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Time for a change: the mechanical clock of the 21st Century

08 December 2016

A highly innovative mechanical clock is equipped with a new type of oscillator, marking a major conceptual shift in the long history of mechanical timekeeping.

The IsoSpring clock (Credit: Alain Herzog/2016 EPFL)

Invented, designed and set in motion by EPFL, it will soon be installed in the Neuchâtel city hall. 

Researchers at EPFL’s Instant-Lab in Neuchâtel developed a prototype of a mechanical clock that operates with this new type of oscillator. The oscillator, unveiled in 2014, was dubbed “IsoSpring” due to its isotropic spring. It replaces conventional clock pendulums and watch spiral spring-balance wheels.

IsoSpring has now been incorporated in a complete functional mechanical clock.

Silent and accurate, the prototype clearly resembles traditional Neuchâtel clocks. EPFL has loaned it to the city of Neuchâtel, and it is now on display in the Pas Perdus room of the town hall, across from a clock made by the famous 19th Century inventor Matthias Hipp.

No more ticking

This clock was entirely thought up and developed by EPFL’s Instant-Lab - Patek Philippe Chair in Micromechanical and Horological Design, led by Professor Simon Henein. This prototype suggests that mechanical timekeepers – watches, carriage clocks and large clocks – may soon be capable of unparalleled performance in terms of chronometric accuracy and power reserve, while still retaining mechanical simplicity.

The IsoSpring concept allows watchmakers to make the leap from conventional timebases with a back-and-forth movement to continuous unidirectional trajectories. Thanks to this breakthrough, time is once again silent and continuous. The oscillator functions without an escapement, the component that produces the stop-and-go motion and the signature ticking sound. Conventional movements have now been radically simplified.

The use of “compliant mechanisms” obviates the need for conventional pivots. This means that there is no friction or wear-and-tear and that no lubrication is necessary. This also reduces energy losses in the oscillator by more than one order of magnitude.

EPFL has filed two patent applications, and the researchers are now working on miniaturising their invention. The watchmaking industry is extremely interested in this new oscillator.

An oscillator inspired by the heavens

The rotating mechanism came straight out of Isaac Newton’s 17th Century description of how planets orbit around the sun. “Technically, this invention could have happened in the 17th Century. But as far as we know, no one else has thought of it since then,” says Henein, who holds the Patek Philippe Chair and runs Instant-Lab. “That makes our clock both revolutionary and traditional, two factors highly appreciated by the watchmaking industry.”

Neuchâtel, centre of horological research 

On the IsoSpring clock, a small face displaying hours and minutes sits below a large face showing the fluid and uninterrupted movement of the second hand. The oscillator, which replaces the pendulum, orbits in a horizontal plane on top of the clock.

“This clock embodies history, science, innovation, workmanship and industry,” says Ilan Vardi, co-inventor of IsoSpring. “It is a fitting symbol of the Neuchâtel region, the global centre of horological and micromechanical research. It’s easy to forget, but major inventions in timekeeping – such as the quartz watch – took place in this region.”



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