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
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
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.
THE MASTERPIECE – No.10
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 .