JOSEPH THADDÄUS WINNERL
THE WATCHMAKER’S WATCHMAKER
Horological history is filled with the works of many creative geniuses, some remembered, some forgotten, spanning centuries of timekeeping developments. One of these great men who achieved world fame is the today little known Joseph Thaddäus Winnerl, the only internationally acknowledged horological master and inventor from Austria. He was born on the 25th of January 1799 in Murech (now Mureck), a small town close to the Austrian-Slovenian border in a province today called Steiermark. This area had for centuries been an integral part of the Austrian Empire, dating back to the grant of sovereignty with the entitlement of the Duchy of Styria in 1180 AD.
At a very young age he left home to study watchmaking as a journeyman apprentice serving among others, Georg Schmidt Fidel in Graz, Kessels in Altona, Urban Jürgensen in Copenhagen and the famed watchmaker Breguet in Paris starting in 1829. Already in 1832 he had founded his own business in Paris producing marine chronometers, precision pocketwatches and clocks. His fame quickly spread across borders, and by 1835 he was already so revered that Ferdinand Adolph Lange expressly learned French in order to be able to live in Paris and apprentice with him for a period of 5 years. It was during this stage at the Winnerl atelier that Lange came in contact with Winnerl’s penchant for the so called 3/4 movement plate, diamond endstones and screwed chatons, perfect elements for stable movement design and functionality – still widely used in German watchmaking today.
Chronograph chart used in Cornu’s speed of light determination
A prolific inventor of horological and scientific instruments, Winnerl was responsible for the most essential mechanical developments found at the heart of every mechanical chronograph, still in use today, such as the return to zero mechanism required for the functioning of every existing mechanical chronograph. Amongst some of the greatest achievements must be his invention in 1831 of the first pocketwatch with an independently stoppable seconds hand that could be stopped and restarted at will. Later, in 1838, he presented a pointer mechanism with two superimposed seconds hands, the direct precursor of the split seconds mechanism for timing two moments simultaneously during a single event, and around 1840 he presented a triple split seconds chronograph pocketwatch, the first of its kind ever created.
Le Monde Illustré – Observatoire de Paris
Observatoire de Paris – La Grande Coupole
Observatoire de Paris grand telescope
After 10 years in Paris, he received his first gold medal in 1839, and through the years, many other prizes, accolades and awards would follow, including his appointment as clockmaker to the Paris Observatory in 1850 and Expert Clockmaker to the Navy in 1873. His clocks and watches were so exceptionally accurate, that with simple oiling and cleaning, they were still in use by the French Navy even after atomic timekeeping had long been established and accepted on their naval vessels in the 1970’s of the last century. Coincident with his years at the Paris Observatory, several elementary discoveries were made in which Winnerl’s expertise in chronometric timekeeping was of fundamental value, such as Foucault’s determination of the speed of light, made at the observatory in 1862, requiring exact timing measurements for their accuracy. He was also closely involved with the construction of the first mechanical calculator, the Arithmaurel, which surely, together with various chronometers, would have been of great assistance in the various astronomical calculations and sightings of the day.
21ST CENTURY REBIRTH
Winnerl’s achievements and influence were formidable; yet his renown faded from horological history due to the lack of an heir and the fact that he never courted the attention of rich and fashionable aristocratic clients, like so many of his contemporaries. As the watchmaker’s watchmaker, his sole concern was focused purely on the pursuit and achievement of the greatest possible accuracy in order to guide ships safely over the seven seas, and to assist scientists searching for the secrets of the universe.
This love of detail, the personal history and life work of Winnerl has for many years been the center of interest to the Austrian master watchmaker Bernhard Zwinz. He too journeyed away from his homeland in Austria to pursue horological excellence in different countries, finally arriving in Switzerland’s Vallée de Joux to apprentice and work on Philippe Dufour’s Simplicity series of watches for 3.5 years, whereafter he settled in the valley permanently since 2001.
This fascination led to the decision being taken by Bernhard in 2018 to officially revive the Winnerl name in the 21st century, with the aim of creating a series of different wristwatch models, each one to be closely inspired by a different original movement or concept first developed for use in Winnerl’s chronometers and pocketwatches.