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History of Watches

History of Watches

With almost everyone carrying phones these days, watches have transitioned from necessary tool to an object of style and utility – a way to tell time that brings with it the design and pedigree the wearer wants. The designs are wide-ranging and suit every style – but what about the pedigree?

Watches are portable timepieces that an individual can wear. They were developed as early as the 14th century, but really gained in functionality by the 17th century, as by that time they were much more accurate despite being moved around. This was a technological advance when it came out, as most clocks needed to be stationary in order to function properly and keep accurate time. Even once the mechanisms could be made quite small, allowing the wearer to move was a great leap forward.

Watches have mostly been mechanical clockwork devices, powered by a mainspring which needs to be wound regularly, and kept accurate by an oscillating balance wheel. When the electronic quartz watch came out in the 1960s, powered by batteries and keeping time through the vibration of a quartz crystal, the door waw opened for a whole new generation of watch designs. Over the next 20 years, the industry would be dominated by these quartz watches, to the great benefit of some manufacturers and causing great damage to other more traditionally embedded watchmakers.

collection of watches

That wasn’t the last watch revolution, though. Digital watches, calculator watches, watches set in rings, and yes, even watches incorporated into flip-phones, smartphones and smartwatches all make the list of innovations to the original watch designs.

The two basic types of watch were – and still are – wristwatches and pocket watches. The wristwatch is worn on a strap or band around the wrist, and the pocket watch is often worn on a chain and kept in a pocket.

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Modern watches display the time, but they most often have extra features, called ‘complications’ within the watch industry, which can include keeping the date, the phases of the moon, stopwatch features, timers, calculators, heart-rate monitors, and more. Some attach to the Internet via Bluetooth or other technology, ensuring greater accuracy.

There are still inexpensive watches being made, mostly digital and quartz models, but there has been an upsurge in sales of more expensive, collectible watches, usually purchased (and priced) based on quality of workmanship, rarity, or cultural or industry significance. Some of the most expensive watches ever sold at auction include a mechanical watch called the Patek Philippe Henry Graves Super complication which, as the name implies, was the world’s most complicated watch at the time it came out, and remained so until around 1989. It sold in 2014 for 24 million US dollars at an auction in Geneva ad remained the most expensive ever sold at auction until 2019. In November 2019, the Patek Grandmaster Chime Ref. 6300A-010 sold for 31.19 million US dollars, also at an auction in Geneva.

Origins of the First Watch

The precursors to watches were the portable spring-driven clocks of 15th century Europe. It would take 200 years for technology to advance enough for watches to be worn or carried on the person while maintaining any useful degree of accuracy. At that point, town watchmen started using them to keep track of their shifts. Some believe that the word ‘watch’ is derived from this practice and the Old English word woecce, meaning ‘watchman.’ Others think that it was the practice of shipboard sailors in the a7th century, using them to mark their shifts at sea (and far from town clocks) that prompted the use of the word. In either case, it was marking the passing of a shift, or watch, that likely gave rise to the current name of the device.

The Evolution of Watches over the Ages

In 1657, the balance spring was introduced, which, in cooperation with the balance wheel, rocketed watch technology forward in terms of practicality and accuracy. Though both Robert Hooke and Christian Huygens claimed credit for the invention, and even today the dispute continues, what is not in dispute is the importance of the advancement. Where previous technology could lose accuracy by as much as several hours over the period of a single day, the new technology could stay accurate to within 10 minutes. This meant that the single, hour hand of previous watches was joined by the new minute hand, and a glance at a watch could mean a much more accurate idea of the time, as well as a more precise means of reading it. Britain added the minute hand in around 1680, followed by France twenty years or so later.

Now that the balance wheel was more accurate, the other components of the watch could be dialled in and improved for increased accuracy and reliability. The verge escapement, for example, could be replaced by a cylinder escapement, the invention of Thomas Tompion in 1695, which was further improved by George Graham in the 1720s. Manufacturing methods, too, improved. Robert Hooke’s tooth cutting machine improved accuracy of gears and the speed of manufacture. The two centuries following the balance spring and wheel innovation were filled with notable improvements to watch making and reliability.

