Atom Heart Mother

Richard Hop­troff has cre­ated a 21st Cen­tury horo­log­i­cal master­piece. With an atomic heart, The No.10 ‘ticks’ at four bil­lion bil­lion times a sec­ond, can cal­cu­late the tidal har­mon­ics of ports all over the world and gives the time any­where on the planet. I

Plaza Watch International - - Atom Heart Mother - WO R D S NICK RICE

As omi­nous grey clouds swirl darkly over­head and the chill rain lashes down, I strug­gle to find the right en­trance. The loom­ing and shad­owy brick build­ing I’m cir­cling has an in­tim­i­dat­ing edge to it. I think to my­self how glad I am to be vis­it­ing the place in the present day, and by choice. This is The Clink Prison on the south bank of the Thames in London, Eng­land’s most no­to­ri­ous me­dieval prison that held in­nu­mer­able in­mates from AD 860 to 1780.

Rather than a fright­ful horde of debtors, con­spir­a­tors and mur­der­ers, th­ese days the build­ing houses a mu­seum and also the work­shops of Richard Hop­troff. I fi­nally find his door and follow care­fully up the echo­ing spi­ral stair­case to the far more cosy en­vi­rons of Hop­troff’s stu­dio.

Work­benches are strewn with tiny com­po­nents and an ar­ray of tool and di­als. Print­ing ma­chines and a makeshift pho­tog­ra­phy stu­dio share space with a book­shelf filled with weighty tomes on leg­endary horol­o­gist George Daniels and ad­vanced physics, such as ‘The Fun­da­men­tals of Ce­les­tial Me­chan­ics’. De­tailed sketches of watches and move­ments are tacked to the walls, along­side huge colour­ful oil paint­ings by the Royal Academy artist John Gled­hill, who is ac­tu­ally in a far cor­ner of the room touch­ing up some pieces for a forth­com­ing ex­hi­bi­tion. Hop­troff lets out some of his space as he has am­ple room to work on his lat­est ven­ture – Hop­troff Watches.

DIS­COV­ER­ING HOROL­OGY Hop­troff has founded many suc­cess­ful busi­nesses be­fore, mak­ing his for­tune in tech­nol­ogy startups, but I im­me­di­ately get the im­pres­sion that his watch company is driven by cu­rios­ity and en­joy­ment rather than profit. Whilst show­ing me around the work­shop, Hop­troff ex­plains that his fascina-

“You are at your most cre­ative if you come from one field and go into another one – you end up do­ing things in com­pletely dif­fer­ent ways

to every­body else.”

tion be­gan at the turn of the cen­tury. “I re­mem­ber well be­cause it was the year 2000 and I had an aero­plane, and the cock­pit di­als and in­stru­men­ta­tion gave me a fascination for com­pli­ca­tions. You have to wear a watch as a pi­lot and I had never re­ally worn one be­fore, so it was through a com­bi­na­tion of wear­ing a watch for the first time and all th­ese fly­ing in­stru­ments that I got into it.”

Sim­ply launch­ing a watch company when you know noth­ing about watches might strike most peo­ple as fool­hardy. But Hop­troff was to­tally un­daunted and ac­tu­ally saw the ben­e­fits of start­ing from zero. “All I have done in my life is tech­nol­ogy start-ups with var­i­ous tech­nolo­gies, soft­ware and elec­tron­ics – so you are al­ways try­ing things that have never been tried be­fore. So let's start a watch­mak­ing company,” he says.

“It has the ad­van­tage that you are at your most cre­ative if you come from one field and go into another one. It’s good that you don't know any­thing about it, be­cause you don't have any of the bag­gage – you end up do­ing things in com­pletely dif­fer­ent ways to every­body else.”

Hop­troff is laid back and very wel­com­ing and, as I soon learn, is ca­pa­ble of ex­plain­ing ex­tremely tech­ni­cal con­cepts and func­tions as though he were telling you how he takes his tea. Ges­tur­ing ca­su­ally to a boxy ma­chine with blink­ing lights in the cor­ner Hop­troff says, “All our watches will go into this tem­per­a­ture con­troller and go from 0 to 50°C. Ev­ery sin­gle one of our watches will be cy­cled through that to char­ac­terise our crys­tal ex­actly. I don't think even Seiko or ETA does that.

