Thursday, June 29, 2017

FERDINAND BERTHOUD – The 18th century taste























FERDINAND BERTHOUDThe 18th century taste 
for science and technology

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In the Age of Enlightenment, science and technology began opening up to new audiences. Members of the social elite took a passionate interest in scientific disciplines; they attended classes, witnessed experiments and acquired specialised books. Science thereby emerged from academia to become a social phenomenon and even a form of entertainment. Watchmaking was at the heart of this euphoria. As mechanical models of all kinds enthralled spectators and the market for books on horology began to develop, as watchmakers initiated the general public into their art and showcased their excellence.

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Ferdinand Berthoud, L’art de conduire et de régler les pendules et les montres: A l’usage de ceux qui n’ont aucune connoissance d’Horlogerie (The art of operating and adjusting clocks and watches for those who have no horological knowledge), Paris, published by the author, Rue de Harlay and by Michel Lambert, Bookseller, next to the Comédie Françoise, 1759, title page.


Science in the Age of Enlightenment, a social phenomenon

Few centuries have loved science as much as the Age of Enlightenment, which demonstrated unprecedented enthusiasm for technical and scientific phenomena. The era, as we know, was one of firm belief in progress of all kinds, and its “taste” for science and technology, as contemporaries referred to it, stemmed from this confidence. Science thus spilled out of the ivory towers of academia and became available to a broader audience, composed of curious observers and aficionados.

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Ferdinand Berthoud, L’art de conduire et de régler les pendules et les montres (reference in note 1) 1759, plate VII.


The latter belonged to high society, as both aristocrats and rich bourgeois from the world of trade and finance began to take an interest in a range of disciplines previously reserved for erudite scholars: physics, chemistry, natural history, and of course mechanics. The attention they devoted to scientific knowledge led them to set up full-fledged experimental laboratories in their homes, with some creating physics ‘cabinets’ or assembled natural history collections.

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The market for finely crafted scientific instruments was actively explored by wealthy purchasers who acquired microscopes, barometers, domestic planetariums and all kinds of devices combining scientific purpose with elegant design. Collecting scientific objects thus became a full-fledged trend, like science itself, henceforth considered to be part of the social sphere. 




Educating a new public

The taste for science and technology was also expressed by the emergence of scientific teaching. Public classes were set up in large cities and provinces. Mainly intended for adults, these free or fee-paying lessons were organised by institutions as well as private individuals. They aimed at providing instruction, as well as convincing and fascinating audiences.

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Ferdinand Berthoud, Essai sur l’horlogerie, dans lequel on traite de cet art relativement à l’usage civil, à l’astronomie et à la navigation, en établissant des principes confirmés par l’expérience (Essay on horology, in which its civilian use and its applications in astronomy and navigation are examined, while establishing principles confirmed by experiment), Paris, published by J. Cl. Jombert, Musier et Panckoucke (booksellers), 1763, title page.

The demonstrations conducted on town squares, at trade fairs or in private homes were all part of the same trend. Seeking to astonish while delighting the eyes, they often represented a form of showmanship. That is because fashionable science in the Age of Enlightenment did not aim to be serious, but rather to explain or justify phenomena by combining usefulness with a pleasing experience.

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George Adams, planetarium, circa 1770. History of Science Museum, Geneva (MHS inv. 818).  

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George Adams senior and junior were among the most important 18th century makers of scientific instruments. King George III ordered a number of models from them.

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From the 1740s onwards, physics stirred a great deal of enthusiasm thanks to the classes and demonstrations given by Jean-Antoine Nollet, also known as Abbé Nollet (1700-1770), who introduced high society to the mysteries of electricity. Chemistry was taught by Gabriel-François Rouelle (1703-1770), whose lessons were attended by Jean-Jacques Rousseau himself. Meanwhile, botanical science attracted public favour from the 1770s onwards, and just before the French Revolution, hot-air balloons began to attract crowds.



Horology at the confluence of skills

Mechanical knowledge, spearheaded by horology in the 18th century, did not lag behind amid this craze. Exhibitions of automatons, moving spheres, pendulums and complication watches enthralled spectators, dazzled by the evocative power of these objects and the technical expertise they encapsulated. In parallel, the progress made by horology in the field of tools also benefited other scientific realms of endeavour, notably the construction of scientific devices.

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George Adams, planetarium, circa 1770. History of Science Museum, Geneva (MHS inv. 818). 

At a time when worldly-wise, fashionable science in general demanded visual pleasure, considerable importance was also devoted to the beauty of mechanical objects. This focus on aesthetics, which imposed complex technical challenges on horologists and mechanical engineers, also enabled artisans to confirm the full breadth of their competencies: horology in particular lay at the confluence of these skills, as an artistic craft as well as a technical, even scientific profession.