The balance wheel still had some problems though, mainly caused by the loss of elasticity of the balance spring due to temperature fluctuation. Pierre Le Roy (1765) and Thomas Earnshaw (1749-1829) mitigated the problem using a bimetallic temperature-compensated balance wheel.

Thomas Mudge invented the level escapement in 1759 (improved by Josiah Emery in 1785), which is arguably the most important advancement in watch design and technology up to that time and for a good while afterward, but the invention was not widely used until the 1800s, and then mainly in Britain.

Britain did dominate the world of watch manufacture for most of the 17th and 18th centuries, by catering to high-end customers and focussing on top-quality timepieces. The United States stepped in to take a major role when Aaron Lufkin Dennison set up a factory in Massachusetts in 1851, beginning the successful development of the Waltham Watch Company.

The First Wristwatches

The idea of wristwatches goes back as far as the 16th century. Even Queen Elizabeth I was given one by Robert Dudley in 1571. The oldest surviving example is a ‘bracelet watch’ made in 1806 and owned by Joséphine de Beauharnais.

Wristwatches were, as these two examples may hint at, primarily worn by women. Men of the time preferred the pocket watch, perhaps because they wore clothing more conducive to pocket watches than women’s clothing was. In any case, it was not until the 20th century that wristwatches grew in use and popularity among men.

old fashioned leather strap watches

Near the end of the 19th century, military men began to use wristwatches to synchronise manoeuvres in the field of battle without the need to signal – and thereby risk the enemy intercepting the signals and knowing what to expect. There is an 1893 patent for a ‘watch wristlet’ by Garstin Company of London, though similar products were being manufactured as early as the 1880s and used by British Army officers during colonial military campaigns. This ability to synchronise was shown to be especially important in theatres such as the First Boer War of 1880-81, when the British were fighting against highly mobile Boer insurgents. During and following this conflict, wristwatches became common tools among the British officer class. German naval officers began using wristwatches in about 1880 as well, supplied mainly by Girard-Perregaux and other Swiss watchmakers.

At first, wristwatches weren’t much more than pocked watches attached to straps that could be worn about the wrist, but as popularity increased, so did the specialisation of design. By 1903, Swiss watchmakers Dimier Frères & Cie patented the wire lugs that are now standard to most wristwatch designs.

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Louis Cartier made a watch for his friend, Alberto Santos-Dumont, in 1904 which allowed Santos-Dumont to control his airship with both hands while still being able to check performance using the watch. This inspired a line of Santos-Dumont watches and sunglasses that is still alive today.

The following year, in 1905, Hans Wilsdorf set up a business in London with his brother-in-law, Alfred Davis. Wilsdorf & Davis aimed to provide affordable timepieces of decent quality to common citizens… and later changed its name to Rolex in 1915.

Public perceptions around the wristwatch changed over the course of WWI, 1914-1918, and the mass-market for wristwatches opened up as a result. The tactics used, primarily the ‘creeping barrage artillery’ tactic, required that not only the officers had accurate synchronisation, but each of the gunners needed it too. To support this need, companies provided service watches that were designed specifically for the hard conditions experienced by lower-level soldiers. Features like unbreakable glass to stand up against shock, luminous dials for dark conditions in trenches and at night, and heavy-duty straps and fasteners. By 1917, the War Office was issuing wristwatches to combatants as part of their standard gear. By the end of the war, almost all soldiers, regardless of rank, wore wristwatches.

The practice continued after the war and became a standard fashion as well as a practical tool. The reputation of the wristwatch had shifted from that of a lady’s fashion or piece of feminine jewellery alone, to include that of a masculine tool, a relic or reminder of the war, and a sign of masculine civilian attire. By 1930, wristwatches outnumbered pocket watches fifty to one, winning their own war against their older cousin. The first self-winding system was invented by John Harwood in 1923, and the coup was complete.

The Introduction of Electric watches

The next big advancement in watch technology was the shift to electric power. The Elgin National Watch Company and the Hamilton Watch Company came out with the first electric watches beginning in the 1950s. Elgin’s model 725, Hamilton’s models the Hamilton 500 and Hamilton 505 were most of note. The 500 had some issues with the misalignment of contact wires during use, which required returns to the company for realignment. The 505 was an effort to correct the problem and did, in fact, prove more reliable than the 500 was. Instead of using the contact wires, the 505 uses a non-adjustable contact on the balance assembly to deliver power to the balance wheel. 