“Our aim is to get one sec­ond per year ac­cu­racy,” he adds. Sur­vey­ing the desk of Hop­troff is some­what be­wil­der­ing. Piles of small plas­tic bags are filled with minis­cule screws and all man­ner of com­po­nents are strewn in or­gan­ised chaos. Most no­table are the var­i­ous el­e­ments that make up the ex­cep­tional move­ments at the heart of each Hop­troff time­piece. Th­ese mini cir­cuit boards are the tools by which Hop­troff’s tra­di­tion­ally styled watches can link with up with your smart­phone and tell you what ap­point­ments you have that day, or how your cho­sen stock price has fluc­tu­ated.


Pass­ing me one of th­ese lit­tle en­gines Hop­troff ex­plains, “This is the back­bone of our move­ment, where we have a four-layer cir­cuit board, and we pop­u­late it with com­po­nents, stick on lit­tle mo­tors like th­ese… put it in a plas­tic shell, and then add a bat­tery. And there you have it, a fin­ished move­ment.”

Now, for horol­o­gists who are en­tranced by the cogs-and- wheels mi­cro me­chan­ics of au­to­matic move­ments, this cir­cuit board move­ment could rep­re­sent a turn off. But that would be miss­ing the ge­nius of th­ese el­e­gant and un­der­stated time­pieces. They look ev­ery inch like a clas­si­cal wrist­watch, but then they can be­have like a mini com­puter.

Elab­o­rat­ing on how he came to use th­ese cir­cuit boards for move­ments, Hop­troff picks up a tiny com­po­nent the size of a se­quin and says, “The real in­cen­tive was th­ese mo­tors. It's like Lego. You can de­sign a cir­cuit board how you want, so you can move the mo­tors around and put them any­where you like on the board. The sec­ond thing is that th­ese tiny lit­tle in­te­grated cir­cuits called mi­cro­con­trollers are ac­tu­ally highly pro­gram­mable com­put­ers, so you can do a lot of cal­cu­la­tion with th­ese things and there­fore dis­play in­ter­est­ing stuff.”

He adds, “The ex­cit­ing thing was when, about three years ago, the power re­quired to drive th­ese things dropped dras­ti­cally. So you could do very com­mit­ted and com­pli­cated things but power them from a sim­ple coin cell… and they will last about five years eas­ily.”

At this point Hop­troff calls over some­one who has un­til now been in a far cor­ner of the room work­ing at a com­puter. This is Mike Plevey… Mike is the tech­ni­cal di­rec­tor. “I throw the equa­tions at him and he has to work it out, see if it’s pos­si­ble.”


It is now that I get to wit­ness the ut­terly in­con­gru­ous and fas­ci­nat­ing dis­play of a beau­ti­fully crafted time­piece syn­chro­nis­ing with a smart­phone in front of my eyes. Plevey whips out his iPhone and an­gles his wrist so I can see his Hop­troff No.9 watch. A few taps and swipes and sud­denly the hands on the sub- di­als click into ac­tion, mov­ing like magic to in­di­cate data from the stock mar­ket.

Friendly and gravel voiced, Plevey ex­plains, “You can see Glax­oSmithK­line are down 1.6 per cent at the mo­ment… so the watch is show­ing 1.6 down here. If we jump and pickup Mi­crosoft [on the iPhone] they are up .63 per cent, so you see it in­di­cated on the dial here. Ob­vi­ously if you leave it con­nected all day long it will keep mov­ing up and down with the share. And we're work­ing on the abil­ity to play those back. So you’ll get the his­tory of the price over the day… the watch will run a lit­tle an­i­ma­tion for you.”

This dis­play of data is ap­peal­ingly sim­ple on the watch and it’s dif­fi­cult to imag­ine be­com­ing bored with the danc­ing of the sub­dial’s hands. Plevey re­turns to his desk for a mo­ment and

comes back with a Hop­troff No.8. This is the watch that acts as a per­sonal as­sis­tant, synch­ing with the cal­en­dar on your smart­phone and in­di­cat­ing what you have sched­uled with a hand point­ing to a rel­e­vant let­ter dis­played on the legend be­low 12 o’clock. So it could be ‘D’ for doc­tor, or ‘M’ for meet­ing. The curved line of let­ters can ei­ther be the al­pha­bet or you can go be­spoke, choos­ing your own ana­gram, motto or pri­vate code.

Plevey ex­plains, “The watch looks at the di­ary in your phone, they agree a time to con­nect and it will hap­pen au­to­mat­i­cally, then the con­nec­tion will show what time your meet­ings are.”


