When Time Gets Personal: A History of the Watch
Where human anatomy meets data processing, there are just two important devices: the brain and the wristwatch. The brain is nice, but it doesn't tell time very well. James Gleick
Since their conception in the 1400's, watches have come a long way. They are, perhaps, the most effective way that man has yet devised to keep track of personal time. One no longer has to observe the sun, travel to the center of town, or listen for distant bells to figure out what time it is; instead, he can simply look down at his wrist or pull out a pocket watch. Some modern watches even glow in the dark, because it’s important that if we do wake up half way through the night, we know we did so at exactly three hours, thirty-four minutes and ten seconds past midnight.
In 1485, Leonardo da Vinci sketched the first fusee for a clock. A fusee is a grooved pulley that stabilizes the rate at which winding clocks move from one tick tock to the next. Over one hundred years later, this device was adapted for use in watches as well. In 1524, Peter Henlein of Nuremberg, Germany manufactured the first pocket watch, also known as the “Nuremberg Egg” for its shape and place of origin. He is also credited with inventing the first portable watch using a mainspring. The mainspring powered the clock by using energy it had stored by winding it. The more you wound it, the more energy it had to move the gears that moved the hands of the clock. Other similar watches were soon to follow but all were notoriously inaccurate, had only one hour hand because people kept time by the hour and not the minute then, and had to be wound twice a day.
The 1600's produced little advancement in the technology used to produce watches. Though watches during this period did not get any more accurate or dependable, they did get much more ornate. They were gilded, engraved, and jeweled to create items that were worn more for jewelry than as a time keeping device. They were crafted with different themes, from animals to religion. These watches later came to be known as “form watches” and were only owned by the nobility and a few wealthy citizens because of their cost.
In 1675, a Dutchman by the name of Christian Huygens invented the spiral balance spring, which provided a more accurate and longer lasting source of energy for clocks when they were wound up. By 1690, time could be measured to an even smaller unit than the minute, allowing watchmakers to add a second hand to their watches.
The 1700s brought about another phase of development for the watch. As early as 1704, Peter and Jacob Debaufre developed a method to drill very small holes in rubies allowing them to be used as bearings in watches. This made the watches much more accurate but also too expensive for anyone except the extremely wealthy. At the same time, watchmakers began applying a layer of enamel to their watch dials to give them a light background and make them more visible in low light. Other advancements during this time included the use of a lever designed to mesh with a toothed wheel at certain intervals. An Englishman by the name of Thomas Mudge began using this new device, called an escapement, as a regulator for the watches he produced. Abraham Louis Perrelet of Switzerland developed the first self-winding, perpetual watch around 1770, and is now known as the father of the automatic clock because of it. In France, Mr. Breguet gained the status of greatest watchmaker of all time due to his introduction of the tourbillion. The tourbillion is a design that compensates for the difference in time a watch measures when it is held in different positions. He was also influential in the initial production of the perpetual calendar on a watch face and shock proofing. For the next half century, America led the world in the mass production of watches beginning with Luther Goddard opening up the first American watch manufacturing plant in Massachusetts during the early 1800s.
The first wristwatches began appearing in the early 1900s and were "discovered" in a very unusual place: the battlefield. Up until WWI, men's watches were pocket watches. But pocket watches were cumbersome to carry and difficult to use on the battlefield so soldiers began to attach them to their wrists with leather straps thus freeing up their hands during battle. The idea caught on and both the British and German services began to provide their soldiers with “wrist” watches. After the war, the soldiers were allowed to take them home. People began to see their heroes back home using them and the fad caught on overnight. Because of their wartime success, by the end of the 1920s, over half of the watches sold were now wrist watches.
This was about the same time that watches were being made more robust and the Swiss began leading the world in their production. Rolex, a well known Swiss firm, can be credited with leading the charge with many improvements including the first waterproof watch in 1926, the first self-winding watch in 1931, the first watch to display the date and the time in 1945, and the first deep-sea diving watch in 1954.
A large improvement in accuracy was achieved beginning in 1929 when quartz was introduced into watch making. Novelty watches began to appear as well. In 1933, the first wristwatch made for children, the Mickey Mouse watch, was produced. Battery operated watches debuted around 1953. These watches were so accurate and so inexpensive to produce, that the production of mechanical watches nearly ceased. Nostalgia is bringing them back so that today, mechanical watches hold a 30% share of the market.
By the mid-1900’s wristwatches had alarms, self-winding became the norm, and eventually things like being waterproof, showing the date, being battery driven, and using LCD displays instead of hands were common features. Today, there are a countless variety of watches found on the market. Some are very ornate and used more for jewelry items while others have so many built in features (alarms, timers, MP3 players, radio and TV players, digital voice recorders, heart rate monitors, and Bluetooth technology) that it’s hard to tell what their primary function is meant to be. No matter how you mask the instrument, watches are still watches and are meant to do what they were always intended to do: that is tell time.
Even the lowly wristwatch has surpassed many of the predictions and limitations envisioned by its originators. That leads us to question – how will they change in the future? Will we eventually be carrying around entire computer screens or phones on our wrists? Questions such as these will only ever be answered by the passing of time.