John Cairns advertised in the Providence Gazette in 1800 that he made verge watches for $25 that were warranted for two years. By some accounts, he "was the only man of his time who made watches entire" (Moore, 154). Cairns, like Thomas Harland, Luther Goddard and others, made watches similar in appearance to London-made fusee watches with verge escapements. He died of accidental drowning in 1809 and his estate included a large inventory of watchmaking tools and supplies including an unfinished movement. Interestingly, Cairns may have been Luther Goddard's mentor; upon Cairns death in 1809, Goddard buys his tools and equipment and proceeds to capitalize on the Jefferson Embargo as war with England looms (until repealed in 1815) becoming the first to make watches of significant quantity in America.

John Cairns was the subject of an extensive article in 2002 by David Cooper that evidenced his manufacture of watches in Providence, Rhode Island
(Cooper, 26). How many watches Cairns made in total is not known. Since the publication of Cooper's article, two additional surviving examples have become known for a total of three. All are believed to have his unique ratchet system in the fusee assembly that Goddard later copied. Two watches by John Cairns are pictured on this page, the first is the watch in Cooper's article. These are rare examples of watches made in America in the late 18th century. Cooper additionally writes:
 
..he more than likely engraved the plates, pierced the balance table, spoked out and mounted the wheels to arbors, which he made from pinion wire... He assembled the plates and pillars, had them gilded, planted the wheels, adjusted the escapement, and cased the watch. I do not think that he cut his wheels or fusee, but he did make the ratchet wheel spring and click mounting. The balance, staff, chain, and mainspring are English, as was the dial and most likely the hands, together with the rest of the materials used.

 
John Cairns Watch
 
John Cairns Watch

Maker:
Number:
City:
Date:
John Cairns
No number (a "5" is engraved on the inside dial plate)
Providence
1795-1800 est.
Description: Fusee movement with a verge escapement and round pillars. Fairly simple engraving and piercing on the balance table and back plate. The fusee assembly has a unique ratchet system that appears to be Cairne's own design. Silver pair cases are unmarked on this example (see maker mark on second Cairns watch below). The silver alloy content of the pair cases is approximately 89%, which is well below the 92.5% English sterling standard at the time.
 
John Cairns
 
John Cairns

Maker:
Number:
City:
Date:
John Cairns (second example)
No number
Providence
1795-1800 est.
Description: Neither of these American-made watches have serial numbers, but this second example seems to be earlier judging from the plain engraving on the back plate. The construction is remarkably similar, and this example also has the same unique ratchet system within the fusee assembly that additionally evidences work performed by Cairns in Providence. The silver pair cases on this second example are thankfully marked. The inner case has only a maker mark for Sanders (Saunders) Pitman who worked next door to Cairns in Providence. Sanders Pitman was in Providence by 1755 and partnered briefly with Seril Dodge in 1793, the same man that apprenticed for the clock and watchmaker Thomas Harland in Norwich, Connecticut. Pitman died in 1804. The silver alloy content is 92.01%, quite close to the sterling standard of 92.5%. The replaced outer case has London assay and date marks for 1797 and unfortunately has a rectangular warn-through hole where the makers' mark would be.

John Cairns




References and recommended reading:
  • David Cooper, John Cairns (1751-1809) and Other Early American Watchmakers, NAWCC Watch & Clock Bulletin, No. 336, (February, 2002), pp. 26-38
  • J. Carter Harris, The Clock and Watch Makers American Advertiser, Sussex, UK, Antiquarian Horological Society, 2003, p.54
  • Hudson Moore, The Old Clock Book, Tudor Publishing, New York, 1936
  • Sara Steiner, Excerpts from Mechanics’ Festival, Rhode Island, NAWCC Watch & Clock Bulletin, No. 227, 1983