History of the Watch

Whether you wear yours around your wrist or on a chain, there’s hardly a more fashionable way of keeping track of the time than carrying a watch. You might wear an analog, a digital, or a smart watch, or you might cycle between all three depending on the day’s mood and wardrobe. Regardless of what you do, there’s no doubt that wearing a watch makes everyone who sees you infer that you are very punctual and put-together!


Clocks of various sorts have been around for ages, but clocks weren’t worn on the body until the 1500’s, when Peter Henlein of Nuremburg popularized the “clock-watch,” which was worn as a necklace and could run for 40 hours without being wound. They had only an hour hand and would chime out alarms several times a day. They became a major fashion statement, and could be bought in all sorts unusual shapes, like fruits and skulls. However, they were little more than a fashion statement, as the system of springs and screws inside a clock-watch was incredibly unreliable, and it was not uncommon for clock-watches to be several hours off.


In the 1600’s, pendants for men fell out of fashion, so men started wearing their watches on chains. In order to fit into the pockets of waistcoats, watches had to become slimmer. Hence, the traditional pocketwatch was invented. Glass faces were also introduced, obviating the intricately carved metal faces of the clock-watch. Though more accurate than the clock-watch, the pocketwatch still got slower throughout the day until it was wound again. However, in 1657, the addition of the balance spring made pocketwatches more accurate, as they no longer quickened or slowed their turning based on how they were positioned. Because of this newfound accuracy, the minute hand was added because people could trust that it would not be wildly off time.


As advances in watch-making technology made watches even thinner and more accurate, the thick, rounded watches of old went out of style and were worn only be the lower classes. People dubbed these round watches “turnips” as their roundness was thought to make them cumbersome and ugly. Watches were still made by hand in the 1800’s, and only the very rich could afford to see a watchmaker who was so talented that he could make the increasingly thinner watches that were on trend.


In the 1850’s, Swiss watchmaker Georges-Auguste Leschot invented standard, interchangeable watch parts, which made him a leader in the field of mass-produced watches. But the mass-produced watch business really took off when American watchmaker Aaron Lufkin Dennison opened a factory in 1851 in Massachusetts. By the end of the decade, Dennison had a successful business empire called Waltham Watch Company.

Because of trains and other new forms of travel, punctuality started to be more and more important. People were encouraged to invent and implement more accurate timepieces. This was such a popular endeavor, that the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia hosted the first ever international watch precision contest. Out of this flurry of innovation and invention came keyless winding for the watches of the rich, and pin pallet levers for the watches of the poor. The latter was a cheaper version of the lever escapement invented in 1876, and allowed blue-collar workers their first chance to own a watch.

The wristwatch as we know it was invented alongside the pocketwatch, but was hardly ever worn as it was too easily damaged. Watches weren’t worn in pockets for nothing- if they were carried in any other way they could get bumped and destroyed. However, some women did wear watches as bracelets instead of necklaces, but this was by no means the norm.


Wristwatch usage only became widespread when late 19th century army officers wore them in order to accurately synchronize movements of equipment and men. They strapped the watches to their wrists because, when you’re running around or bouncing on a horse, a tiny little watch can fall out of your pocket and break. People would just strap their pocketwatches onto leather bands and secure those bands to their wrists. Businessmen soon realized that there was a serious opportunity at hand. In 1905, Hans Wilsdorf partnered with his brother-in-law, Alfred Davis, to create Wilsdorf & Davis, which later became Rolex. Their 1910 wristwatch won an award in 1914 Kew Observatory in Greenwich.


The popularity of wristwatches really skyrocketed after World War I, as it was crucial that attacks could be timed and carried out to the utmost accuracy. Wristwatches suited to the rigors of warfare, namely, ones with light-up dials and shatter-proof faces, were standard issue to British soldiers starting in 1917. Wristwatches were found to be so practical, that, by 1930, only one out of every 50 civilian watch-users still had a pocketwatch- the rest had made the switch to wristwatches.


The next timekeeping innovation came in the 1950’s, when electric watches were invented. Not long after, in the 70’s, quartz watches were invented. Japanese company Seiko was tasked with making a more accurate watch in time for the 1964 Tokyo Summer Olympics. The working prototype they came up with was used to measure the time in all of the events throughout the games. The first quartz watch to be mass-produced was the Seiko 35 SQ Astron. It hit stores in 1969 and was the most accurate watch on the market. Because nobody had patented the quartz wristwatch, watchmakers from every nation took advantage of this remarkable innovation, and thus made quartz the standard in timepieces around the world. This caused an enormous stir in the watchmaking world, as it brought a crashing halt to the century-long reign of the mechanical watch.


Since then, watch technology and accuracy has only become more impressive. Most of the changes are complex and technical ones dealing with things like the temperature sensors, power usage, and other advances way beyond the expertise of the everyday person. Smartwatches and radio watches are the most accurate of all, as they sync up to the world clock and time stations, respectively. Perhaps one of these will revolutionize the watch world like quartz did, but for now, we can just be content to know that we’ll as least get to class on time!



Written by: Rachel Manning

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