Adjusting Tools: The Timing Machine

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Collectors of vintage watches tend to be fans of the old days and the old ways, but we’ll always take time-saving inventions when we can find them. If you don’t have a timing machine, you really need one.

Hamilton-Factory-AdjustingIn the old days, watch adjusting could take weeks. After an adjustment, the watch was set to a standard time (or its deviation was noted) and then left in a position for a day. The next day, the rate was noted, allowing a calculation of how slow or fast the watch ran in that position. If necessary, the watch was adjusted again, wound, and left to sit for another day. Adjusting a watch to 6 positions was a drawn-out affair.

A big factory would have a lot of watches sitting around, ticking merrily until the next visit to the adjuster. In his great book on Illinois wrist watches, Fredric Friedberg mentions the factory’s “timing room,” where workers kept “hundreds of watches wound while they were being tested for accuracy” (p. 25). One can only imagine the sound. (I doubt I could be trusted around so many 16-size Bunn Specials…)

The invention of timing machines was a huge leap for adjusting. Books from the 1940s and 1950s describe them as a genuine marvel, and they were—they allowed watchmakers to diagnose faults and to shave days off the time needed for positional timing.

Timing machines show us three things that we really need to know to make a watch run accurately:

  1. The watch’s instantaneous rate—how fast or slow it is within a small window of time (e.g., 2, 4, 10, or 30 seconds) right now. Based on that, we can estimate the watch’s daily rate—how slow or fast it would be across 24 hours.
  2. The watch’s amplitude, a crucial factor in watch adjusting. We’ve talked about how we need an amplitude of at least 270 degrees in the horizontal positions and 220 degrees in the vertical positions. And we also need to read the rates at low amplitudes so we can find poise errors. Without a timing machine, this is tedious and complicated.
  3. The behavior of the escapement. When a watch runs well, it leaves two clean, parallel traces as it ticks merrily along. Many problems—from rubbing hairsprings to knocking to problems in the gear train—reveal themselves in particular patterns of timing traces. We’ll see many of these throughout this blog and describe them as they come up.

Which One to Get?

Like everything else, timing machines span the price range from startling to free, from the high-end Witschi machines found in commercial shops to the humble Made-in-China Timegrapher to free open-source software.

The expensive options are a poor value for the hobbyist and collector. It’s important to step back and realize that a timing machine isn’t performing rocket surgery: it is detecting sounds, measuring intervals between them, and doing some simple math. The modern timing machines have pretty displays and neat functions, but underneath they are merely doing what the Watchmaster machines and Greiner Vibrograf machines from the 1940s and 1950s did. Cutting-edge technology this isn’t.

In his video description, Christian at the Watch Guy points out that his Timegrapher and Witschi give identical readings. Others have compared expensive Witschi machines to inexpensive smartphone apps and open-source programs and found similarly strong agreement.

Your first decision is probably between a timing machine versus timing software. Machines, like the Witschi and Timegrapher, have integrated displays and work right out of the box—turn them on, put the watch on the microphone, and get to it.

Timing software, in contrast, gets installed on your computer and reads the ticks from a microphone. The watch forums buzz with updates on the latest software options. These range from simple smartphone apps that tell only the rate to full-featured timing programs that run on a PC. The virtue of this approach is that you can upgrade your software without replacing a whole unit. And some options are free and open-source, although there’s some art and expense in finding and connecting the right kind of microphone.

Using a Timegrapher

Our humble blog focuses on adjusting rather than general-purpose watchmaking, so I encourage you to view the videos below—by the ever-capable and informative Christian and Mark—for the nuts-and-bolts of using and reading a Timegrapher. Happy ticking!