The flying tourbillon has become, if not common, at least a recognizable mainstay of modern watchmaking. A tourbillon, you’ll recall, is a rotating cage or carriage, on which are mounted the regulating organs of the watch: the balance, balance spring, lever, and escape wheel (or other escapement components if a different escapement is being used; there are tourbillons with chronometer detent escapements, for instance).
The tourbillon was patented by Abraham Louis Breguet in 1801, although he appears to have been mulling the idea over in the years preceding the patent. The basic idea behind the tourbillon was to address the problem of the effect of gravity on the rate of the watch in different positions, especially the vertical positions. Breguet’s thought was that if you put the regulating organs in a rotating cage, you would get a single average rate in all the vertical positions; you then would only have to adjust the rate in the flat positions to match that average and, at least theoretically, you should have a perfect timekeeper. Although people have been debating whether this works in practice almost since the invention of the tourbillon, it is theoretically sound, and for most of the history of the tourbillon, they were very rare, very difficult to make, and very, very expensive.
There have been many variations on Breguet’s initial invention in the last 200 years, but one of the most important was the flying tourbillon, in which the upper tourbillon bridge is absent. The flying tourbillon, as we know it today, was invented by Alfred Helwig at the watchmaking school in Glashütte in 1920, but the idea of having a rotating platform for the regulating organs, with no upper bridge, goes back a bit further. HODINKEE Editor-in-Chief Jack Forster took a look at the genesis of the idea back in 2018, and if you missed it the first time, there might be a few surprises in store for you.