Review: A. Lange & Söhne Datograph Perpetual
It doesn’t take much looking to find a sizable group of people who claim that the moon landings never happened. They believe the historic moment when Neil Armstrong first set foot on that grey, powdery surface was faked. If you find yourself erring towards that mindset, then I want you to take a closer look at something that just might sway you: the A. Lange & Söhne Datograph Perpetual.
To be frank, it’s not hard to see why some might be sceptical about the moon landings: when Kennedy first announced to the world that America would be touching down on the moon before the decade was up, NASA had amassed a grand total of 20 minutes’ manned space flight. Just eight short years later, and the crew of Apollo 11 had supposedly travelled some 380,000km atop a 110m-high missile brimmed with 3.5 million litres of fuel, just to spend a few hours jumping around and digging a few small holes.
If it’s to be believed, it’s a feat of extraordinary human achievement. But then so is this, the A. Lange & Söhne Datograph Perpetual. It may not have travelled far from its Saxony birthplace, or had lives risked in its undertaking—but it goes a long, long way in demonstrating the capabilities of the human mind.
The Datograph Perpetual may hail from 2015, but the technology behind it traces its roots back to way, way before NASA—or even the United States of America—even existed. The first clocks, built in the 7th century, were crude, harnessing the power of flowing water to measure the passage of time, but by the 11th century, these simplistic machines had evolved into complex mechanisms that could decode the movement of the heavenly bodies.
The 19th century had barely begun when Norwegian Rasmus Sørnes built the most complicated mechanical astronomical clock ever made. Standing at an intimidating two metres high, it displayed the zodiac positions of the sun and the moon, the Julian calendar, the Gregorian calendar, sidereal time, daylight saving, eclipses, sunset and sunrise, tides, sunspot cycles and a full planetarium—including Pluto’s 248-year orbit.
To think, then, that this Datograph Perpetual, measuring in at just 41mm in diameter and 13.5mm in thickness—that’s less than a Rolex Sky-Dweller in both directions—can achieve what it does in such a tiny package, using the same techniques and technology that have been used for centuries.
If you’re ever presented with the chance to see a Saturn V rocket for yourself, you should take it. There’s a particular feeling you get when you stand in its presence, taking in the sheer scale of the thing. Even still and quiet, the F-1 rocket engines, capable of drowning out your hi-fi from 10km away, are utterly awe-inspiring to behold.
That feeling, that awe, is the same with the Datograph Perpetual. It’s packaged in a very compact, clinical way, abandoning the flourishes favoured by the likes of Patek Philippe for a more utilitarian approach that’s executed to micron precision. Like the Saturn V, every detail here has been meticulously considered, from the scaling numbers around the tachymeter ring to the recessed sub-dials and the further recessed sub-sub-dials within them.
At an RRP of over £100,000, it’s far from cheap—but then the pursuit of perfection never is. It flows through this watch, saturating every inch of it, from the way it looks all the way through to the experience of using it. The outsized date, for example, isn’t changed by finding the fiddly first position on the crown—there’s just the one adjustment point, which activates the pusher at ten o’clock, which changes the date with a light yet precise action.
Then there’s the chronograph, again activated by pushers that—thanks to the slotted column wheel—are neither too resistant nor too vague, spinning the central second hand at five beats per second. When it comes time to reset, you’ll discover that the chronograph is a flyback, a press of the lower pusher sending the running second hand back to zero, the release allowing it to start again for pinpoint accuracy.
Accuracy is the theme of this watch; even the chronograph minute hand is executed without slack. As the second hand finishes its loop, arcing around 12, the minute hand, rather than pre-empting its change and slowly gliding to the next index, it jumps on cue, not a moment before nor a moment after, thanks to a ratchet system that converts the movement’s constant rotation into an instantaneous switch.
But the crowning achievement of the Datograph Perpetual is still to come: like the astronomical clocks, this watch is capable of tracking the calendar, including the fine details such as night and day, days of the week, moon phases, month lengths—even leap years. That means once the movement is wound and the date is set, it doesn’t need to be set again.
All this is achieved across the 556 parts of the calibre L952.1, a maze of wheels and levers so complex that it’s hard to get around the fact that it’s based on mechanisms designed long before computers ever existed. It’s so complex that, like the Saturn V, which could guzzle 20 tons of fuel per second, it uses up 72 hours of power reserve in just 36. That this volume of hand-crafted parts can all fit into this tiny space and not only work, but work reliably in a day-to-day environment is scarcely believable.
When Kennedy promised his country that they would be the first on the moon, it seemed like an impossibility, but the incredible minds of the thousands of NASA employees tasked with this monumental undertaking made it happen. The Datograph Perpetual is, on paper, equally difficult to understand, the complexity and precision seemingly far beyond what any mortal mind can possibly comprehend, let alone create. Yet here it is, real and tangible, undisputable. And if you can’t dispute that, then maybe there are some other achievements masterminded by the squidgy flesh and bone sacks that populate this planet that can’t be disputed either.
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