Thomas Tompion was one of the greatest clock and watchmakers. He is often regarded as the father of English clockmaking. He made some of the first watches with balance-springs, helped to develop the quadrant, and produced clocks for prestigious clients. He is renowned both for the accuracy of his timepieces and for their beauty.
Thomas Tompion was born in Ickfield Green, a hamlet in the parish of Northill, Bedfordshire, in 1639. He was the eldest son of Thomas Tompion senior, a blacksmith, and his wife Margaret. Very little is known of Tompion's upbringing. However, the facts that are known allow us to trace Tompion's development as a maker of the exquisite clocks that ornamented the spacious salons of the English upper classes.
Tompion's grandfather was a blacksmith of limited means who guided his son's entry into the blacksmith trade. Tompion's father, however, was able to profit considerably from this profession. He not only amassed acres of land in the regions surrounding Ickfield Green, but also owned several houses in the neighboring parishes of Biggleswade and Caldecote. As a young blacksmith, Thomas was instructed by his father in tasks such as making hinges and bolts for doors, forging horse shoes, and mending the clappers of church bells.
This background helped to secure the legend of Tompion. As the poet Matthew Prior (1664-1721) remarked, "when you next set Your Watch, remember that Tompion was a farrier, and began his great Knowledge in the Equation of Time by regulating the wheels of a common Jack, to roast meat." Tompion moved from the more plebeian role of blacksmith into a profession that, during his life, was closely connected to the ideas and theories of the greatest thinkers.
While the details of Tompion's movement from blacksmith to clockmaker are unknown, it can be surmised that Tompion was apprenticed to a blacksmith, finished his term at around the age of 21, and spent the next 11 years in a provincial town. It was during this period that Tompion became a blacksmith as well as a clockmaker of church or turret clocks.
The Court Minute Book of the Clockmakers' Company lists Tompion's admission as a Brother on September 4, 1671. This book describes Tompion as a "Great Clockmaker," indicating that he was recognized as a Master blacksmith-clockmaker who specialized in large iron clocks intended for churches. At this point Tompion began to make his fortune in London. There, he made the acquaintance of and worked with Robert Hooke (1635-1703), considered by many to be the greatest experimental physicist of the seventeenth century, whose discoveries and inventions transformed nearly all of the natural sciences.
In field of horology, Hooke was responsible for two inventions that improved the accuracy of watches and clocks: the anchor escapement that allowed a long pendulum as a regulator and the use of a spring to regulate watches. At this point Hooke was famous while Tompion was only beginning to establish himself. Hooke commissioned Tompion with the construction of a new device, the quadrant, which Hooke had invented. This device was a new kind of astrological instrument intended to improve the accuracy of measurements of celestial bodies.
After this commission, Hooke and Tompion worked on a hand-held watch that could maintain its accuracy even on a rolling ship. King Charles II requested a copy of this invention, helping Tompion's reputation to grow. Indeed, when the Royal Observatory at Greenwich was established in 1676, Tompion was chosen to make two clocks that were to be wound only once a year. These were more accurate at keeping time than those available at other observatories.
Likewise, Tompion's workshop, The Dial and Three Crowns, began to turn out a considerable number of clocks and watches in the 1670s and 1680s. Tompion produced clocks for English and European buyers. In fact, many of his early clocks betray a distinct Dutch influence. His elegance and restraint in the design of clock cases, combined with his enormous productivity, helped to make him the most famous of English clockmakers.