Gearbox, Watch Movements, and Reverse Gears

Gearbox, Watch Movements, and Reverse Gears

How did I conflate a gearbox with watch movements and zero in on the reverse gear?

It is a little know fact that I studied engineering at university, but I would never claim to be an engineer.  I have never used my formal education in a professional arena. There have just been too many other intriguing opportunities to explore and submit to a traditional professional path.  There was a time when this lack of discipline worried me, but I realized that I would be a terrible engineer, and it is just as well I took a different path. I eventually discovered that I was not alone, a large band of people with a similar lack of respect for structures. We are generally unqualified to do anything but determined to follow our calling, whatever that may be. Who is that band of misfits?  I call them entrepreneurs.

Impossible Without The Fundamentals

That is not to say that my formal education was useless; it is quite the contrary. There are many fundamental learnings from that course that I have applied extensively through many different situations. These have kept me out of trouble on more than one occasion and have been the key to my successes. When I look back on the period I laid the foundations for this approach; I have some vivid recollections.  My first year or two studying engineering felt more like an applied mathematics course. This then moved into a period where I recall being perpetually flummoxed by crystallography classes. This is the science behind the way atoms and molecules stack up to create homogenous materials with various physical properties. 

How Do You Know If You Understand?

There was one constant through all four years of study, and it was introduced to our band of seven student engineers from our first term. I have come to love and embrace the more I understand how powerful it is.  It was first introduced to me early in the first term of my first year during a rotational dynamics tutorial. This is quite apt as rotational dynamics are vital for the accuracy of watches.  These golden words were:

“If you do not understand it from first principals, you do not understand it.”

In the environment of this tutorial, these words were easily understood.  The tutor pointed out that if we could not derive the mathematical formula for a spinning body of various shapes from fundamental principles (Newton’s Laws), we could not understand the subject matter.  It was also delivered as a warning to a new engineering student not to rely on formulae from the books. Without a full grasp of the fundamentals, there can be catastrophic consequences because certain assumptions or simplifications are inevitably made in developing the equations.  Suppose these assumptions and simplifications are not accurate? In that case, unseen errors can arise, leading to catastrophic results, or if you were lucky, you would merely be held up for ridicule.

watch movement in its transport case from the manufacturer
A watch movement has the same principle functional units as a car power train – they just happen to operate at a different scale.

Understanding From First Principals

It took me a while to embrace this new approach to problem-solving. The biggest issue I had as a young man was this new approach required more work that inevitably would mean less time for other, more entertaining pursuits. I could not just pull the equation out of the textbook and plug in the numbers, but I had to distill the problem to identify the correct physical law to apply and then derive the solution from there. Initially, it seemed like a waste of time, but after some practice, I started to become better at it, or at least I thought I was getting better at it. 

The Mantra Grows

When our band of budding engineers returned from the Easter holidays for the run-up to our first-year exams, we were all reciting the mantra.  Even on the way into our first-year exams, one of my fellow students wryly commented to me, “if you don’t understand it from first principles,” and I replied, “you do not understand it.” 

This approach was now thoroughly ingrained in everything I did in my engineering course.  I found that the framework for solving problems was not more time-consuming; it was a much easier and flexible approach to every engineering problem I faced. There was a structure to approach every situation, and my problem-solving skills improved over the following three years.  Looking back, I am unsure if my problem-solving improved or I was becoming more adept at applying this framework to a broader array of problems.  The key was always to distill the problem to first principles before implementing any attempt at a solution.

The Framework Is Applied Everywhere

At the end of a four-year engineering degree, the single biggest asset I had, although I did not know it at the time, was this framework for approaching problems. This framework is how I went out into the world as a young man, exploring opportunities and seeking to make a living.  In the early years, straight out of university, I had plenty of opportunities to put it to the test; I was faced with many issues to address.  The first step was to define the problem and then look for the principles that would define the potential outcomes.  This was easier said than done in the early 1990’s – I would spend a lot of time in bookstores.  Problems of a physical nature were always easier for me to resolve than those of a more people-oriented perspective in those early days.  

