The oscillator that could makeover the mechanical watch

September 18, 2014 by Laure-Anne Pessina, Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne
The oscillator that could makeover the mechanical watch
Credit: EPFL

For the first time in 200 years the heart of the mechanical watch has been reinvented, thereby improving precision and autonomy while making the watch completely silent. EPFL researchers have developed an oscillator that turns continuously in one direction, eliminating one of the crucial mechanisms of traditional watches.

Will the familiar ticking of our watches be a thing of the past? A group of EPFL researchers has imagined a unidirectional continuous which could become a new timebase for the mechanical watch. This would revolutionise the mechanical concept whose basis has remained unchanged for centuries.

IsoSpring, the name given to the new oscillator, was recently revealed to the public at the Journée d'Etude de la Société Suisse de Chronométrie, the annual conference of the Swiss watch industry. IsoSpring allows one to bypass the most complicated mechanism of traditional watches. The result will be more precise watches with increased autonomy which would also be noiseless.

"Our prototype weighs four kilograms but we're already trying to miniaturise it so as to fit it in a wristwatch; the watch industry has expressed great interest in the project," says Professor Simon Henein, holder of the Patek Philippe Chair and director of Instant-Lab. IsoSpring differs from the pendulum, the spiral-balance wheel and the tuning fork, the three oscillators used in clocks and watches. It represents the first conceptual change in the mechanical watch in 200 years.

60% energy lost in traditional watches

Mechanical watches depend on a system of gears leading to the alternating oscillations of the balance wheel and the motion of the hands. The interface between these gears and the balance wheel is the escapement. It continues to represent the most difficult challenge to engineers. Every time the balance wheel changes direction, the entire gearing mechanism starts and stops yielding the familiar ticking sound. "This stop and go motion wastes enormous energy, for this reason even the best escapements are limited to 40% efficiency," explains Simon Henein.

The oscillator that could makeover the mechanical watch
Compliant mechanisms

Due to its continuous rotation, IsoSpring eliminates the need for an escapement. Gone are the traditional intermittent mechanisms, now substituted by smooth motion based on compliant mechanisms. One of Simon Henein's specialties, compliant mechanisms use the elastic properties of matter to effect the motion of mechanical components, eliminating friction and the need for lubrication.

"Our concept is in a mechanical tradition. We do not appeal to high technology and our methods are accessible to 18th century engineers," points out Simon Henein.

Elasticity for elliptical rotation

But how does IsoSpring work, exactly? Imagine an ancient sling in which you use a leather strap to make a stone turn in a circle. If you replace the strap with an elastic band, the stone will now move in an ellipse and its speed will no longer be constant; on the other hand, its period will now be constant so it can be used to measure time precisely. This principle, discovered by Isaac Newton in the 17th Century, is the conceptual basis of the new oscillator. The rotation is maintained by the traditional barrel spring.

"Our watch is a departure from chopped up ticking time and a return to continuous time as seen in nature by the motion of the stars," concludes Simon Henein.

Explore further: Connected watches, virtually absent but still creating buzz at Baselworld

Related Stories

Watch company develops wristwatch with its own atomic clock

October 2, 2013

Bathys Hawaii, a US-based watch company, has created the Cesium 133, a prototype wrist watch that has its own atomic clock. The fact that the clock is self-contained, integrated into the wristwatch, is the distinguishing ...

Will smart watches find many buyers?

July 30, 2013

When it comes to the target market for a smart watch, I'm probably it: I love tech, I'm often an early adopter of new gadgets and, until very recently, I was a lifelong watch wearer. But even I'm not sure I really need or ...

Recommended for you

After a reset, Сuriosity is operating normally

February 23, 2019

NASA's Curiosity rover is busy making new discoveries on Mars. The rover has been climbing Mount Sharp since 2014 and recently reached a clay region that may offer new clues about the ancient Martian environment's potential ...

Study: With Twitter, race of the messenger matters

February 23, 2019

When NFL player Colin Kaepernick took a knee during the national anthem to protest police brutality and racial injustice, the ensuing debate took traditional and social media by storm. University of Kansas researchers have ...

Solving the jet/cocoon riddle of a gravitational wave event

February 22, 2019

An international research team including astronomers from the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy in Bonn, Germany, has combined radio telescopes from five continents to prove the existence of a narrow stream of material, ...

5 comments

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

saposjoint
3 / 5 (2) Sep 18, 2014
Pictures of everything but the new mechanism, and we're asked to imagine what it looks like?

Why was this crap published?
hemitite
not rated yet Sep 18, 2014
It may not stop and start, but if they're using the elastic properties of a piece of metal, wouldn't that property change with temperature?
hemitite
not rated yet Sep 18, 2014
Here's an essay on complaint mechanisms: http://compliantm...chanisms

From the example of the sling used above, where the oscillation of the slingers's hand generates torque in the sling which is regulated by the elastic oscillatory motion of the rubber band, this system may have to begin with some sort of oscillation, otherwise the "rubber band" would simply stretch in a constant liner way relative to its rotational speed.
gkam
1 / 5 (1) Sep 18, 2014
The ones we have now aren't good enough?

Say, . .what happened to the Rolamite?

I was waiting for the Rolamite Watch.
FainAvis
not rated yet Sep 18, 2014
hemitite: "complaint mechanisms" ?!

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.