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Pocket Watch History - A History as Intricate as Their Beauty

July 28, 2021

Pocket watches are exquisite. By looking at them, you’ll be able to guess that they have quite the history. The devices are like time capsules from a bygone era. To help you understand them better, we’ve taken a complete look at pocket watch history.

1. Early Timekeeping

Before we take a look at pocket watches, let’s discuss the series of events that led to their invention. The most prominent was when mankind started to tell the time through the sun. The Ancient Egyptians used the sun’s shadow to calculate what time of day it was. The earliest recorded sundial can be traced back to 3500 BC.

Because humans could not always depend on the sun, water clocks were introduced. These would record the amount of time it took for the water to reach a certain point in a container. The contraptions were elaborate and quite accurate. There were many types of water clocks available.

As technology progressed through the ages, mechanical timekeeping was introduced. Mechanical clocks were invented in the 1200s. One of the earliest was found in the Salisbury Cathedral, in England. The goliath contraption was completed in 1386.

Although we have quartz and automatic watches these days, mechanical movements have been around for a very long time. No surprise, the first pocket watches were mechanical.

2. The First Clock-Watch

Pocket watches trace their history back to the clock-watches that Peter Heinlein created in the 16th century. They didn’t look like anything that could tell time – by today’s standards at least. They resembled Fabergé eggs and were not meant to be carried in pockets. Due to them being bulky, they had to be worn around the neck.

The devices weren’t used by the general population at first but were used for scientific purposes instead.

Brass was used as a cover for the watch. Considering that modern-day pocket watches use glass and stainless steel, this might sound strange.

Peter Heinlein was popular amongst European royalty for his beautiful creations. It’s well known that he was regularly hired to create new, intricate clock-watches for the royals. Records show that his very first design came into being in 1505. He continued designing them until he passed away in 1547.

3. Clock Watches Get Screwed

The first screw came into being in 1550. As you can imagine, Heinlein’s devices needed to be screwed down. How did he do this without screws available? Through tapered pins and wedges. They worked, but they made the clocks bulky and required more labour.

Once screws were used, the watches didn’t have to be ‘cup-like’. They took on a more pocket-watch like shape, and were known as the ‘Nuremberg Eggs’.

4. The Swiss Watch Industry Is Born

Most people are familiar with the theological figure John Calvin. During his time in Switzerland, the production of jewelry was banned. Jewelers panicked, so they started creating pocket watches. These were adorned with religious iconography and made from bronze in the 1570s.

pocket clock

5. Glass Comes Into Play

With the devices becoming smaller and more circular, they began to transform into the pocket-watches that we are familiar with. However, they were still full brass contraptions – you didn’t have a clear window letting you peek inside. All this changed in 1610. As glass was placed on them, their sizes started to vary. The same was true for their shape.

6. Charles II

Charles II was the king of England, Scotland, and Ireland in the late 1600s. He is also known to have made the waistcoat popular. During his reign, watch-clocks were small enough to be worn in pockets. There was a boom in production as they were worn in clothing. As their popularity grew, they became slimmer to fit into waistcoats better.

7. Say Hello to Cylinder Escapements

Verge escapements were widely used in timepieces until the 1720s, which made them quite inaccurate. Sometimes, watches would read the time by an hour ahead. To correct this flaw, cylinder escapements were invented. They were invented by Jean de Hautefeuille, a Frenchman.

8. Say Good-bye to Cylinder Escapements

Although cylinder escapements were better than their verge counterparts, they were still inaccurate. Mechanical watches needed a mechanism that would produce reliable time. Watchmakers’ prayers were answered in 1755.

Thomas Mudge created the Lever mechanism, and it is still used today. It is regarded as the staple movement in mechanical pieces, whether it’s a pocket watch or not.

9. Pocket Watches Become Mass-Produced

King Charles II was responsible for the boom in pocket watch production, but the devices were always worn by nobility. As a result, they were pricey as they were expensive to produce. This remained so until the mid-to-late 19th century.

In 1857, the industrial revolution made them cheaper to design. This caused their price to drop significantly, and the working class was finally able to afford them. They quickly became global commodities, being manufactured in America as well as Europe. Their parts became interchangeable, as well.  

10. America vs Switzerland

As pocket watch manufacturing became standardized, America soon took the reigns. Switzerland was the leading producer of watches until the American Watch Company, Waltham, started mass-producing the devices.

To compete with them, Swiss watchmakers streamlined the quality of their pocket watches. They also made them more accurate. The Japy Family was the Swiss force to be reckoned with – they were the leading Swiss manufacturer at the time.

11. World War I

World War I affected the pocket watch industry, as carrying the timepieces in the field became impossible. Wristwatches were around by this time, but they were mostly worn by women. Since they were more convenient, soldiers began to wear them. As much of the world became embroiled in the war, wristwatches became the norm.

Posters and pictures of soldiers used to boost morale showed them wearing the timepieces on their wrist. Since people wanted to emulate the war heroes, they began wearing them as well. To this day, the pocket watch industry has not recovered.

12. The Modern World

Today, pocket watches are seen as a thing of the past. However, their popularity is slowly growing. They are seen as heritage pieces, so they are being preserved as family heirlooms. The amount of craftsmanship that goes into their build is also fascinating to some.

They are now produced by quality Swiss manufacturers. Watch enthusiasts like to purchase them as they are considered to be symbols of luxury.

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Final Thoughts

The history of the pocket watch goes back to the early 1500s when they were first invented. The inventor of the pocket watch was German locksmith Peter Heinlein. When compared to pocket watch designs of today, they look vastly different. This is mainly because they were bulky and had no glass window.

As their design changed over time, so did the mechanism. Mechanical watches became more accurate at telling the time. The lever escapement introduced in 1755 is still used in pocket watches and other mechanical timepieces to this day.

Unfortunately, World War I changed everything. Wristwatches soon took over, and the production of pocket watches came to a standstill. However, pocket watches are coming back into style, mainly due to them being passed down as heirlooms.

Do we think they’ll become as popular as they once were? Not really.

Thomas Vanderlaan
When Thomas Vanderlaan was a child, the moment he learned about mechanical watches he was hooked. His first love being mechanical watches, he decided to pursue a career in engineering as he was entranced by the science behind its gears. As the years passed, his passion grew. Although he worked a hectic career as an automobile engineer, he’d always collect watches during his spare time.
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