This simple framework kept me out of trouble and, in a few cases, excel.  Some of my favorites, in no particular order, are:

  • Avoiding the collapse and liquidity hole of trying to trade the volatility around the Japanese bank preference shares from the mid-1990s.
  • Materially reducing the energy consumption of a hotel made from reinforced concrete in Japan. Hint, the sun is the most significant source of energy.
  • It seems obvious when seeking to understand a law or regulation that always read the text, but I have seen so many people get into trouble relying on hearsay or following the crowd. This was particularly useful in Japan when dealing with some particularly thorny employment issues.

Confidence From The Fundamentals 

The list could go on.  That little mantra is always in my head when exploring a new area or even going over some old turf.  “Have I found the fundamental principles that govern this situation?” is the question I am seeking to answer.  It is sometimes difficult to be sure that you have defined the fundamentals correctly in a complicated world, so questioning is vital.  Especially in these days of soundbite news and unseen financial incentives for many in the public eye – but that is another story.

Back To Watches

So, this is what was going on over a few bottles of wine in a bar in the Wan Chai District of Hong Kong.  Daniel was my source of knowledge as I peppered him with questions about mechanical watches and how they worked; I was looking to understand them from first principles. We had gone through all the main functional assemblies of the watch – the mainspring, the gear train to the escapement, and finally, the timing gears.  

My questioning was just pure curiosity, but I could not help myself, the framework is ingrained, so I naturally started to break it down into fundamental pieces.  It seemed simple enough; there is a storage of potential energy, a mechanism to transform it into kinetic energy, and finally, a means to moderate the kinetic energy into the desired function or work.

four-speed gearbox with reverse gear with the case cut away
A four-speed gearbox with reverse gear.  The gearbox is there to transform the raw kinetic energy from the engine into useful work. CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Watches & Cars

In my head, that is the description of a car propulsion system.  As you can imagine, any mechanical or engineering course will spend some time modeling the piston action of an internal combustion engine and the gears to propel a car.  That is the reason this particular example sprang to mind.  It is also the most apparent power system in the world today.

So how are these areas consistent between a mechanical watch and a car power train?  


Potential Energy

Potential Energy To Kinetic Energy

Transform Kinetic Energy into Useful Work


Energy Stored In A Coiled Spring

Gear train to the escapement 

Timing wheels

Classic Engine

Energy stored in the fuel tank

Internal combustion engine


Electric Car

Energy stored in the batteries

Electric motors

Electronic control system

I have added an electric car, too, just in case someone out there doubts that the same fundamental processes are in action in an electric vehicle.

But what was it that took me to look at the gearbox in so much detail and seek out the anomaly between the watch gearbox and that in the car?  Well, that is easy.  Once I have a model for understanding the principles of a given situation, the next step is to try and break that model to ensure that it is valid.  The one item that sprang out at me was the lack of reverse gear in a mechanical watch.

Did it break the model?  No.  But it sure is an exciting anomaly that has opened up a whole new way to display time.  If you are interested in exploring the possibilities for a customized watch, assembled for you, then please contact us HERE and arrange a personal consultation.

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Comparison Ohi2 vs. Ohi4

The OHI movements, or One Hand Indication, are unique to SNGLRTY. During the development phase of the watches Daniel and Steve used this moniker before naming it SNGLRTY. There are two distinctive movements to choose from, OHI-2 and OHI-4.

The OHI-4 movement is built on the Decorated and Fully Adjusted SW-300 tractor movement from Sellita. On top of the tractor movement the SNGLRTY complication plate is assembled and incorporates the “reverse minute gearbox” that is available exclusively from SNGLRTY. Depending on your selection, the complication plate will also relocate the date wheel from the top of the tractor movement to the top of the complication plate. Relocating it in this manner increases the size of the date disc and moves it closer to the top of the watch face improving its readability considerably.
The OHI-2 movement is the same as the OHI-4 movement except that it is built on a standard execution Sellita SW-200 movement.

Finally, depending on the movement you select the watch case will have a different profile as the OHI-4 movement is thinner than the OHI-2 movement. The key differences are that the case for the OHI-4 movement has a double domed crystal and a flat caseback. The OHI-2 case has a flat crystal and a curved caseback. All the details are in the product page.