, because their wheel trains are subjected to large variations in drive force caused by the large exterior hands, with their varying wind, snow, and ice loads. Since in a gravity escapement the drive force from the wheel train does not itself impel the pendulum but merely resets the weights that provide the impulse, the escapement is not affected by variations in drive force.

The 'Double Three-legged Gravity Escapement' shown here is a form of escapement first devised by a barrister named Bloxam and later improved by Lord Grimthorpe. It is the standard for all really accurate 'Tower' clocks.

In the animation shown here the two "gravity arms" are coloured blue and red. The two three-legged escape wheels are also coloured blue and red. They work in two parallel planes so that the blue wheel only impacts the locking block on the blue arm and the red wheel only impacts the red arm. In a real escapement these impacts give rise to loud audible "ticks" and these are indicated by the appearance of a * beside the locking blocks. The three black lifting pins are key to the operation of the escapement. They cause the weighted gravity arms to be raised by an amount indicated by the pair of parallel lines on each side of the escapement. This gain in potential energy is the energy given to the pendulum on each cycle. For the Trinity College Cambridge Clock a mass of around 50 grams is lifted through 3 mm each 1.5 seconds - which works out to 1 mW of power. The driving power from the falling weight is about 12 mW, so there is a substantial excess of power used to drive the escapement. Much of this energy is dissipated in the acceleration and deceleration of the frictional "fly" attached to the escape wheels.

The great clock at Westminster that rings London's Big Ben uses a double three-legged gravity escapement.

Coaxial escapement[edit]

Coaxial escapement
Main article: Coaxial escapement

Invented around 1974[55] and patented 1980[56] by British watchmaker George Daniels, the coaxial escapement is one of the few new watch escapements adopted commercially in modern times. It can be classed as a detached escapement.

It could be regarded as having its distant origins in the escapement invented by Robert Robin, C.1792, which gives a single impulse in one direction; with the locking achieved by passive lever pallets,[57] the design of the coaxial escapement is more akin to that of another Robin variant, the Fasoldt escapement, which was invented and patented by the American Charles Fasoldt in 1859.[58][59][60] Both Robin and Fasoldt escapements give impulse in one direction only. The latter escapement has a lever with unequal drops; this engages with two escape wheels of differing diameters. The smaller impulse wheel acts on the single pallet at the end of the lever, whilst the pointed lever pallets lock on the larger wheel. The balance engages with and is impelled by the lever through a roller pin and lever fork. The lever 'anchor' pallet locks the larger wheel and, on this being unlocked, a pallet on the end of the lever is given an impulse by the smaller wheel through the lever fork. The return stroke is 'dead', with the 'anchor' pallets serving only to lock and unlock, impulse being given in one direction through the single lever pallet. As with the duplex, the locking wheel is larger in order to reduce pressure and thus friction.

The Daniels escapement, however, achieves a double impulse with passive lever pallets serving only to lock and unlock the larger wheel. On one side, impulse is given by means of the smaller wheel acting on the lever pallet through the roller and impulse pin. On the return, the lever again unlocks the larger wheel, which gives an impulse directly onto an impulse roller on the balance staff.

The main advantage is that this enables both impulses to occur on or around the centre line, with disengaging friction in both directions. Because of this, the coaxial escapement should in theory perform effectively without lubrication. This mode of impulse is in theory superior to the lever escapement, which has engaging friction on the entry pallet. For long this was recognized as a disturbing influence on the isochronism of the balance.[61][62]

Purchasers no longer buy mechanical watches primarily for their accuracy, so manufacturers had little interest in investing in the tooling required, although finally Omega adopted it in 1990.[62]

Although a highly ingenious escapement design, the Daniels coaxial nevertheless still needs lubrication to the lever pallet pivots. In addition, because of its geometry the impulse wheel can only have a limited number of teeth, thus it is necessary to have an extra wheel and pinion in the wheel train the pivots of which also need lubricating. Therefore, the advantages of this escapement over the lever are of an uncertain value.

Constant escapement[edit]

Illustration of the Constant Escapement by Girard-Perregaux

Based on the principles of patents initially submitted by Rolex on behalf of inventor Nicolas Déhon,[63] the constant escapement was developed by Girard-Perregaux as working prototypes in 2008 (Nicolas Déhon was then head of Girard-Perregaux R&D department) and in watches by 2013.

The key component of this escapement is a silicon buckled-blade which acts a micro-accumulator of energy. This blade is flexed to a point as close as possible to its unstable state, and only needs an infinitesimal quantity of energy – a micro-impulse given by the balance wheel – for it to snap from one S-curve state to its mirror image, and in the process, to push the balance wheel forward.

