John Wright

Earliest American Watch

John Wright was one of the first clock & watchmakers in America sailing from Liverpool England to New York in about 1711. This watch, circa 1715-1720, features a rare automation dial. It surfaced in a New Hampshire auction for the first time in 2010. How it escaped notice for the last 300 years is a complete mystery, but its existence evidences that the transatlantic Liverpool to America watch trade was taking place much earlier than previously thought. An extensive article was published in 2014, John Wright and the Discovery of America's Oldest Watch.

The movement was likely imported from Liverpool in an unfinished state and finished by Wright in New York, but that can not be determined with certainty. If so, the supplier most likely was relative Richard Wright who worked in Cronton (England) near Prescot. A very rare account book from Richard Wright survives that shows that he provided finished and unfinished movements to makers in London. There is also a single but undated entry that mentions cutting wheels for a "John Wright".

John Wright Pocket Watch

Silver Balance Cock

The gilded 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 on the back of the watch to protect the hairspring is made of silver.

The Oldest American Watch

The silver champlevé dial, signed "Wright New York", was likely fabricated in New York City. It is very unusually convex (the center is about 2mm higher than the edge). It was likely made that way to fit the movement into a case that was not quite the right depth to accommodate the wonderful sun & moon automation wheels that are directly beneath the dial.

Sun and moon watches first appeared in the last quarter of the 17th century in England and the Netherlands, after the invention of the spiral balance spring in 1657 made accurate timekeeping possible and makers began experimenting with ways to indicate the passing of both hours and minutes on a watch dial. The concept is to differentiate daytime from nighttime hours by displaying a rotating sun or moon that points to the hour. The single hand attached at the center points to the minutes.

Sun & Moon Pocket Watch

Sun & Moon Dial

Liverpool Watch Trade

WL Case Mark for William Laithewaite

The silver pair cases have a maker’s mark of “WL” with a coronet above that was made by William Laithewaite of Liverpool. The silver alloy is below the Sterling standard and gives evidences to the export of substandard wares to America to earn more profit.

This watch was exhibited at the American Clock and Watch Museum, Bristol, Connecticut in 2014.

Only three American signed watches from the first half of the 18th century have been recorded. The two others are signed Samuel Bagnall (1741-42) and Peter Stretch (circa 1735). This watch, signed by John Wright in New York is the oldest known American watch, circa 1715-20.

Oldest American Watch

Additional References and recommended reading:

  • James Gibbs, Who Was America's First Watchmaker, NAWCC 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