Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun. Orbiting this at a distance of roughly ninety-eight million miles is an utterly insignificant little blue-green planet whose ape-descended life forms are so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea.
-Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (1979).
From the sundial to the Rolex, humans have had a fascination with time. We save it, spend it, waste it, stitch it, and generally keep a very close eye on its passing, which makes the wristwatch’s invention seem inevitable.
A wristwatch is any portable time-keeping device attached to ones wrist. These can be digital or analog, and some now contain games, a calendar, alarms, a stopwatch, a calculator, and lots of other features that once would have been totally unfeasible. But in order to get to that point, we had to start with another sort of watch.
After the sundial came water clocks and candle clocks, followed by weight-driven clocks invented in the 1400s. These time-keeping devices were unlike anything you’d see today. Only hours were measured, and even those were often inaccurate.
In those times “personal” or “individual” time provided by these clocks was rare, and only granted to the most wealthy and powerful of people. The commoners would have to consult a clock mounted on a church tower, or city hall. These large clocks were made by gunsmiths and locksmiths, clocks were still not a prosperous enough business to specialize in.
The 1500s brought box-like personal clocks (“table” clocks) when the weight-driven mechanisms were replaced by a spring. From there, clocks that can be worn around ones neck (about the size of a hockey puck) were developed. That was the beginning of watches as we know them.
Although time-keeping was still not anywhere near precise, watches continued to be in a state of turmoil. Complications were added, including astrological indications and calendars. Even moon phases would eventually be added to their faces.
As watch-making began to take off in the 1600s, a few goldsmiths began to specialize in watch-making, and some major names in the business surfaced. Watchmakers began to engrave their signatures on the backing of the pocket watches they produced.
After studying Galilei’s laws of the pendulum, Christian Huygens saw the potential relating to time-keeping and in the 1650s started designing a prospective new watch design. 1657 saw the first pendulum watch when Salomon Coster worked from Huygens’s plans and created it. 13 years after Huygens saw his dream of a pendulum watch realized, he could add inventing the balance-spring to his credentials.
It's 1704, London, and three watchmakers haven’t given up on precise watches. Nicolas Fatio de Duillier (Swiss), Pierre and Jean Debaufre (French) revolutionized watches by developing a technique using rubies as bearings. Rubies, unfortunately, aren’t cheap, and this design benefits only those wealthy enough to buy them.
The British Parliament introduced a catalyst to watch-making when they issued the Longitude Act. Longitude was measured in part by accurate clocks, and this act promised 20,000 pound sterling if anyone was able to invent a device that didn’t change more than a half a degree over a six week voyage.
George Graham, another name made famous by watch-making, introduced the new cylinder escapement in the 1720s. This was followed a little more than a decade later with the duplex escapement, this time invented by Baptiste Dutertre, but it was only made truly functional with Pierre Le Roy’s improvements.
The real revolution in escapements came when Jean Antoine Lépine (or Jean André Lepaute, as some sources say) brought the virgule escapement to the world. This brought together elements from the duplex and cylinder types. Finally, in 1757, Thomas Mudge invented the lever or “anchor” escapement. The Swiss variation of this is still used in modern mechanical watches.
After the new improvements, watches became increasingly accurate and second hands became more commonly seen.
Somewhere in the 1760s and 70s, self-winding watches were established with Abraham Louis Perrelet leading the way. They were dubbed “perpetual” watches, and even Abraham-Louis Breguet, inventor of the "tourbillon" and the "whirlwind" (an essential invention that compensated gravity influences on the balance spring) bought himself one.
In 1780, 5 years after John Arnold invented the helical balance spring, Breguet created his own “perpetual” watch, even improving the design with a new method of distributing oscillating weight, producing a total of about 40.
Arnold was apparently not satisfied with the escapements already established, and in 1782 created the chronometer escapement.
Quietly and almost unnoticeably, Switzerland began to create a name for itself in watch-making, and soon climbed to the top position of respected pocket-watch makers.
Breguet continued to improve watch design with his inventions in 1789: a new striking system for repeaters and yet another new escapement. This one was dubbed the “échappement naturel” and showed similarities to the recent chronometer type. Only a year later, he came with the “parachute” shock protection and a ruby cylinder escapement (yes, another one). He went on to help create the self-winding Marie-Antoinette, the most complicated watch attempted at that time, including as many gold parts as possible as well as a calendar.