This snap being always the same, it is liberating the same quantity of energy every time and compensating for the variable energy of the barrel. The role of the micro-accumulator enables it to compensate for the variable energy of the barrel by releasing the same amount of energy each time. Contrary to certain mechanisms such as remontoirs in which the constant force is supplied over an average, this is an authentic constant-force escapement, as the latter is indeed instantaneous and continuous.

Other modern escapements[edit]

After years with very little innovations as the Swiss lever escapement is used in almost all mechanical watches, watchmakers have designed several new types of escapements since the beginning of the 21st century; Parmigiani Fleurier with its Genequand escapement or Ulysse Nardin with its Ulysse Anchor escapement have taken advantage of the properties of silicon flat springs. The independent watchmaker, De Bethune, has developed a concept where a magnet makes a resonator vibrate at high frequency, replacing the traditional balance spring.[64]

Electromechanical escapements[edit]

In the late 19th century, electromechanical escapements were developed for pendulum clocks. In these, a switch or phototube energised an electromagnet for a brief section of the pendulum's swing. On some clocks the pulse of electricity that drove the pendulum also drove a plunger to move the gear train.

Hipp clock[edit]

In 1843 Matthäus Hipp first mentioned a purely mechanical clock being driven by a switch called "echappement à palette".[65] A varied version of that escapement has been used from the 1860s inside electrically driven pendulum clocks, the so-called "hipp-toggle".[66] Since the 1870s in an improved version the pendulum drove a ratchet wheel via a pawl on the pendulum rod, and the ratchet wheel drove the rest of the clock train to indicate the time. The pendulum was not impelled on every swing or even at a set interval of time. It was only impelled when its arc of swing had decayed below a certain level. As well as the counting pawl, the pendulum carried a small vane, known as a Hipp's toggle, pivoted at the top, which was completely free to swing. It was placed so that it dragged across a triangular polished block with a vee-groove in the top of it. When the arc of swing of the pendulum was large enough, the vane crossed the groove and swung free on the other side. If the arc was too small the vane never left the far side of the groove, and when the pendulum swung back it pushed the block strongly downwards. The block carried a contact which completed the circuit to the electromagnet which impelled the pendulum. The pendulum was only impelled as required.

This type of clock was widely used as a master clock in large buildings to control numerous slave clocks. Most telephone exchanges used such a clock to control timed events such as were needed to control the set up and charging of telephone calls by issuing pulses of varying durations such as every second, six seconds and so on.

Free pendulum clock[edit]

In the 20th century William Hamilton Shortt invented a free pendulum clock, patented in September 1921 and manufactured by the Synchronome Company, with an accuracy of one hundredth of a second a day. In this system the timekeeping "master" pendulum, whose rod is made from a special steel alloy with 36% nickel called Invar whose length changes very little with temperature, swings as free of external influence as possible sealed in a vacuum chamber and does no work. It is in mechanical contact with its escapement for only a fraction of a second every 30 seconds. A secondary "slave" pendulum turns a ratchet, which triggers an electromagnet slightly less than every thirty seconds. This electromagnet releases a gravity lever onto the escapement above the master pendulum. A fraction of a second later (but exactly every 30 seconds), the motion of the master pendulum releases the gravity lever to fall farther. In the process, the gravity lever gives a tiny impulse to the master pendulum, which keeps that pendulum swinging. The gravity lever falls onto a pair of contacts, completing a circuit that does several things:

  1. energizes a second electromagnet to raise the gravity lever above the master pendulum to its top position,
  2. sends a pulse to activate one or more clock dials, and
  3. sends a pulse to a synchronizing mechanism that keeps the slave pendulum in step with the master pendulum.

Since it is the slave pendulum that releases the gravity lever, this synchronization is vital to the functioning of the clock. The synchronizing mechanism used a small spring attached to the shaft of the slave pendulum and an electromagnetic armature that would catch the spring if the slave pendulum was running slightly late, thus shortening the period of the slave pendulum for one swing. The slave pendulum was adjusted to run slightly slow, such that on approximately every other synchronization pulse the spring would be caught by the armature.[67]

This form of clock became a standard for use in observatories (roughly 100 such clocks were manufactured[68]), and was the first clock capable of detecting small variations in the speed of Earth's rotation.

See also[edit]


  • Rawlings, Arthur Lionel (1993). The Science of Clocks and Watches, 3rd Ed. Upton, UK: The British Horological Institute. ISBN 0-9509621-3-9. 
  • Britten, Frederick J. (1881). The Watch and Clockmaker's Handbook, 4th Ed. London: W. Kent & Co. , p. 56-58
  • Glasgow, David (1885). Watch and Clock Making. London: Cassel & Co. pp. 137–154. 
  • Grimsthorpe, Edmund Beckett (1911). "Watch". Encyclopaedia Britannica, 11th Ed. 28. The Encyclopaedia Britannica Co. pp. 362–366. Retrieved 2007-10-18. 
  • Milham, Willis I. (1945). Time and Timekeepers. New York: MacMillan. ISBN 0-7808-0008-7. 


