Whether it’s the moon looming large and bright, or the billions of twinkling stars, the nocturnal sky as we see it has fascinated humanity for aeons. The desire to explore the universe began as observations with the naked eye, and over the years, has continued to encompass the use of scientific instruments. Astronomical watches like the moon-phase timepieces by A. Lange & Söhne are witness to this undying curiosity
It is believed that primitive structures like the Stonehenge, built by ancient civilisations to make sense of celestial bodies and their alignment in relation to the earth, were some of the early methods to better understand the universe.
The study of celestial objects did not have its roots in scientific inventions, but in the human trait of curiosity. In The Dawn of Astronomy, British astronomer Sir Norman Lockyer, who lived from 1836-1920, breaks down ancient astronomy into three distinct phases and presented an observation prevalent across most ancient civilisations like Egypt, India and South America. First, a civilisation goes through the worship stage, where astronomical phenomena are viewed as the actions and warnings of gods; next, it progresses to using astronomy for terrestrial purposes like agriculture or navigation. The final step, he says, is to study astronomy solely for the sake of gaining knowledge.
Observations and predictions of the motion of objects visible to the naked eye preceded the assembly of astronomical observatories in ancient Mesopotamia, Greece, India and Egypt. Early ideas about the universe came into being, thanks to Ptolemy whose comprehensive treatise on astronomy, The Almagest, the only surviving treatise of its kind, estimated that the earth was the centre of the universe. The Babylonians later laid the foundation for the study of the universe with the discovery of the repetitive, cyclical nature of lunar eclipses. Even as astronomy went through a period of stagnancy in medieval Europe until the 13th century, it flourished in the Islamic world with the discovery of the Andromeda Galaxy by Persian astronomer Azophi.
In the early stages of lunar observation, people were interested in the progression of the moon across the nocturnal skies and its changing faces. It was only until the telescope was invented in the 17th century that the focus shifted to the moon’s surface.
In Saxony, too, the earth’s satellite, its orbital progression, and its influence on various spheres of life intrigued laymen and scholars alike. The Nebra sky disc, a bronze disc dating back to 2000 BC unearthed in Saxony-Anhalt is testament to the celestial achievements by those native to Saxony. The disc was marked by a blue-green patina inlaid with gold symbols of the Pleiades star cluster, and featured the full moon and crescent moon.
Many millennia later, Augustus, the elector of Saxony, laid the cornerstone for the discipline of astronomy and lunar research. He commissioned Europe’s first large scientific apparatus and instrument collection that formed the art chamber in Dresden. Over 10,000 objects including astrological and astronomical instruments occupied the Dresden art chamber, which was the precursor of the present-day Mathematics and Physics Salon.
“ The watchmakers at A. Lange & Söhne leverage all the potentials of science and technology to emulate its orbit with extreme precision and to reproduce its radiance as brilliantly as possible ”
The famous lunar map by the Dresden astronomer Wilhelm Gotthelf Lohrmann is an example of Saxony’s fascination with lunar observation during the 19th century. A century later, in the 1960s, Dresden native Ursula Seliger created an extensive series of detail- rich pencil drawings compiled in three volumes. These drawings are currently stored at the Palitzsch Museum in Dresden. The museum was named after Johann George Palitzsch, the so-called “peasant- astronomer” from Dresden, who went on to become famous for discovering Halley’s Comet. Such was the extent to which Saxony contributed to the study of celestial phenomena.
A young watchmaker by the name of Ferninand Adolph Lange was enrolled in Dresden’s technical University, where he acquired an education that set into motion an apprenticeship with the renowned master clockmaker Johann Christian Friedrich Gutkaes, who recognised the young Lange’s unusual watchmaking skills. After years
of journeying across Europe, Lange returned in 1841 with the hope of
establishing a manufactory in the Ore Mountains. He eventually built a
watch manufactory and pioneered a number of innovations that would forever revolutionize watchmaking. The company he founded in 1845, which is today known as A. Lange & Söhne, was headquartered in Glashütte, not far from Dresden, in the state of Saxony.
The German watchmaker has since remained fascinated by the moon. Even today, the watchmakers at A. Lange & Söhne leverage all the potentials of science and technology to emulate its orbit with extreme precision and to reproduce its radiance as brilliantly as possible. Ever since the first collection was presented almost two decades ago, the Glashütte-based manufacture has developed no less than 15 calibres with moon-phase displays. A specialty in A. Lange & Söhne’s repertoire of timepieces, the moon-phase watch requires a correction by one day, once every 122.6 years, which is about 50 times more accurate than conventional displays. In fact, so accurate is its current mechanism that the new Richard Lange Perpetual Calendar “Terraluna” timepiece can run for over 1000 years before it deviates from the actual lunar cycle by one day.
A. Lange & Söhne’s revolutionary lunar discs have signature elements, such as its rich blue hue with a unique chromatic effect achieved by superimposing light waves. To produce this so-called interference phenomenon, the watchmaker partnered with scientists to develop a patent coating process for the solid-gold discs. Then, there’s the distinct presence of laser-cut stars that stand out against the vibrant blue tint. The term blue moon refers to the rare phenomenon of the second full moon within a given calendar month, Most mechanical moon-phase indications must be corrected by one day every “once in a blue moon”. The reason behind this is that the period of time between two new moons is rounded down to 29.5 days even though it is actually 44 minutes and three seconds longer.
The A. Lange & Söhne moon-phase watches, however, are much more precise with most of them reproducing the lunar month with an accuracy of 99.998 %. A good example is the Richard Lange Perpetual Calendar “Terraluna” that is adorned with over 2000 stars in five different sizes and which emphasise the lure of the night sky. The orbital moon-phase display of this timepiece is one of the greatest innovations in precision watchmaking. The timepiece depicts the changing orbital position of the moon in relation to the earth and sun with unmatchable accuracy.
*This article was first published in the March-April edition of Signé (UAE)