The Minute Repeater Explained
By Romit Jethwaney — March 05, 2013
What is a Minute Repeater?

A repeater is a complication in a mechanical watch or clock that audibly chimes the hours and often minutes at the press of a button. There are many types of repeater, from the simple repeater which merely strikes the number of hours, to the minute repeater which chimes the time down to the minute, using separate tones for hours, quarter hours, and minutes. They originated before widespread artificial illumination, to allow the time to be determined in the dark, and were also used by the visually impaired. Now they are mostly valued as expensive novelties by watch and clock enthusiasts. Most watchmakers consider minute repeaters as the ultimate single complication in watchmaking. Everything must be absolutely perfect to deliver the precise striking of the gong and an immaculate sound.

How did it Originate?

Repeater watches have been around since the 1680s, only about 10 years after the repeating clock, and the minute repeater was a reality by around 1750. The current way of producing the sound using a wire gong was invented by Abraham-Louis Breguet in the 1780s – the same guy that invented the tourbillon. Early repeating watches were driven by the mainspring of the watch, but that isn’t a very effective method because it tends to cause the mainspring to wind down very quickly, thereby stopping the watch. The solution was to power the repeater mechanism by a separate spring, but that too had problems because sometimes the spring was not fully wound, and therefore didn’t have enough power to complete the chiming sequence – 11:59 on a minute repeater requires 31 chimes (11 hours, 3 quarters (two chimes each) and 14 minutes). The solution to that problem was to invent a mechanism that only triggered the chiming sequence when the spring was fully wound.

How Does it Work?

The purpose of pushing the slide is twofold: to activate the chiming mechanism and also to provide the power necessary for the gongs to sound. When one pushes the slide, one winds up a second mainspring inside the watch. The energy for the going train — that part of the watch that carries torque to the escapement and balance wheel, which actually keeps time — comes from a spiral spring housed in a drum-shaped mainspring barrel. Operating the chiming mechanism takes up so much energy that to use the mainspring would run the watch down very quickly (and the loss of torque would tend to disrupt timekeeping as well). The solution, therefore, is to have a second mainspring, in its own barrel, to power the chiming mechanism. Pushing the slide home, and then releasing it, lets the repeater go to work. The repeating mechanism is basically a tool for evaluating the internal state of a watch, and translating that information into chimes. A typical repeater has two hardened steel gongs, and first chimes the hours on the lower of the two, then the quarter hours, as a double stroke (ding-dong) on both gongs for each quarter hour, and then finally a stroke on the higher-pitched gong for each of the minutes.
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