The phrase ‘gravity-defying inventions’, for many, will conjure up images of the Wright brothers’ biomimetic escapades at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina; others may think of Leonardo da Vinci’s sketched-out ‘fancy-of-flight’ (to invert a popular phrase), which he called the ‘aerial screw’, and which pre-dated helicopters by half a millennium. Those whose understanding of gravity goes beyond Newton’s apple into actual equations will no doubt point to the invention of the wheel.
But devotees to all things horological would no doubt sooner point to a breakthrough achieved by Abraham-Louis Breguet around 1795, when watches were still exclusively worn in the pocket. Observing how gravity meddled with the performance of parts such as a watch’s pallet fork, balance wheel and hairspring — particularly when the timepiece had been laid on a flat surface — he had an epiphany that changed the course of horological history: if certain components were housed in a rotating cage, he realised, the variations in question would compensate for each other, effectively conquering one of the fundamental forces of physics.
After he patented his mechanical coup in 1801, having named it after the French word for ‘whirlwind’, he then unveiled a timepiece that would “maintain the same accuracy, whatever the vertical or inclined position of the watch” at the National Exhibition of Industrial Products in Paris five years later. The tourbillon quickly became the toast of the horological intelligentsia (Breguet’s customers by then included Marie Antoinette, the King of Spain, and Tsar Alexander I, and one particular four-minute tourbillon was sold secretly to George III, this being the height of the Napoleonic wars).