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Heinrich Johannes Kessels

From Horology magazine, February, 1939

Heinrich Johannes Kessels
By Major Paul M. Chamberlain

It is difficult to learn much of the history of horology in Holland from any sources with which I am familiar. That clock making was practiced there at a very early date is evidenced by the invitation of Edward III to three clockmakers from Delft, Unenam, and Lietuyt, to settle in England. Examples of good watch work of Dutch origin may be found, in a number of collections, reaching as far back as 1620, but the greater number are of the 18th century. There is some reason to believe that Henry Sully (1680-1728) and John Arnold (1736-1799) went to Holland because of some special technique they expected to learn.

Was it some ambition inspired by early association that caused the young blacksmith Kessels to go to Paris and succeed in getting into Breguet's shop and remain there for a long time? I find most eulogistic comments on his work and reputation but surprisingly few biographical notices, and about all that is given is that he was born at Maastricht, Holland, on May 15th, 1781, was first a blacksmith, went to Paris where he was a pupil of Breguet, spent some time in London with his friends the Muston brothers, went to Copenhagen in 1821 and achieved the patronage of King Frederick VI who induced him to settle in Altona, then Danish territory; that he was a Chevalier of the order of Danebrog, chronometer maker to the Royal Navy, a member of the Royal Society of Sciences of Stockholm and of the Mathematical Society of Hamburg; that on a visit to England he contracted cholera while passing through Paris and died near Bristol, England, July 15th, 1849.

His reputation as a maker of observatory clocks, marine chronometers and deck watches was of the highest order.  Of his work I have had the opportunity of examining but two examples, both deck watches, the first owned by my collector friend, the late Dr. Kellner of Rochester, New York, and the other which I acquired a few years ago and illustrate herewith. The character of the . work and design in both of these is strongly English yet not consistent with the influence of Breguet. In both examples the seconds hand is placed between the figure XII and the center of the dial.

Louis Moinet (1786-1853) in his "Nouveau Traite General d'Horlogerie," a magnificent work, gives drawings and pages of text regarding Kessels' observatory clock together with comments in a letter from Kessels, going into minutest detail of reasons for adopting the particular construction.

Claudius Saunier (1816-1896) in his "Traite d'Horlogerie lVloderne" of 1861, goes into the analysis of Kessels' form of the Graham escapement in which he had the anchor embrace only six teeth of the escape wheel and with wonderful results as evidenced in observatories at Nikolayev, Dorpat, Moscow and Pulkowa in Russia; Stockholm, Upsala and Lund in Sweden; Christiania in Norway; Cracow in Poland; Copenhagen in Denmark; Kensington in England; Konigsberg, Bonn, Goldberg and Hamburg in Germany; Altona in Holstein; Brussels in Belgium; Kremsmunster in Austria; Seftenberg and Prague in (then) Bohemia; and Athens, Greece.

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