 Technical books as promotional instruments

Horology also played an active part in the phenomenon of fashionable science by means of technical books, an area of the publishing market that experienced substantial growth between the 1720s and 1780s. Books were indeed a powerful instrument of popularisation which, like the various classes and demonstrations, were a response to the demand for technical instruction among the elite. Some horologists from the Age of Enlightenment accordingly began to share their thoughts on the field in writing, starting with Antoine Thiout (1692-1767), whose Traité de l’horlogerie, méchanique et pratique (Treatise on mechanical and practical horology) was published in 1740, as well as Jean-André Lepaute (1720-1789), who penned a Traité d’horlogerie (Horology treatise) that came out in 1755.

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Attributed to Jean-Antoine Nollet, compound microscope and its travel case, circa 1740. History of Science Museum, Geneva (MHS, inv. 149). The microscope probably belonged to famous Genevan naturalist and philosopher Charles Bonnet, and to his nephew, Horace-Bénédicte de Saussure.



Their writings cannot be summed up as mere manuals destined to initiate the public into the art of horology. Through describing various models, their components and their operating principles, they were expounding upon horological expertise itself. Technical books thus became crucial promotional tools, whose authors often dedicated them to high-ranking members of the aristocracy so as to ensure the latters’ protection. These treatises advocated an exceptional art that was both beautiful and useful, while highlighting the knowledge of those practicing it.

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 Ferdinand Berthoud, skeletonised table clock on its marble base, circa 1775.

Ferdinand Berthoud was supremely aware of the value of this means of communication that secured the reputation of artists along with the favours of a wealthy clientele. This conviction incited him to write the L’art de conduire et de régler les pendules et les montres (The art of operating and adjusting clocks and watches), published in 1759; and his Essai sur l’horlogerie (Essay on Horology), 1763, which was intended for artisans, but above all for curious individual, enthusiasts and connoisseurs.

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 Ferdinand Berthoud, detail of a table clock (reference in note 4).

He displayed an impressive capacity for popularising concepts, along with a remarkable writing style, thereby setting himself apart from his predecessors. He also stood out by his independence: at a time when he had not yet been awarded the title of “Horloger Mécanicien du Roi et de la Marine” (Clockmaker-Mechanic by appointment to the King and Navy), Berthoud took the independent decision to share his knowledge by writing in his own name.

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 1727-1807
Horologist-mechanic by appointment to the King and the Navy
1727                              Ferdinand Berthoud is born on March 18 to a distinguished family of clockmakers at Plancemont in the Val-de-Travers, now in Switzerland’s canton of Neuchâtel.
1745                              At the age of 18, Ferdinand Berthoud settles in Paris to study clockmaking.
1753                              A decree of King Louis XV’s council awards the 26-year-old Ferdinand Berthoud the title of Master Clockmaker.
1755                              Ferdinand Berthoud writes a number of reference papers for the Encyclopédie méthodique edited by Diderot (1713-1784) and Alembert (1717-1783).
1763                              Publication of a two-volume horological treatise, Essai sur l’horlogerie
1764                             Ferdinand Berthoud is elected to the Royal Society in London as an “associate overseas member” thanks to his masterpieces and his publications about watchmaking
1768                             The marine chronometers N° 6 and N° 8 were proved to be successful onboard the corvette “L’Isis” during a 18-month journey from Rochefort to Santo Domingo. The marine chronometer N°8 alloed to determine the real position on the map of the boat and calculate the longitude within half a degree thanks to astronomical observations.
1770                              After successful sea trials of the marine chronometers N° 6 and N° 8, Ferdinand Berthoud is commissioned as Horologist-mechanic to the King and the Navy, and receives a royal command for 20 marine chronometers for the French admiralty’s numerous charting expeditions and marine surveys of the late 18th century.
1802                             Ferdinand Berthoud publishes a major work: Histoire de la mesure du temps par les horloges, a history of time measurement by clocks that demonstrates his immense knowledge of horological mechanics.
1804                             On July 17, Napoleon I makes Ferdinand Berthoud a Knight of the Legion of Honour as a member of the Institut de France. 
1807                             Ferdinand Berthoud publishes his last work, Supplément au Traité des montres à Longitudes
                                      On June 20, 1807, Ferdinand Berthoud dies at the age of 80 in Groslay (France)
                                      His nephews, Pierre-Louis Berthoud (1754-1813) and Charles-Auguste Berthoud (1798-1876) successfully carry on the work of their uncle to earn renown as chronometer-makers. 

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Chronométrie FERDINAND BERTHOUD SA
Rue des Moulins 20
Case postale 128
2114 Fleurier, Val-de-Travers (NE)
Switzerland
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