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Huygens, the horological hero

In Quicksilver, the first volume of his immense three-part “Baroque Cycle” work of historical fiction, author Neal Stephenson writes, “He will, perhaps, be the one to accomplish some great thing we have never imagined”.

Christiaan Huygens, painted by Edvard Munch. Credit: Photo12/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

“Galileo and Descartes were only harbingers,” he continues. “Something is happening now – the mercury is rising in the ground, like water climbing up the bore of a well.”

“He,” in that passage, is Isaac Newton, who at this stage of the tale is still a young boy. The time is the mid-1600s (Newton was born in 1642), and the world is being remade by scientific discovery in a fashion perhaps not seen again until our own digital revolution.

Newton grows up and devises new methods to explain the force of gravity and the nature of light, among myriad contributions. In 1687 he publishes his Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica, which the Encyclopaedia Britannica calls “one of the most important single works in the history of modern science”.

Working in England, Newton is at the forefront of a great leap forward in scientific thought. In Germany, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz is rivalling him for preeminence in progressive mathematics, while in France the work of Blaise Pascal and his calculation machines are becoming known – albeit after his death in 1662. 

Meanwhile, Newton’s fellow Englishman, the extraordinary Robert Hooke, is changing our understanding of astronomy, biology, chemistry, physics, architecture, and even cartography. John Wilkins, Christopher Wren, John Boyle and others are founding the Royal Society. 

In the Netherlands, Christiaan Huygens is making important discoveries in the fields of physics, mathematics and astronomy, and, crucially, horology – the study and measurement of time, including the art of making clocks and watches. 

Huygens was born in 1629 in The Hague to a wealthy and influential family. In his early 20s he became interested in light and optics, publishing several important principles regarding refraction and reflection.

He and his brother, Constantijn, took up the study of lens-making and were able to build superior telescopes, which in 1659 allowed him to correctly identify the rings of Saturn, and also its moon, Titan.

Although Huygens did not name the satellite he discovered – “Titan” was proposed in 1847 by the English astronomer John Frederick William Herschel – the European Space Agency and NASA honoured him by naming a probe sent to it as part of the Cassini mission after him. The Huygens Probe was launched on 15 October 1997.

In 1655 Huygens travelled to Paris to study. There he mingled with the likes of Pascal and Leibniz, which no doubt contributed to what the ThoughtCo website calls “the publication of his most brilliant work Horologium Oscillatorium, in 1673”.

“In it, he discusses, among other topics, theories on the mathematics of curvatures, problems of dynamics such as the formula for the time of oscillation of simple pendulums, and the laws of centrifugal force.”

His interest in astronomy led him to the precise measurement of time, since it was so crucial to his observations. He went to work making a pendulum clock.  

An article published by the American Physical Society (APS) notes Huygens’ designs for the clock were inspired by Galileo’s discovery of isochronism, the fact that pendulums of the same length have the same oscillation period.

He hired a local clockmaker, Salomon Coster, to build the device, which he patented in 1657.

His designs proved far more accurate than the basic spring-driven table clocks of the era, with a drift of only 15 seconds a day versus 15 minutes. 

“Further improvements increased that accuracy, so much so that pendulum clocks dominated the timekeeping sector for hundreds of years, until the invention of the quartz clock in 1927,” the APS article notes.

Eventually, however, Huygens ran out of time. He died in The Hague on 8 July 1695.