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  3. ^ a b c Lewis, Michael (2000). "Theoretical Hydraulics, Automata, and Water Clocks". In Wikander, Örjan. Handbook of Ancient Water Technology. Technology and Change in History. 2. Leiden: Brill. pp. 343–369 (356f.). ISBN 90-04-11123-9. 
  4. ^ Needham, Joseph (1986). Science and Civilization in China: Volume 4, Physics and Physical Technology, Part 2, Mechanical Engineering. Taipei: Caves Books Ltd, p. 165.
  5. ^ Needham, Joseph (1986). Science and Civilization in China: Volume 4, Physics and Physical Technology, Part 2, Mechanical Engineering. Taipei: Caves Books Ltd, p. 319.
  6. ^ Needham, Joseph (1986). Science and Civilization in China: Volume 4, Physics and Physical Technology, Part 2, Mechanical Engineering. Taipei: Caves Books Ltd, pp. 445 & 448, 469–471.
  7. ^ Derek J. de Solla Price, On the Origin of Clockwork, Perpetual Motion Devices, and the Compass, p.86
  8. ^ a b Ahmad Y. Hassan, Transfer Of Islamic Technology To The West, Part II: Transmission Of Islamic Engineering, History of Science and Technology in Islam.
  9. ^ Ajram, K. (1992). "Appendix B". Miracle of Islamic Science. Knowledge House Publishers. ISBN 0-911119-43-4. 
  10. ^ David Landes: Revolution in Time: Clocks and the Making of the Modern World, rev. and enlarged edition, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000, ISBN 0-674-00282-2, pp. 18f.
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  15. ^ Needham, Joseph (1965). Science and Civilisation in China: Volume 4, Physics and Physical Technology, Part 2, Mechanical Engineering. Cambridge University Press. p. 443. ISBN 0521058031. 
  16. ^ White, Lynn Townsend (1964). Medieval Technology and Social Change. Oxford Univ. Press. p. 173. ISBN 0195002660. 
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  22. ^ Cipolla, Carlo M. (2004). Clocks and Culture, 1300 to 1700. W.W. Norton & Co. ISBN 0-393-32443-5. , p.31
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  28. ^ Jones, Tony (2000). Splitting the Second: The Story of Atomic Time. CRC Press. p. 30. ISBN 0-7503-0640-8. 
  29. ^ Kaler, James B. (2002). Ever-changing Sky: A Guide to the Celestial Sphere. UK: Cambridge Univ. Press. p. 183. ISBN 0-521-49918-6. 
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  38. ^ Milham 1945, p.235
  39. ^ a b Time restored by Jonathan Betts p.443
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  46. ^ Reid's Treatise 2nd Edition p. 240
  47. ^ British patent no. 1811
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  57. ^ Charles Gros 'Echappements' 1914 P.174
  58. ^ 'English and American watches' George Daniels Published 1967
  59. ^ Chamberlain 'It's About Time' Pages 428-429, also P.93 which shows a diagrammatic view of the escapement. Chamberlain 1978 Reprint ISBN 0 900470 81X
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  63. ^
  64. ^ Monochrome-watches, "The evolution of the escapement and recent innovations", February 2016
  65. ^ Hipp, Matth.(aeus): Sich selbst controlirende Uhr, welche augenbliklich anzeigt, wenn die durch Reibung etc. verursachte Unregelmäßigkeit im Gang auch nur den tausendsten Theil einer Secunde ausmacht und welche ein mehr als hundertfach größeres Hinderniß überwindet, ehe sie stehen bleibt, als andere Uhren, in: Polytechnisches Journal 88, 1843, p. 258-264, 441-446, sheet IV and V
  66. ^ French patent for an electrical driven pendulum clock with hipp-toggle, May 27, 1863: "Pendule ou horloge électro-magnétique à appal direct d’électricité" - The evolution of the hipp-toggle is described by: Johannes Graf: Der lange Weg zur Hipp-Wippe. Ab wann werden Uhren von matthaeus Hipp elektrisch angetrieben? In: Chronométrophilia No. 76, 2014, p. 67-77.
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  68. ^ Marilyn Shea (September 2007). "Synchronome - 中国天文学 - 两台摆的电子钟 Chinese Astronomy". Retrieved November 10, 2011. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Denn, Mark, "The Tourbillon and How It Works", IEEE Control Systems Magazine, June 2010, IEEE Control Systems Society, DOI 10.1109/MCS.2010.936291.

External links[edit]