There’s something special about wearing a great watch. You can put on a fancy suit or drive a nice car but that little timepiece on your wrist beats them all, conveying class and confidence to the gentleman wearing it. But we seldom think about where they came from, and how they’ve evolved over the years. So we’re going to explore everything there is to know about watches, the noble and sophisticated timekeeping accessory. Today, in part 1, we’ll look at the history of watches, and then in part 2 we’ll explore the world’s best, most expensive, coolest, and highest-tech watches, as well as the most renowned and prestigious watchmakers.
Our modern version of wristwatches evolved from pocket watches and before that, spring-powered portable clocks, that came into existence about 500 years ago in Europe. The word “watch” has two possible origins. One is that it originates from the Old English word “woecce,” which means “watchman,” describing a town watchman who had to keep careful track of time shifts. The second entomology traces back to 17th century sailors, who used the new inventions to time the duration of their watches, or shifts of duty.
Spring powered clocks are commonplace, but are still large and hang on the wall.
The famous artist, scientist, and inventor, Leonardo da Vinci, sketches the mechanism for a smaller clock, or watch.
Peter Henlein, a clockmaker from Nuremberg, invents the first pocket watch. It’s under dispute whether he was actually the first, but he was one of those who designed taschenuhr, or timepieces worn as pendants that could be carried.
England’s Queen Elizabeth I received a wristwatch as a gift from watchmaker Robert Dudley, which he describes as an “arm watch.”
Clock-watches become popular for the elite and wealthy, which they attached to clothing or wore around their necks on expensive chains. These timepieces had four hands and kept accurate time only marginally well, but were a status symbol.
Inventor Daniel Quare patents a mechanism for clock watches that sets off a ringing bell every quarter hour, the first rudimentary alarm (though it was little more than a regular egg timer.)
The balance spring is invented, the seminal advance in watch technology. Before this, most watches were commonly off by hours and offered little practical use. But with the balance spring, accuracy of timepieces improved to the point where watches were off maybe only 10 minutes per day.
The minute hand is introduced in Britain and later in France
Frenchmen Abraham Louis Perrelet invents the self-winding movement, vital as a source of powering watches.
The first watch company is born when Louis Brandy opens his own workshop in La Chaux-de-Fonds, eventually becoming the Omega Watch Company.
Patek Philippe made the first wristwatch in 1868 for Countess Koscowwitcz of Hungary. The Swiss watchmaker out of Geneva went on to pioneer the perpetual calendar, split-second hand, chronograph, and minute repeater in watches. Patek Philippe is still known as one of the finest quality watch companies in the world.
Sharing of technology, cheaper materials, and mass production allow watches to reach the common person, sometimes only for a dollar. These were all pocket watches, however, not wristwatches yet.
Constant Girard-Perregaux develops the concept for the first wristwatch on orders of the Kaiser to outfit German naval officers. Two thousand of these first wristwatches were made.
Greenwich, England is officially named the zero meridian and recognized as the international basis of time zones (GMT +0) which centralizes the watchmaking industry around those European countries.
Wristwatches became an important resource in wartime for two reasons: it allowed soldiers on the field to synchronize maneuvers. Before that, smoke signals, drums, flag waving, and horsemen were used to signal the time for action, which also signaled the enemy at the same time. Also, it allowed soldiers to keep their hands free to carry weapons or other tools. Officers in the British Army use wristwatches during their colonial military campaigns in the late part of the 19th century, such as in the Anglo-Burma War of 1885.
Albert Santos, a Brazilian aviator, asked his friend Louis Cartier to come up with an alternative to the pocket watch that would allow him to keep both hands on the controls during flight. Cartier comes up with the prototype for the first wristwatch, called the Santos wtristwatch. Alberto was a celebrity so the watch was replicated.
Hans Wilsdorf opened a watchmaking office in Switzerland, the start of the Rolex Watch Company.
Smaller forms of wristwatches are made, called wristlets, but only for women and are considered a brash fad, like wearing of skirts. Real men still carried pocket watches.
Solders are issued wristwatches in World War I, called “trench watches.” They were large and bulky and the 12 o’clock crown was to the left, not top, but they allowed soldiers to check the time without having to put down or sheath their weapons.
After the war, pocket watches lost popularity for these new wristwatches, and by the 1930’s it’s estimated there are fifty men wearing wristwatches for every one carrying a pocket watch.
Watches that are powered by electric batteries are introduced.
The use of quartz revolutionizes watch making. Quartz is a common mineral in nature, containing silica and oxygen. Due to its composition, quartz can produce electric pulses when placed under mechanical stress, a process called Piezoelectricity. Therefore, the use of quarts crystals in watches produces a very precise frequency standard, helping regulate the movements of a watch or timepiece to amazing precision.
More than forty years ago, the Hamilton Company introduced the world's first commercial digital wristwatch, retailing for $2,100!
The Japanese company, Casio, launches two decades of Japanese dominance in electronics, including innovations in watches, calculators, synthesizers, and cameras. They start with the release of the Casiotron, the first electronic watch to reach mass popularity.
The American personal computing company, Texas Instruments, releases its own multi-function digital watch before pulling back from the watch market in 1982. Armitron, Pulsar, Sanyo, Seiko, and Citizen all have their own versions.
Casio releases its G-Shock watch, a digital but shock proof and water resistant watch with practical uses for military, law enforcement, and outdoor enthusiasts who need something rugged but functional.
Watches take a step away from geeky functionality for Warhol-inspired pop aesthetics with the Swatch watch phenomenon.
Junghans offers the first radio-controlled wristwatch, the MEGA-1. The correct time is always accessible through radio signals received from government operated time stations, giving it the same accuracy as atomic clocks.
Fashion watches get bigger and bolder, making a statement about the wealth, lifestyle, or personality of the person wearing it.
Smart watches come in vogue as an extension of smartphones and computerized personal assistants. They sync to those devices with Bluetooth technology and allow the user to access data, play games, playback audio, video, and listen to the radio, and do just about everything else that apps offer. Cameras, GPS, SD cards, microphones, fitness trackers, even insulin pumps – the possibilities are endless. Pebble, Fossil, Sony, and a model for Android users are some of the first popular brands.