WHEN WERE WATCHES INVENTED? A BRIEF INTRODUCTION TO WATCH HISTORY

How cool are watches? They’re devices that read the time – but when you think about it, their ability to do this is insane. You wouldn’t guess that they’ve been around for centuries. We looked at when were watches invented and the timeline that led up to this.

Before Christ

Sundials & Water Clocks

Man-kind first told time through sun-dials and water clocks. The oldest sundial was found in Egypt. The clocks were inspired by obelisks, which the Ancient Egyptians built in 3500 BC.

The clocks were accurate – they were divided into 12 parts. However, the sun wasn’t out at night. During some parts of the year, it would set earlier too. This gave way to water clocks. Records show that water clocks have been around since the 16th century BC.

There were multiple types. One version required a bowl with holes to be placed in water.  It would be filled at a constant rate. There were markings on it, making note of the time the water reached them. Archeologists have found ancient water clocks in pyramids. They were even a part of pharaoh Amenhotep I’s tomb – who died 1504 years before Christ.

13th – 17th Century

The First Mechanical Clock

Mechanical clocks were invented in 1275. One of the oldest was made in 1386. It is located in the Salisbury cathedral. It looks more like a pulley and lever than a clock. It makes note of the time by striking every hour.

There were early mechanical clocks in Italy too. Three of them were built in the early 14th century. One of them marks the hours passed by ringing a bell.

The Birth of The Pocket Watch

Swiss watches are pinnacles of craftsmanship. They consist of watchmaking traditions that are centuries old. The world’s first pocket watch was created in Switzerland. The story behind it is fascinating. John Calvin broke away from the Catholic church and in his time in Switzerland, he banned people from wearing jewelry. In a panic, Swiss jewelers came up with replacements – pocket watches.

The first known pocket watch dates back to the 1570s. It was made from bronze and had religious iconography on it. The fact that it was made from bronze is peculiar as iron was normally used in clocks.

The pocket watches didn’t have elaborate faces. They only read the hours passed. Minutes were introduced in the 1680s. Hands to measure seconds were created  in the 1690s.

The Invention of Pendulums

Before pendulums, we couldn’t tell accurate time. Mechanical clocks were only accurate by up to 15 minutes a day. Although they were created by Galileo in 1602, the first pendulum was patented by Dutch scientist Christian Huygens in the 1650s. If you’re a physics buff, you’d know that it helped Isaac Newton measure the shape of the earth.

The technology behind pendulums was used in timekeepers as well. This made them very accurate. A great example of this is the Grandfather clock.

18th Century

Clocks Become Widespread

Manufacturers started to produce pocket watches in various shapes and sizes. They became thinner, making them easier to carry. Table clocks even popped up during this era.

Due to their popularity, improvements were constantly being made. The deadbeat escapement was created, which made timepieces more accurate. In 1770, automatic mechanisms were introduced. It was invented by the Swiss watchmaker, Abraham-Louis Perrelet.

gold pocket watch

19th Century

America Takes the Watch World by Storm

The innovations in the industry did not stop in the 19th century. Watchmaking companies came up with techniques to mass-produce their products. Cheaper materials started being used. This allowed everyday citizens to own pocket watches. As production costs were cut, the key-winders in pocket watches were discontinued. This gave birth to the crown.

Wrist Watches Are Born

The first watch ever wristwatch was created for the Queen of NaplesCaroline Bonaparte. It was invented in 1812. Abraham-Louis Breguet gifted the timepiece to her as she loved jewelry.

Although he was associated with designing the first wristwatch, this isn’t entirely true. Queen Elizabeth I wore something very similar to a wristwatch. However, Caroline Bonaparte’s watch is thought of as being the ancestor of the modern device. Yes, she was related to Napoleon Bonaparte – she was his younger sister.

Wristwatches weren’t worn by men, as they favoured pocket watches instead. This slowly started to change in the late 19th century. Soldiers in the military started wearing timepieces for the first time in Germany.

20th Century

World War I

World War 1 is when wristwatches became popular with men. Having to use heavy machinery and guns, opening and closing pocket watches was not easy. They were also a burden to carry about. Thankfully, wristwatches were available.

Wristwatches during World War I looked like pocket watches. Their crowns were in the 12 o'clock position and had movements you’d see in their alternative.

Watches were required to be a part of officers’ kits. But they were not supplied by the army. Knowing this, manufacturers advertised them. The devices also needed to be luminous and have tough crystals.

When they returned home, soldiers were so used to wearing watches, that they continued to do so. The fact that populations were forcefully conscripted meant that everyone was wearing the devices. War heroes were also coming back wearing them. People wanted to emulate them, so wristwatches became popular.

Modern Watch Inventions

Stopwatches are a major feature in timepieces. They were patented in the 1930s.

Electric watches – the ancestor to quartz pieces were created in the 1950s. They used solenoids to power their gears. Speaking of quartz watches, they were invented in 1969. Mechanical watches are full of gears. Although they make them more intricate, they also make them unreliable and heavy. As quartz watches only relied on a battery, they were the better choice.

Quartz watches are cheaper to produce. Considering all of their benefits, they started taking over the world. Unfortunately for the watch industry, this shook things up.

The Quartz Crisis

Being so easy to produce, battery-powered watches almost put mechanical ones out of business. Several high-end Swiss brands were going bankrupt. This is true for major names like Blancpain. Thankfully, the Swatch group saved them. It was a conglomeration of multiple manufacturers.

The quartz crisis swept through the 1970s. By the 1980s, mechanical watches were making a comeback. One of the reasons they survived was because people realized quartz watches weren’t the best. They were powered by circuits, while mechanical ones had centuries of traditions behind them. They also took more craftsmanship to make.

The Emergence of Digital Watches

Believe it or not, digital watches have been around since the late 1800s, though they didn’t have LED screens back then (obviously). The devices had dials with digits read on them. They had mechanisms that swapped new digits in, basically eliminating watch hands. They didn’t take off, though.

In 1972, the digital watch as we know it was born. Hamilton – an American watch company created the first model, Pulsar. It sold for over $2000. This seems overly pricey as digital watches can be found for less than $50 these days. By the late 1970s, the tech behind digital watches was widespread. They were being sold for the amount modern watches are today.

Smartwatches Arrive

Seiko decided to take digital watches one step further, producing the Seiko Ruputer. It was the world’s first smartwatch and had a 2-inch display. It allowed wearers to play games as well as go through their contact information. Back then, there weren’t touch screens. Buttons operated the device. The Ruputer hit the market on 10th June 1998.

Many say that the Timex Datalink was the world’s first smartwatch. It was more of a storage device. It could download data from computers and let you log information. It went on sale 4 years before Seiko’s timepiece.

smartwatch

21st Century & Beyond

Compared to the early watch designs, they’ve drastically changed since then. As much of their change was due to new inventions, we can only imagine how they’d look in the late 21st century.

Final Thoughts

The history of watches is immense. Clocks have been around for a very long time. Ancient civilizations used them as sundials. As the sun couldn’t always be relied on, water clocks came into being. The timeline then jumps to the middle ages where mechanical clocks were made. This led to pocket watches, which gradually kept improving until wristwatches popped up.

Wristwatches weren’t that popular, at first. They were only worn by women. Men had to be out and about, so having pocket watches that weren’t exposed to the elements was more practical. World War I changed this.

Throughout the 21st century – quartz, digital and smartwatches have emerged. It’s clear that as time goes by, there’ll be new introductions to the history of watches timeline.

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Author
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.
Thomas Vanderlaan
Thomas Vanderlaan
Watch Expert / Automobile Engineer