Probus Scafusia: Timeless river, timely man

There is an old saying (so old that no one knows for sure who coined it) that “in business the three most important factors are: location, location, location”.

Making the best of where one is remains a constant challenge, but as any resident of a metropolis like London, New York or Tokyo would attest where you live does change your opportunities, perspective and reputation.

As followers of my blog are aware, yours truly is a Canadian ex-pat residing in a wee village by the Lake of Constance in Switzerland.

In my most cynical moments, I blame my location for my circumstances.

In my most determined moments, I seek a way to profit from where I am.

In the spirit of determination I have engaged on a long-term project to slowly explore Switzerland from one compass extreme to the another.

As part of this Four Points Project, I also examine, not just the wonders and attractions of a place, but as well some of the social issues that affect it.

Thus I have spent weeks travelling back and forth to the cantonal capital Schaffhausen.

(For financial and time reasons the project is, at present, a free-time project.)

I write about what personal discoveries I make (The Little Shop of Ethics), treatment of minorities (Tough to be the Chosen), some characters (Sweet Caroline and the Candy Man)(Do we need another hero?), how death is dealt with (Memento mori), how poverty is handled (Talkin’ about a Revolution) and what business makes a community thrive(Follow the money, Dennis) and a place’s most dramatic moments. (Oops! Did we do that?)

There are various images people associate with Switzerland: cheese, chocolate and watches…

“What business should I invest my money in?”, Lebanese-born Nicholas Hayek (“Mister Swatch”)asked Peter Gross, a Swiss banker, in 1984.

Gross’ answer was: “In the watch industry.”

The Swiss watch industry is a microcosm of Europe’s skilled engineering sector.

Founded on a combination of personal vision, cheap power, cheap labour and intellectual freedom, Swiss clockmakers and watchmakers flourished to the point where for almost two centuries they shaped and finally dominated the global market for mechanical timepieces, from the cheap and functional to the exquisite and stratospherically priced.

By the mid-20th century, the exclusive mark of a quality mark was the words “Swiss made” on its face.”

(James Breiding, Swiss Made: The Untold Story behind Switzerland’s Success)

The Rhine (German: Rhein; French: Rhin; Dutch: Rijn) is a European river that begins in the Swiss canton of Graubünden in the southeastern Swiss Alps, forms part of the Swiss-Austrian, Swiss- Liechtenstein border, Swiss-German and then the Franco-German border, then flows through the Rhineland and eventually empties into the North Sea in the Netherlands.

It is the second longest river in Central and Western Europe (after the Danube), at about 1,230 km (760 mi), with an average discharge of about 2,900 m3/s (100,000 cu ft/s).

An historic river, separating Rome from barbarians, producing great poetry, paintings and music from artists, dividing and uniting European rivals.

A truly mighty river capable of generating power to those clever and brave enough to harness her power…

Watches…the Rhine…Schaffhausen…

Let´s bring this all together…

A name that one encounters again and again when wandering the streets of Schaffhausen is Heinrich Moser (1805 – 1874).

At the edge of a small park, Mosergarten, opposite the City Library is a small bronze bust here in honour of good ol’ Heinrich.

The street bounding the park to the north is named Moserstrasse.

A power station across the Rhine was the site of the Moser Dam, completed 1863 to 1866, at the time the biggest hydro-power station in Switzerland.

By the power station is a statue of a strong youth, on his knees, his outstretched left arm pointing towards the river flowing by and his right arm raised high in supplication to the heavens, serving as an allegory of Moser’s determination to tame the Rhine.

Looking up over the power station dam and the cable bridge of the N4 motorway, you can see the neo-Renaissance castle-villa Charlottenfels, which Moser had built to his own design between 1850 and 1854 in honour of his wife Charlotte Mayu, and today is an agricultural school and a private museum set up by the Heinrich and Henri Moser Foundation with visits possible by appointment only.

Without him the Rhine might never have been tamed.

Without him today Schaffhausen might now be part of another canton or at the very least be the Appalachia, the “poor prodigal” of Switzerland.

Without him a great Swiss watchmaking company might not exist.

The Swiss watchmaking industry had relatively humble beginnings.