1825 brought the invention of the “draw”, on which the Swiss lever escapement that’s used today is based on. Georges Auguste Leschot created the first one, but soon different variants were cropping up all over the place.
The USA was the home of a new kind of watch-making: industrial-style. This ensured standardization, which helped in precision. Most watch-makers, however, continued to make their watches personally, especially for important clients.
In 1918, a tragic railroad accident in Ohio claimed 11 lives when a commissioner’s watch was off by minutes. This sparked the General Railroad Timepiece Standards, which were implemented 2 years later.
Finally, an alternative to expensive rubies in watches was found by August Verneuil. These artificial rubies have been used ever since, and helped open the door for your average person being able to get a good quality watch.
The 1920 Nobel Prize for Physics went to Charles Edouard Guillaume for his own invention: “Invar”, a nickel-steel alloy that was soon replacing inferior materials in pocket watches.
In the late 1880s to the early 1900s, watchmakers started to see a disturbing trend. Consumers were starting to wear their timepieces on their wrist (Patek Philippe was to blame). Not only would they have to rethink all of their products to conform to this fashion, but watchmakers also feared watches wouldn’t, couldn’t, stand up to the constant movement and the elements.
Wristwatches, when they first came out, were known as “wristlets”, and only women wore them. They were thought of as a fashion accessory, and not at all known for their quality. Even the straps were thin, flimsy and chain-linked. No one expected them to last very long, and not many people produced them.
But necessity is the mother of invention, and when war broke out, soldiers began to get aggravated with fumbling with pocket watches. They began fashioning crude leather straps and fastening them to their wrists for convenience.
In 1906, lugs (wire loops) began to be soldered on to watches, allowing straps to be attached more easily. A flexible, expandable bracelet for watches was also put on the market.
As watches began to be more commonly used in war, there was a demand to protect them from the elements. One problem was, of course, that the face was made of glass, and this could be easily shattered with a stray bullet or shrapnel. “Pierced metal covers” began to be used more often, also known as shrapnel guards. Although covers over the watch face could also be used, this metal grill system allowed easy reading and no fumbling.
From 1914 to 1919, wristwatches for men became more popular. War heroes would wear “trench watches” back from war as a souvenir, and no one could say that they were feminine, so the trend began to catch on for both genders.
In 1915, the name Rolex was introduced to the market. Ilsdorf & Davis, Ltd., founded in 1905, changed their name to the now famous Rolex Watch Company, Ltd. They continued to be one of the few companies pushing watches as a long-term product and not just a fad.
Electrically powered watches began to be experimented with the 1930s, just before watches started to become waterproof. It took until 1953 before the first battery-operated watch appeared, however.
Into the 60s and 70s, quartz technology was introduced and digital watches caught on. Many businesses in Switzerland went bankrupt from this new development.
Fortunately, but quite unpredictably, the 1980s brought mechanical and analog watches back into style. Even though they weren’t as accurate, many consumers were willing to put up with that for the satisfaction of a watch they wound themselves. This was partly due to the new Swatch (Swiss Watch) Company, who cut down on the expenses and parts needed in an analog watch. It became cheaper to replace a broken watch than to get it repaired.
”Atomic watches”, controlled by radio waves, began appearing in the 1990s. These could tell time accurate to a nanosecond, and reset themselves for Daylight Saving Time.
Strangely, into the 2000s, watches seem to have come full circle. As cell phones became more popular, people started to consult them for the time, making watches almost obsolete for those that had one. It seems that the cell phone has become the pocket watch for the 21st century.
The watch is not the work of a single man, but of several generations.
A Brief History of Precision Time Keeping. (http://www.ozdoba.net/swisswatch/history_part1.html)
CBC4Kids: History of Inventions. (http://www.cbc.ca/kids/general/the-lab/history-of-invention/watch.html)
Chris Vorelli, The History of the Watch. (http://searchwarp.com/swa8564.htm)
John E. Brozek, The History and Evolution of the Wristwatch.