Q: Who Was Alfred Helwig? A: Inventor Of The Flying Tourbillon
Abraham-Louis Breguet created a milestone in the history of watchmaking when he invented the tourbillon around 1781, protecting his invention with a French patent in 1801. Compensating for a pocket watch’s deviation in rate caused by gravity, he housed the balance and escapement in a delicate cage that rotated 360 degrees on its axis every 60 seconds to compensate for the rate difference in different positions and better distribute lubrication oil.
Close to 120 years later, a “flying” variation of the tourbillon was created at the German School of Watchmaking in Glashütte under the tutelage of master watchmaker Alfred Helwig (1886-1974).
Helwig attended the German School of Watchmaking in Glashütte, graduating in 1905. From 1906 he worked at Glashütte’s Präzisions-Uhren-Fabrik (which later became Urofa) and from 1908 at Hamburger Chronometerwerke (part of Wempe). In 1911, having returned to Glashütte, he became a teacher at the school and simultaneously opened his own workshop.
As a teacher and ever-curious and motivated watchmaker, Helwig continued to research the art of horology, specializing in fine adjustment and tourbillons. In 1920, together with several of his students studying to become master watchmakers, he produced a flying tourbillon that did not require a top supporting bridge.
This didn’t come out of the blue: after Breguet’s ten-year era of being the sole user until his patent expired, the tourbillon was manufactured and investigated in Switzerland, England, and Germany. The latter was unexpectedly rife with experimentation: Friedrich Vetterlein put a chain and fusée in a tourbillon movement in 1905, and Bruno Reichert added a planetary gear in 1921. Vetterlein’s work allowed Helwig to continue the development process and evolve the tourbillon to the point of “flying.”
The difference between a “normal” and a “flying” tourbillon is that the cage containing the balance and escapement is cantilevered, meaning supported on one side only, a principle Helwig invented to better the tourbillon’s rate.
A serendipitous side effect of the flying tourbillon architecture is that the lack of a top supporting bridge offers an unimpeded view into the continually rotating escapement.
From 1937 Helwig was moved to research and development, thereby ending his teaching career, though along the way he wrote Die Feinstellung der Uhren, which was only published in 1950 due to World War II and its aftereffects, among other technical books on watchmaking and the teaching of watchmaking.
The flying tourbillon became somewhat characteristic of Glashütte and lives on in very special watches today, including Glashütte Original’s Senator Chronometer Tourbillon introduced in 2019.
Today the historical German School of Watchmaking in Glashütte building is used as a modern museum for the city’s watchmaking industry rather than an educational institution. The in-house watchmaking school at Glashütte Original now bears Helwig’s name: the Alfred Helwig School of Watchmaking.
Original flying tourbillon model by Alfred Helwig from 1927
The German Watch Museum Glashütte acquired an original flying tourbillon model (German: Gangmodell) at the auction of Professor Thomas Engel’s watch collection by Antiquorum in 2001. Alfred Helwig had made it at the German School of Watchmaking in Glashütte in 1927.
Engel was a celebrated chemist who became well known for his work in polymer research. He was also an autodidact watchmaker and avid watch collector.
The 21 cm model demonstrates the way the flying tourbillon that Helwig invented works. Showing the otherwise tiny mechanism in a large, very visible version, this teaching aid possesses a charm all its own. Watchmakers at Glashütte Original used to manufacture these models on request until the Swatch Group takeover of the brand in 2000.
The German Watch Museum Glashütte also has other items by Helwig on exhibit, such as a lovely gold pocket watch he made for his mother in 1905.
On July 5, 2011, the museum opened a special exhibit called “Alfred Helwig – His Life and Effect on the Art of Watchmaking” in honor of the anniversary of his 125th birthday. It ran until October of that year.
Even though that particular exhibition is long over, the museum still has many items on show by Alfred Helwig that Glashütte can – and will – never forget.