Be­low 12 o’ clock on the dial the brand­ing reads, in Latin, Hop­troff Lon­dini. The watches will be con­sis­tently as­sem­bled in London but var­i­ous parts of the watches are sourced else­where. “Gen­er­ally ev­ery­thing in a Hop­troff watch is sourced in Europe for qual­ity rea­sons. We'll source parts from Europe but they will be made in the UK, and the de­sign is very Bri­tish… and of course all the added value of us two work­ing on them is Bri­tish.”

In keep­ing with the seam of Bri­tish her­itage, the move­ment of the No. 9 is called the Shake­speare, and there is also a Dick­ens move­ment, but Hop­troff says, “Be­tween us we call it the BF 801 10.” It doesn’t quite have the same grav­i­tas, but is tes­ta­ment to the amount of re­vi­sions and mod­i­fi­ca­tions each watch un­der­goes.


Hop­troff Watches not only raise the horo­log­i­cal bar in terms of func­tion­al­ity, but also in pi­o­neer­ing new meth­ods in de­sign and con­struc­tion. Sev­eral of the mod­els in the range have used Di­rect Metal Laser Sin­ter­ing (DMLS), more com­monly known as 3D Print­ing, for the con­struc­tion of the cases, mak­ing the brand the first com­mer­cial watch company to ex­plore and ul­ti­mately em­ploy Laser Sin­ter­ing. In fact this is the first time that so much gold has ever been Laser Sin­tered, and the re­sults are uniquely beau­ti­ful.

Work­ing with Birm­ing­ham-based company, Cook­songold, the watch cases are cre­ated by a process that fuses metal dust with a laser to cre­ate the 3D case layer by layer. The case emerges in­cre­men­tally as the 18-karat gold dust is fused to­gether in grad­ual suc­ces­sion.

Hop­troff tells me how the de­sign is very sim­i­lar to ar­chi­tec­ture, with a com­pa­ra­ble range of lim­i­ta­tions and con­sid­er­a­tions. The fi­nal de­sign for the cases was based on St Paul’s Cathe­dral in London and I’m told this was not only be­cause of the bril­liance of Christo­pher Wren’s master­piece but also as a de­lib­er­ate nod to the company’s foot­ing in the cap­i­tal.

“They look ev­ery inch like a clas­si­cal wrist­watch, but then they can be­have like a

mini com­puter.”

Turn­ing a freshly printed case around in my fin­gers, it’s as­ton­ish­ing to see the con­cen­tric pil­lars stand­ing proud of the case base in pre­cise align­ment. The Doric col­umns are so slen­der, that if you were deft of hand, you could thread a piece of cot­ton be­tween them all. The sam­ple I have in hand is still rough, but once pol­ished in the work­shop, the gold will speak to its full po­ten­tial.


With some­thing of a glint in his eye Hop­troff asks me if I’m ready to see the No.10. This is the Pièce de ré­sis­tance. The atomic pocket watch that Hop­troff con­ceived, de­signed, and built un­der the Pink Floyd-in­spired code name ‘Atom Heart Mother’.

Sit­ting around a cir­cu­lar ta­ble the No.10 is un­veiled. Not ex­actly a pocket watch per se – as you’d need a pretty huge waist­coat to house it, the time­piece is in­stantly im­pres­sive. In­cred­i­bly de­tailed and yet some­how crisp and un­clut­tered, the 28 sep­a­rate di­als on the No.10 mea­sure ev­ery­thing from the time and date to your lon­gi­tude, lat­i­tude and hu­mid­ity. It’s stag­ger­ing to think Hop­troff built it in just ten weeks.

Pow­er­ing the time­piece is in­deed an atom heart. This isn't ra­dio re­ceiv­ing, it ac­tu­ally holds the atomic com­po­nent and a mi­crowave oven. The move­ment con­tains a tiny cae­sium gas cham­ber inside the tem­per­a­ture-con­trolled oven, with a laser to ac­ti­vate the ra­dioac­tive atoms and a mi­crowave res­onator to mea­sure their atomic tran­si­tions – their half-life – in or­der to mea­sure time. This makes it the most ac­cu­rate por­ta­ble move­ment ever, los­ing one and a half seconds ev­ery thou­sand years – that's 240,000 times more ac­cu­rate than the clock inside Big Ben.

