The verge (or crown wheel) escapement is the earliest known type of mechanical escapement, the mechanism in a mechanical clock that controls its rate by advancing the gear train at regular intervals or 'ticks'. Its origin is unknown. Verge escapements were used from the 14th century until about 1800 in clocks and pocket watches. The name verge comes from the Latin virga, meaning stick or rod.
Its invention is important in the history of technology, because it made possible the development of all-mechanical clocks. This caused a shift from measuring time by continuous processes, such as the flow of liquid in water clocks, to repetitive, oscillatory processes, such as the swing of pendulums, which had the potential to be more accurate.
The first evidence of the verge escapement dates from 14th century Europe, where its invention led to the development of the first all-mechanical clocks. Starting in the 13th century, large tower clocks were built in European town squares, cathedrals, and monasteries. They kept time by using the verge escapement to drive a horizontal bar with weights on the ends called the foliot, a primitive type of balance wheel, to oscillate back and forth. The rate of the clock could be adjusted by sliding the weights in or out on the foliot bar. The verge probably evolved from the alarum, which used the same mechanism to ring a bell and had appeared centuries earlier. There has been speculation that Villard de Honnecourt invented the verge escapement in 1237 with an illustration of a strange mechanism to turn an angel statue to follow the sun with its finger, but it is now agreed that this was not an escapement.
It is believed that sometime in the late 13th century the verge escapement mechanism was applied to tower clocks, creating the first mechanical clock. In spite of the fact that these clocks were celebrated objects of civic pride which were written about at the time, it may never be known when the new escapement was first used. This is because it has proven impossible to distinguish from the meager written documentation which of these early tower clocks were mechanical, and which were water clocks. The same Latin word, horologe, was used for both. Sources differ on which was the first clock 'known' to be mechanical, depending on which manuscript evidence they regard as conclusive. One candidate is the Dunstable Priory clock in Bedfordshire, England built in 1283, because accounts say it was installed above the rood screen, where it would be difficult to replenish the water needed for a water clock. Another is the clock built at the Palace of the Visconti, Milan, Italy, in 1335. However, there is agreement that mechanical clocks existed by the late 13th century. Actually, the earliest description of an escapement, in Richard of Wallingford's 1327 manuscript Tractatus Horologii Astronomici on the clock he built at the Abbey of St. Albans, was not a verge, but a variation called a 'strob' escapement. It consisted of a pair of escape wheels on the same axle, with alternating radial teeth. The verge rod was suspended between them, with a short crosspiece that rotated first in one direction and then the other as the staggered teeth pushed past. Although no other example is known, it is possible that this design preceded the verge in clocks.
How accurate these early verge and foliot clocks were is debatable, with estimates of one to two hours error per day being mentioned. Early verge clocks were probably no more accurate than the previous water clocks, but they did not freeze in winter and were a more promising technology for innovation. By the mid-17th century, when the pendulum replaced the foliot, the best verge and foliot clocks had achieved an accuracy of 15 minutes per day.