BOOK REVIEW: Disrupting Time

BOOK REVIEW: Disrupting Time

Have you ever heard of Jacques David or Theophilus (Theo) Gribi? What about Ambrose Webster?

They were the key protagonists in the fascinating story of industrial espionage and spying that changed the course of the global watch industry forever. 

Intrigued and want to know more? Then you should definitely read Disrupting Time, which is the first time the full story of the remarkable events that took place at the Centennial Exhibition of 1876 pitting the Waltham Watch Company against the Swiss watch industry. 

Waltham Watch Company exhibit at the 1876 Philadelphia exhibition

The Centennial Exhibition of 1876 took place in Philadelphia and was the first official World’s Fair to be held in the United States, celebrating the 100th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence in Philadelphia. Almost 10 million visitors attended the exposition, and 37 countries participated in it.

By the second half of the nineteenth century, the Waltham Watch Company transformed the entire global watch industry by introducing modern production, marketing, and sales techniques to an otherwise artisanal way of working. 

It was during the Exhibition that Waltham demonstrated the new machinery that powered the production of watchmaking that made the world ‘sit up and take notice’. 

Perhaps, one of the most ‘disturbing’ machines (according to Theo Gribi, a judge at the World’s Fair from Switzerland), was Waltham’s proprietary automatic screw-making machine. The robot-like machine could produce a tiny screw every five seconds. That equates to around 10,200 per day. 

He realised that having this type of technology could be a ‘game changer’ and impact negatively on the Swiss watchmaking industry. He also witnessed another noteworthy aspect of Waltham’s exhibit, namely the overwhelming presence of women employees. 

It was clear that the capabilities and appearance of the Waltham exhibit were no accident. What the Swiss delegation quickly recognised was the potentially dire situation for the Swiss watch industry. 

The backdrop leading up to the 1876 Exhibition covers the period known as The Panic of 1873, which resulted in a global depression, the worst of which was between 1873 to 1879. Exports of Swiss watches declined suddenly from 366,000 in 1872 to 75,000 by 1876. During this time Waltham was making huge technological advances and growing. 

It was at this time that the Swiss watchmakers’ professional society decided to send an expert to join Theo Gribi. This expert was Jacques David, (who became the technical director of Longines). He had specific instructions to “make a serious and detailed report of the organisation, tools, financial situation and in general any other aspect of American watch factories.”

Basically, he was being asked to become a spy for the Swiss watch industry, or more formally, the Intercantonal Society of Jura Industries (SIIJ). He was an excellent candidate, as he was an early advocate of using machines to produce watches and served as an engineer, making him a natural and convenient choice.

Ultimately, Gribi and David were charged by their fellow Swiss watchmakers to acquire the secrets of America’s technology sector – the American watch industry. 

They used classic espionage techniques, including disguises, recruitment of ‘agents’ (such as Ambrose Webster) which culminated in a 130-page report which remained out of public view for over 125-years. 

This is an excellent account of the remarkable events that took place in a time of great industrial change, driven by the cunning of spies, visionary business leaders and the choices that put the Swiss and American watch industries on opposite trajectories. 

The one question remains…

Who was Ambrose Webster, and what part did he play in helping to revolutionise the Swiss watch industry. 

You will need to read this brilliant book to find out.

Disrupting Time; Author: Aaron Stark; Independently Published; Number of pages: 247; Published December 9th 2022; HardcoverISBN 979-8367606577; £19.90

To purchase this book please visit Amazon

Audible version available here

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