What in­spired Hop­troff to aim for the stars with such an ac­com­plish­ment? Aptly enough, it was from us­ing the stars as a guide whilst sail­ing. “The whole idea of this is fol­low­ing in the nav­i­ga­tional tra­di­tion of [ leg­endary clock­maker] Har­ri­son. About five years ago a friend of mine that was liv­ing in New York needed to sail his boat back to Europe. So I crewed with him, and a day out of Ber­muda we hit a bad gale and the au­topi­lot broke, so somebody had to be on the helm con­stantly. Wa­ter poured down the hatch and fused the elec­tri­cal sys­tem and we were wor­ried we might lose the GPS. So we got the sex­tant out and learned how to use it – and that led to this,” he says with a nod to the No.10.

But how does one go about sourc­ing atomic ma­te­rial and com­po­nents? They are not ex­actly the kind of things you find on ebay… although Hop­troff did ac­tu­ally check that.

“The his­tory of the atomic com­po­nent is that I was tak­ing somebody around the Royal Ob­ser­va­tory at Green­wich, and they have Har­ri­son's Sea Watch Num­ber 1 and things like that there. I was show­ing them all of this and then in the cor­ner they had a Hewlett-Packard rack­mounted atomic clock. That got me think­ing that one of the big­gest prob­lems we have in try­ing to achieve ac­cu­racy is that we need a rock-solid time source to mea­sure against, which is much harder than you would think. So I thought ‘I won­der if I can get one of those atomic clocks, maybe I can get one on ebay’.”

Hop­troff grins at the rec­ol­lec­tion of such a long­shot, and con­tin­ues, “You couldn't of course. The US Depart­ment of de­fence spent $100 mil­lion to de­velop a match­box-sized atomic clock, mostly for cruise mis­siles so that they con­tinue to nav­i­gate if the GPS is jammed. So I called up and said ‘Can I have some please?’ I thought I was go­ing to get turned down, but they are made for them by a company called Sym­met­ri­com, which is part of HP, and I was able to buy some.” (sub­ject to se­cu­rity clear­ances)

Born on the high seas, the No.10 would make an in­dis­pens­able nav­i­ga­tional aid for any proud owner. As Hop­troff ex­plains, in­di­cat­ing to one of the 28 di­als, “This dial is the most com­pli­cated and mea­sures lu­nar tran­sit, when the moon is high­est in the sky. It takes your lat­i­tude and lon­gi­tude and finds the clos­est port in an in­ter­nal ta­ble of 3000 ports world­wide, and it then gets the eight tidal har­mon­ics for that re­port and cal­cu­lates ex­actly, and I mean ex­actly, the tide height.”

I’m way out of my depth here, but I as­sume this is so you know if you can sail in to a har­bour or not, thus sav­ing time on the req­ui­site cal­cu­la­tions as you’re com­ing into port. Hop­troff de­tects through­out the demon­stra­tion that I haven’t com­pletely un­der­stood the me­chan­ics of the atomic func­tion­ing, and tries to clar­ify for me, “There is a laser in there to excite the elec­trons, and there is a mi­crowave res­onator to ex­tract the atomic tran­si­tions… so if you think a pen­du­lum ticks once a sec­ond, and a bal­ance spring ticks usu­ally 10 times a sec­ond, this is like four bil­lion bil­lion times a sec­ond.”

Some­what over­whelmed by the facts, I nod. The physics may be daunt­ing, but what is crys­tal clear is that the No.10 is a peer­less cre­ation. As the first time­piece to be reg­u­lated – not by a bal­ance spring, a pen­du­lum or quartz, but by its own atomic clock – the No.10 sets new ac­cu­racy records thou­sands of times higher than its ri­vals, and in do­ing so as­sumes a well-earned place in the his­tory of horol­ogy.

“The watch looks at the di­ary in your phone, they agree a time to con­nect and it will hap­pen au­to­mat­i­cally, then the con­nec­tion will show

what time your meet­ings are.”

T h e a t o m i c h e a r t o f t h e N o .10 .

R i c hard H o p tro f f.

T he 3 D c a s e a f ter pol­ish­ing in H o p tro f f ' s wor k s ho p.

3 D p r i n ted wat c h c a s e i n s p i red b y St . Pa u l ' s Cathe­dra l.

T he or g a n i s e d c hao s o f R i c har d H o p tro f f ' s wor k b e n c h .

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