John Wright

This is the earliest known American watch, circa 1715-1720.

John Wright was one of the first watchmakers in the American colonies sailing from Liverpool, England to colonial New York in 1711 or perhaps a bit earlier. Before coming to America, he may have apprenticed for William Winstanly of Liverpool and was likely related to Richard Wright, a known Lancashire supplier of watch movements, who may have acted as Wright's transatlantic supplier and intermediary in England. Wright retired between 1754 and 1758, and died in 1768, after a long and very prosperous career that included a sixteen year relationship with the City of New York to wind and maintain the most important timekeeper in the City, the tower clock in the City Hall cupola at Nassau and Wall Streets that was built in America in 1716.
John Wright Watch
John Wright Watch

John Wright
(no number)
New York
1720 Est.
Description: The movement has a verge escapement, fusee and chain, and worm setup between the plates that are all characteristic of the period. The pierced and engraved balance table is made of silver and decorated with a large mask. The champlevé dial is unusually convex, the center is about 2mm higher than the edge. It is made of silver and features a rare sun and moon automation and subsidiary seconds dial. The dial and movement are both signed. The watch is wound with a key through the back of the inner silver pair case.

Sun and moon dials first appeared in the last quarter of the 17th century in England, after the invention of the balance spring made accurate timekeeping in watches possible and makers began experimenting with ways to indicate the passing of both hours and minutes on the watch dial. The concept is to differentiate daytime from nighttime hours by displaying either a sun or a moon to point to the hour. The automation is accomplished by a rotating 24-hour disk located under the silver champlevé dial that displays 180 degrees of a daytime sky with clouds and a sun pointer (as shown in the photograph pointing to the Roman numeral III), or 180 degrees of a nighttime sky with stars and a moon pointer. The John Wright watch also features a subsidiary seconds dial that is very rarely seen on timekeepers this old and nicely balances out the overall design.

The silver pair cases have a maker’s mark of “WL” with a coronet above that is likely William Laithewaite who became free in Liverpool in 1692. 

John Wright Watch

Little information was known about this important clock and watchmaker until this watch surfaced in New Hampshire in 2010 sparking research. How it escaped notice for the last 300 years is a complete mystery. The discovery of this watch is historically important not only because it is the earliest colonial American watch known, but it also evidences that colonial watchmaking and the transatlantic watch trade between Liverpool and America was taking place significantly earlier than previously thought.

This watch was on exhibit at the American Clock and Watch Museum (Bristol, Connecticut), in 2014.

America's oldest surviving watch, published in the March/April 2014 edition of the NAWCC Watch & Clock Bulletin:

References and recommended reading:
  • James Gibbs, Who Was America's First WatchmakerNAWCC Watch & Clock Bulletin, No. 185 (December, 1976), pp. 556-565
  • R.J. Griffiths, The Early Watchmakers of Toxteth Park Near Liverpool, Antiquarian Horology, Vol. 27 (2002), pp. 163-178
  • J. R. Harris, Liverpool and Merseyside, Frank Cass & Co. LTD, 1969
  • Dr. Robert Kemp, Watch Movement Making in Prescot, Antiquarian Horology, Vol. 13 (1981), pp. 77-81
  • Richard Newman, New York Colonial Watchmaker John Wright and the Discovery of America's Oldest Watch, NAWCC Watch & Clock Bulletin, No. 408 (March/April, 2014), pp. 115-126
  • Alan Smith, An Early 18th Century Watchmaker’s Notebook, Richard Wright of Cronton and the Lancashire-London Connection, Antiquarian Horology Vol. 15/6, 1985, p. 605-625
  • A. A. Treherne, The Contribution of South-West Lancashire to Horology, Antiquarian Horology, Vol. 31 (2011), pp. 457-476