There had been clockmakers in Switzerland since the invention of the mechanical timepiece in the 14th century, often drawing their skills from the existing professions of blacksmith and gunsmith.

At first these craftsmen made large clocks, mostly for church towers and city gates.

As skills grew, ever smaller clocks were produced.

Before long Gothic iron clocks decorated the homes of the rich and powerful, while cabinetmakers and carpenters developed cheaper variants made from wood.

Until the late 16th century Switzerland was just one of many countries that just happened to produce timepieces.

Anti-Protestant persecution in France changed everything.

In August 1572, 20,000 Huguenots (French Protestants) were butchered in Paris in what became known as the Massacre of St. Bartolomew’s Day.

The Edict of Fontainebleau, issued 13 April 1598, ordered the destruction of Huguenot churches and the closing of Protestant schools and deprived the Huguenots of all their rights.

Huguenots fled the violence and settled in Switzerland, which was a stroke of luck for the fledgling Swiss industrial economy as the Huguenots brought with them a number of valuable attributes:

– They were eager to work hard and improve their living standards.

– They were skilled artisans, dedicated to their trade.

– They were a clan with intricate and extensive networks in the major European trading centres, including Glasgow, London, Naples and Paris.

Many of the Swiss watch, textile and pharmaceutical giants of today owe their heritage to the Huguenot migration.

Many sought safety in Geneva.

The city was staunchly Calvinist.

Goldsmiths were forbidden to make jewellery, so many of them switched to making cases for clocks, which was acceptable to Calvinists as clocks had a practical value.

Before long, though, an oversupply of clockmaking skills led to strains.

In 1610 the first clockmakers’ guild was set up in Geneva.

Its strict rules of admission forced many to leave the city and try their luck elsewhere.

In the town of Le Loche, in Canton Neuchatel, David JeanRichard (1665 – 1741) set up a small factory in which the most important stages of watch production were carried out.

JeanRichard rationalised the production process and developed the first machines for fabricating components.

This factory became the model for the next generation of watchmakers.

Heinrich Moser, born on 12 December 1805, came from an old Schaffhausen family of artisans.

The bright young man learned the watchmaking craft in his father’s Schaffhausen workshop, and then “went on the road” as the custom was in those days.

He spent his first years as a journeyman (1824 – 1827) in Le Loche, the centre of the Swiss watchmaking industry, where he perfected his skills.

In 1827 Heinrich Moser moved to Russia, and within an astonishly short time rose from being a simple journeyman-craftsman to a successful industrialist.

As early as 1828, he started his own sales company in St. Petersburg(“the brains of Russia”), and only a year later he established a factory in Le Loche as a subsidiary of the main business in Russia.

Further sales outlets followed in Moscow (“the heart of Russia”), Kiev and Nizhy Novgorod (“the wallet of Russia”).

He ended up dominating the entire Russian market as far as the border with China with his watches made in Switzerland.

In 1848 Moser returned home with his family as an extremely wealthy man.

He put managers into his firms in Russia, which continued to bear the name of their founder until all businesses were nationalised in the Russian Revolution.

Now here Moser could have stopped and spent the rest of his days in decadent luxury, but instead he thought of home.

In Schaffhausen, the first half of the 19th century was a time of economic decline, with the collapse of craft skills, general gloom and material impoverishment.

In comparison with other parts of Switzerland, where industry had been established earlier and on a firmer footing, the economic situation of Schaffhausen was extremely backward at that time.

But a major turnaround occurred…

People stopped believing that a return to the old guild-based system could rescue them from their plight.

A confident new belief in progress started to emerge instead.

The first Swiss federal constitution of 1848 greatly improved the economic framework.

It facilitated domestic trade and communications by unifying the currency…

(Prior to this, each canton had its own.),

…introducing a single set of weights and measures (the Metric system), centralised the postal service and abolished the countless internal tolls across the land.

A new spirit of innovation took root in the city of Schaffhausen largely thanks to Heinrich Moser.

Upon his return home, his declared aim in life was to apply innovative methods to lift Schaffhausen’s economy out of the doldrums and to increase the prosperity of his hometown.

Moser was the first to set about implementing a project that had long been mooted by a few progressive citizens, namely to make better use of the motive force produced by the flow of the Rhine.

