Even though people will try to deny it, we are ruled by time. Time to get up to go to work, time to eat, time to sleep, time to go to work, the time a movie or TV show starts, and even activities are ruled by time – how long can you do it for or how long must it last.
Since forever, man has tried to apply measurement to the passing of time. Today, we are lucky to be precise about the correct time while in antiquity, all you might have known was the rough time of day. Various civilizations had various methods of time-keeping including rudimentary devices like sundials and gnomons. Most antique methods of timekeeping were mostly fairly close in general hour terms but nowhere near the precision of accurate watches we are used to today.
Watchmaking evolved from clock making and mechanical watches changed timekeeping forever. The history of watchmaking takes us through astronomical clocks, pendulum clocks, mechanical clocks, portable timepieces, pocket watches, mechanical watches, digital watches, and smartwatches.
From the earliest watches through to the very latest Apple Watch SE, there is so much to learn, and though we don’t think we can teach you every single little thing about the progression from mechanical movements to quartz watches to digital watches and beyond, what we can do is give you a solid overview of how we got from way back then to right here now.
What Is A Watch?
It’s important to know that the watch was not a stand-alone invention. Watches were an organic evolution of clockmaking.
A watch is defined as an instrument for timekeeping that can be worn or carried on the body. The key difference between a watch and a clock is that a watch is easily transportable without its working mechanism being affected.
The word watch is believed to have originated from an Old English word meaning ‘to remain awake’ or ‘to keep watch’, referring to people whose job it was to keep watch over communities and families overnight for safety or stay awake on board sheep while the crew slept.
Here are some of the key moments, innovations, and names in the history and evolution of watchmaking.
The Earliest Days Of Timekeeping
From the earliest days of civilization, humans have needed to find ways to keep track of time. The earliest forms of telling the time were sundials, which were developed by the innovative Ancient Egyptians in about 1500 BC. The concept was based on the notion of tracking an object’s shadow over the day as it moves across the ground, giving an indicator of where the sun is in the sky and therefore what time of day it might be.
Of course, the issue with this was that sundials were not portable, and were only ever functional during the hours of daylight. Once the sun was down, nobody was able to keep track of anything until it had gone back up again!
Other devices that can loosely be termed clocks, although they were merely mechanisms to tell the hour include water clocks which were used by the Egyptians, Greeks, Babylonians, and Chinese. Water clocks were used in Islamic lands until the mid-14th century and were highly sophisticated by that time. The Chinese also used incense clocks while the hourglass was popular in Europe and especially at sea.
The first step in mechanical clockmaking came with the invention of the bell-striking alarm, a device that was used to signify the times to ring monastic bells. Merging European and Islamic science, a mechanical clock was developed by the weight action of a verge and foliot.
Many sources state the first mechanical clock was invented in England in 1275. It was a minute repeater without a dial and was installed in Salisbury Cathedral.
Henry de Vick designed a mechanical clock in around 1360 which became the blueprint for mechanical clocks for the next 300 years. When the mainspring was invented in the early 15th century, it enabled much smaller clocks to be built.
In the 15th and 16th centuries, clock and watchmaking began to diverge into different streams. While the likes of Galileo and Leonardo da Vinci were experimenting with harmonic oscillation and producing pendulum devices to drive clocks, elsewhere the small clocks were inspiring people to go even smaller to produce portable clocks and timekeeping devices.
The Pocket Watch
The most exciting developments in transitioning from clocks to watches were happening in the German cities of Augsburg and Nuremberg in the early 16th century. Although it is unconfirmed by any written record, the invention of the first “watch” is accredited to Peter Henlein. German clockmakers including Henlein made miniature timepieces as ornamental timepieces designed to be worn as pendants or carried in a handbag.
The first pocket watch dates from 1574 but the make is unknown. It was made from brass and depicts St George slaying the dragon on the front (giving rise to the notion of an English maker) and the crucifixion on the back.
King Charles II is credited with popularising the pocket watch. The King of England favored waistcoats (vests) and had them made with pockets that could hold a watch. The waistcoat and watch became a staple of the male wardrobe from then on.
Antique pocket watches were nowhere near as accurate as modern timepieces. However, as technology advanced, watchmakers would experiment with new designs and materials that led them to be more accurate on the minutes and hours per day. During the 17th and 18th centuries, for example, the use of steel and brass allowed for smaller, more accurate, and portable watches to be made.
Marking a particular milestone, in 1675, Christian Huygens or Robert Hooke (depending on which history you believe) invented the balance spring (a tiny pendulum-style device), which helped to markedly improve the accuracy of watch mechanisms. The balance spring has the job of attaching to a weighted piece called the balance wheel, and the two components work together in perfect harmony to create a strong, steady beat that can effortlessly track the seconds as they pass. Every time the wheel rotates back and forth, it creates the signature tick tick tick noise that we now associate with watches.
