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The Atmos clock is a miracle of Swiss engineering that can run for hundreds of years without batteries or winding

Perpetual motion- it defies the laws of physics particularly the fundamental law of thermodynamics as defined by Laudisier, which says, “nothing is created, nothing is lost, everything is transformed.But knowing it is impossible has not stopped people from trying, from the ancients to the present day. But a talented Swiss engineer called Jean-Leon Reutter (1899-1971) has created the illusion of perpetual motion in a clock.Our story begins in 1928 when Reutter created a prototype clock that drew energy from the atmosphere. Not quite perpetual motion more transformation. This was a clock that could theoretically run for an unlimited duration by using an infinitesimal amount of energy and with no human intervention. The prototype caused tremendous interest in the newspapers and science press. Over one hundred articles were written about this invention worldwide but as a pundit of the time pointed out inventing a perpetual clock is one thing establishing a production model is another.

This proved to be the case and Reutter made many changes to the prototype to commercialise his invention. The Atmos clock made its debut in 1930, but the development had been rushed so the clock did not meet customer’s expectations. At this time Jacques-David Le-Coultre saw an Atmos clock in a shop, intrigued he bought it to study it. He then contacted the inventor to discuss the clock this led to a collaboration in 1932 to perfect the clock. In this period they replaced the mercury in a glass tube that ran the clock to gas in a concertina type structure, the movement of which would now run the clock. In 1936 Le-Coultre bought the patents from Reutter and started producing the Le-Coultre Atmos clock. It took a further ten years of development before the final incarnation of the Atmos was achieved in 1946. Within a very short time the clock became a prestigious icon. From the 1950s the Swiss government has presented the Atmos to visiting VIPs. Many famous people have owned one including Winston Churchill, John.F.Kennedy, the King of Spain and Queen Elizabeth II, to name a few.

So how does it work? There is a hermetically sealed bellows like capsule. This capsule filled with a gas mixture, which expands and contracts to temperature, this motion is transferred to a chain, which drives the clock. The genius of the clock is its great sensitivity. At  temperatures between 15 and 30 degrees it takes just a one-degree change to drive the clock for 2 days. To work at this minute precision the clock has to be virtually friction free. The balance, which turns once per minute, is suspended from a long, ultra flat thin wire attached to the top of the clock. The clock would not work as it does without this wire, which was invented by Nobel Prize winner for physics Charles-Edouard Guillame. The wire is insensitive to changes in temperature, and its manufacturing process is secret. As for the drive chain, it takes about 6 years to source enough metal to make, making it so valuable that Jaeger Le Coultre's supply of it is stored in a bank vault.To give you an idea of how little power an Atmos clock needs to run, you would need 60 million clocks to run a15w light bulb. Another amazing thing about the Atmos is that the mechanism is so perfect the gear trains need no lubrication, in fact any oil would age too fast as the clock is designed to run for over 1000 years.

So how much would it cost to own this amazing clock? Surprisingly not as much as you think.There is one at Bonhams Oxford on 3rd October with an estimate of £400 to £500. Working modern examples can be bought at auction for as little as £600, more complicated models sell for over £3000 and early Le-Coultre/Reutter examples sell for£7000 upwards. 

Michael Delage-Pandeli for Vintage Explorer: 1st Nov 2011 11:04:00


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