In 1850 he had a dam constructed, about 80 metres long, running almost parallel to the bank, designed to channel its water into a set of waterwheels.

But his crowning achievement was the construction, from 1863 to 1866, of a more than 200 metres long hydropower station across the Rhine, which he pushed through resolutely, despite many problems, and in the teeth of fierce opposition, and on which he spent vast sums of his own money.

The curved overflow weir, named the Moser Dam, after its originator and tireless promoter, lay right across the Rhine, in order to achieve the greatest possible effect.

The Moser Dam was no easy matter to construct given the river’s very uneven bed, but this was Moser’s major contribution to Schaffhausen’s industry, both financially and in terms of his own personal commitment.

The Dam consisted of a partly natural and partly artificial stone substructure with a weir sill made of huge wooden beams on top.

The turbine house, where three turbines produced a total of 760 horsepower stood on the left bank.

The power from two turbines was transferred to the right bank by cable and from there conveyed upstream to the various enterprises via a transmission cable about 500 metres long.

The third turbine delivered power directly to the twine factory located on the left bank of the Rhine via an oblique 150 metre long transmission shaft.

Moser could easily have rested on his laurels once again, but he also involved himself in the cereal and wine trade, the widescale manufacture of wooden clocks and was one of the first to champion the integration of Schaffhausen into the railroad network in 1857.

Behind Mosergarten a few steps further is Baumgartenstrasse (Orchard Street), named from the great orchard of the old All Saints monastery, which in the 1860s still stretched down to the Rhine.

The construction of the power station downstream made this land a highly desirable industrial location.

Walking behind Mosergarten is like walking through a living industrial museum quarter.

In this industrial zone of memory sits another legacy of Heinrich’s and an American named Jones…

Expatriate American businessmen wanted to use Switzerland’s relatively low wages (at that time) to manufacture on an industrial scale for the US market.

One was the Boston entrepreneur Florentine Ariosto Jones.

Jones had first turned his attention to the existing watchmaking centres in Switzerland, but he found that, fearing for their livelihoods, the watchmakers there wanted nothing to do with industrialisation.

Jones turned next to Schaffhausen on the Upper Rhine, where a young man named Heinrich Moser had built a unique form of hydroelectric power station.

Moser wanted to make Schaffhausen into an industrial town and tried to attract businesses that needed water power and electricity – businesses like Jones’ International Watch Company (IWC), co-founded with Moser in 1868.

Its motto: Probus Scafusia – “good solid craftsmanship from Schaffhausen”.

Jones himself did not make a success of making watches in Switzerland.

As soon as American watch manufacturers became aware of the assault from abroad, they called on the federal government for assistance and punitive tariffs were imposed on imported watches and components.

Jones, facing bankruptcy, returned to the US, but the IWC contined on, despite many changes of hands in its ownership and administration over the years.

In the IWC Museum, there is a slogan which defines the company perfectly:

“We don’t really know how long an IWC watch lasts. We’ve only been around for 138 years.”

This small museum, captioned in both English and German, is as well guarded as a fortress and as quiet as a shrine.

The IWC collection of timepieces grandly captures the history of the entire watchmaking industry – pocket watches, soldiers’ wristwatches, fashionable ladies’ wristwatches, the first antimagnetic watches, decompression watches, pilot watches, perpetual calendar watches, robust weatherproof shock-resistant watches, titanium watches, sophisticated watches (like the Il Destriero Scafusia – 750 individual parts in a case measuring only 23 cubic centimetres), a fully comprehensive list.

In this neighbourhood one can find the former sites of a cotton-spinning mill, the first worsted mill in Switzerland, a knitting yarn mill…

(There was a time when Schaffhausen wool was world famous.)

(Now the site of the Modern Art Gallery),

…a watchcase factory, a hydraulic testing machine factory, a schoolhouse where Moser was a pupil (1818 – 1820), a stove-fitting business / buggy and handcart manufacturer, all leading to the underpass to the river bank,…

… where the aforementioned kneeling, arms outstretched statue remains –

A testimony to the changes wrought upon a community by one man of determination and vision.

Never underestimate the power of one person to make a difference.


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