The increased accuracy enabled the addition of a minute hand to the clock face which happened around 1680 in Great Britain and 1700 in France.
It would be fair to say that the balance spring and wheel are probably the most critical innovation in the entire history of watchmaking.
We should also note that the 16th century saw the rapid growth of the watchmaking industry in Switzerland. In 1541, religious reformer John Calvin banned jewelry so Swiss craftsmen had to find a new trade. Swiss jewelers learned the art of watchmaking from French and Italian refugees and the industry that today still produces the most exquisite range of watches was born.
Unlike pocket watches, women were the main audience for the wristwatch. The concept of the wristwatch dates back to Elizabethan times. It is known that Robert Dudley presented Queen Elizabeth I with an “armed watch” in 1517.
The oldest surviving wristwatch – then described as a bracelet watch – is one given to Napoleon’s wife, Josephine in 1806.
The first true wristwatch is credited to Abraham-Lois Breguet who presented Caroline Murat, Queen of Naples with an “oblong shaped-repeater for wristlet” in 1810.
The early to mid-19th century saw more important developments that would greatly enhance the evolution of the wristwatch.
In 1820, the first keyless timepiece was produced and in 1844, Jean Adrien Philippe of Patek Philippe produced a keyless winding and hand-setting system for which he received a bronze medal at the Paris Industrial Exposition. It was patented in 1845.
Patek Philippe then produced the first Swiss wristwatch in 1868. It was an elaborate bracelet watch presented to Countess Koscowicz of Hungary.
In significant developments for the future of the watchmaking industry, Patek Philippe went on to patent the precision regulator in 1881, the perpetual calendar in 1889, and the double chronometer in 1902.
What enabled the major spread and popularity of the wristwatch is mass production. For most of the 17th and 18th centuries, Britain had been the dominant force but the focus was very much on high-quality timepieces for the elite.
In the early 19th century, Georges-Auguste Leschot invented a watch part that enabled interchangeable parts that heralded the potential for mass production.
The British Watch Company attempted to move to something like an assembly line in 1843 but it was the Waltham Watch Company in the USA, headed by Aaron Lufkin Dennison, who operated a factory that used interchangeable parts and successfully introduced mass production to wristwatches.
By the 1880s, wristwatches were mass-produced for German naval officers by Girard-Perregaux and in 1904 Louis Cartier produced the Santos model for a Brazilian aviator.
Military men saw the importance of being able to synchronize troop maneuvers in battle. It was impractical for officers mounted on horseback to use a pocket watch so until the idea of men wearing wristwatches was accepted and suitable watches made, pocket watches were strapped to soldiers’ arms.
Various companies produced military wristwatches but it was Mappin and Webb that produced the Campaign Watch that was used in conflicts like the Boer War and the Anglo-Burma War.
The First World War cemented the wristwatch as the wartime timepiece. A trench watch was a pocket watch movement on a leather strap with a luminous dial and unbreakable crystal.
Post-war, the practicality of a wristwatch overcame the elaborate chain setup of the pocket watch and gradually, pocket watches fell out of fashion.
From the 20th century onwards, we see the rise of luxury watchmaking and very expensive watches that were seen as fashion statements and collectibles rather than simply machines for telling the time.
Companies like Omega, Rolex, and Patek Philippe became synonymous with luxury, precision, and the utmost in quality craftsmanship. Now known as heritage brands, they focused on creating watches that were works of art as well as functional accessories. To this very day, many of the traditional techniques that were developed by these names in the 20th century are still used alongside innovative designs.
Just some of the most notable developments are:
1923: The first automatic (self-winding) wristwatch was produced by John Harwood.
1926: Rolex produced the first waterproof watch.
1930: Hamilton Watch Company pioneered the first electronic watch.
1930: Breitling patented the first stopwatch.
1969: Seiko launched the first quartz wristwatch.
1970: Hamilton Watch Company and Electro-Data developed the first digital mechanical wristwatches.
1990: Junghans released the first radio-controlled wristwatch.
2013: Bathys Hawaii introduced the Cesium 133 Atomic Watch.
In more recent years, the watch industry has been almost taken over by the invention of the smartwatch, marking a completely new era in watchmaking. Not only can smartwatches tell the most accurate time possible, but they also offer a much wider range of lifestyle features like fitness tracking, voice assistant, mobile payments, and more.
The incorporation of technology into electronic watches like the Apple Watch Ultra and Seiko TV watch has made them an essential accessories for many. It is essentially like having a computer on your wrist in the form of a digital display with electrical components and electrical power.
With the primary desire to make accurate wristwatches now something that you don’t even have to worry about, both the digital watches and mechanical watch industry have much more freedom to experiment with aesthetics. Things like solar watches and rechargeable battery life are now more considered than the mechanics of the second hand! Watches are thinner and more lightweight and are made from all sorts of materials to give a massive choice to anyone who wants to sport something that remains magical on their wrist.
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