You may wear a fancy wristwatch such as a Rolex, Cartier, or Audemars Piguet. Or, perhaps you’re more the kind to wear a multifunctional smart watch like the Apple watch or the various wrist-worn fitness trackers that also tell time. Either way, are you aware of the long history – the many scientific experiments and inventions – that happened before that seemingly magical, time-keeping device came to be? Read on for the complete history of watches.
The First Portable Clock
It all began with portable clocks that first popped up in Europe in the fifteenth century. The clocks were made possible by the invention of the mainspring in the early 1400s. The mainspring is essentially a metal ribbon that serves as a source of power in mechanical watches and clocks. The mainspring allowed clocks, which had previously been powered by weights, to become portable. However, it also rendered them highly unprecise due to the lack of consistency of the force applied by the spring, which decreases as the spring unwinds.
Germany was the first country to start producing these portable timepieces. The German clockmaker Peter Heinlein is sometimes said to have developed the first watch using a mainspring, although many clockmakers started producing portable clocks around the same time. These first watches looked somewhat like the pocket watches sometimes carried by older men or the white rabbit in Alice in Wonderland. Since they were not very precise, they were much more useful as jewelry for the wealthier classes than as time-keeping devices. At this point in history, they were often worn as a pendant by men and women alike.
The Advent of the Pocket Watch
The pocket watch first became popular in the seventeenth century. Changes in men’s fashion had by then made pockets ubiquitous, especially in England, where many men now wore waistcoats. The pockets had a useful purpose: they kept the still-vulnerable watch safe from the elements. The invention of the balance spring in 1657 made portable watches much more precise and reliable than they had previously been. During the Enlightenment period, which was known for its scientific advances, many further inventions led to even more precise and reliable mechanisms inside the portable watch.
The Introduction of the Jewel Bearing
In 1702, the jewel bearing was first introduced in the United Kingdom by a Swiss mathematician. The jewel bearing is a metal spindle usually made out of sapphire or ruby and is mostly used to increase precision in mechanical watches. If you’ve ever owned a fancy watch such a Cartier, you’ll notice that the tiny winding wheel on the side of the watch, used to set the time and date, is still made of sapphire. By the nineteenth century, almost all watches had jewel bearings, although it is unlikely that all or most were made of precious metals.
The Wrist Watch Becomes Commonplace
The wristwatch as we know it today was first used in England by Queen Elizabeth in 1571. The Queen set the trend, and throughout the next few centuries, many women bought time-keeping “bracelets” that were mostly considered jewelry (especially the earlier ones, whose still-primitive inner workings did not make them a reliable source of time).
During the First World War, however, the British military started issuing wristwatches to its men. These watches were a reliable and easy way for the men to tell time, which was essential for the proper functioning of the armed forces. By the end of World War I, the use of the wristwatch among men and women alike had become commonplace.
Many of the first watches were little more than pocket watches strapped onto leather or metal bracelets. By the early 1900s, however, many watch-making houses started specifically producing wrist watches. Some of today’s famous watch brands, like the French Cartier and the British/Swiss Rolex, first came into being around this time.
If you’re into watches or have ever visited Switzerland, it should come as no surprise that the Swiss were at the forefront of the mass production of portable clocks and wrist watches in the nineteenth and twentieth century. Although British and Japanese scientists and businesses also contributed, Geneva led the charge in mass-producing quality watches that could tell time reliably and precisely.
The quartz watch, which was powered by a battery, was first introduced in 1959. By 1970, the first digital watch with a LED display had been produced. And of course, within the last decade, the watch has evolved immensely. They have transitioned from a device that tells time to one where you can listen to music, scan your pictures, respond to messages, and even track your fitness. We’ve come a long way!