Following these two companies, others came out with electric watch designs. One such watch used a tuning-fork resonator instead of the traditional balance wheel. This increased accuracy with a shift from 2.5-5Hz to 360Hz – a notable advancement.

The First Quartz Watches

1969 saw the release of the first quartz watches, beginning with the Seiko Astron 35SQ, quickly followed by the Omega Beta 21 in 1970. This jump in watch technology used a quartz crystal resonator, vibrating at 262kHz, to replace the old balance wheel design which only oscillated at about 5 or 6 beats per second. Battery-powered and sleek by comparison, these watches soon took a great share of the market, outselling their mechanical ancestors since the 1980s.


The mechanism that actually measures the passage of time is called the ‘movement.’ These can be mechanical, electronic, or a hybrid design that uses both to various degrees. Most commonly, modern watches use electronic movements for accuracy, and mechanical hands for style.

Mechanical Watches

Mechanical watches, even the best ones, are not as accurate as electronic movements. The error in time of mechanical watches may only be seconds per day – usually caused by changes in temperature, pressure, or position – but that is still significantly more than their electronic cousins. Mechanical watches are also more expensive to manufacture, and cost more to maintain, repair adjust. They do, however, carry with them a great sense of style and the mystique of bygone ages. They are examples of the height of accuracy attained by mechanical means, complex in construction and design, and for this reason, some designs even have clear faces that show the complex, tiny gears and structures of the movement. These are called skeleton watches.

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Mechanical movements use escapement mechanisms to control the unwinding and winding of the springs. This changes the expected, quick unwinding of a spring in one great motion, into a series of controlled bursts. The balance wheel and balance spring (or hairspring) control the motion of the gears and subsequent release of energy, functioning like a pendulum does in a larger, stationary clock. The escapement sometimes also has a rotating frame, called a tourbillon, which mitigates the effects of gravity on the watch’s motion. Tourbillons improve accuracy, but are very complex and expensive, so they are usually only found in higher end watches.

modern watches

The Roskopf movement, or pin-lever escapement, was invented by Georges Frederic Roskopf, after whom it is named. It is a less expensive version of the fully levered movement popular with companies like Timex, and many Swiss watchmakers. It was replaced by the quartz movement.

Some watches use a electromechanical movements and are called ‘tuning-fork watches.’ Developed by Bulova and released in 1960, the tuning fork vibrates with a very precise frequency. It varies, but is most often 360 Hz. This vibration drives the watch. Two jewelled fingers, called ‘pawls,’ convert the electronic energy into rotary power. This movement was another casualty of the quartz revolution, losing their market share to those new, more accurate devices that were nonetheless cheaper to produce.

Mechanical watches traditionally use a spiral spring (called a mainspring) to store and release power. If the watch requires the spring to be manually wound periodically, it is called a ‘manual watch.’ These watches are wound by turning a small knob on the side of the watch, called a ‘crown. Some antique pocket watches are of this type, but require a separate key which is inserted into a hole in the back of the watch.

Today, most manual watches can run for around forty hours on a single winding, so it is best if they are wound daily, to keep tension steady. A few have special, 192-hour mainsprings and need only be wound once per week.

Automatic Watches

An automatic watch is a watch that you do not have to wind. The regular, everyday movements of the wearer’s body are harnessed by the watch’s internal mechanism and converted into winding power. This technology is not as new as you may think! It was first developed for pocket watches in 1770 by Abraham-Louis Perrelet. The technology was adapted for wristwatches for the first time in 1923 by watch repairman John Harwood.

For this technology to work, an eccentric weight, called a winding rotor, rotates in reaction to the wearer’s movement. The back-and-forth motion powers a ratchet that winds the mainspring, a little at a time, all throughout the day as the wearer goes about normal business. Most watches of this type also have a manual winding option to keep the watch running when not in motion, or to top up the power needs if the wearer doesn’t move around sufficiently to power it.

The Swatch Group launched a notable watch in 2014, called the sistem51. Its movement consists of only 51 moving parts, is completely mechanical, and includes an innovative self-winding system with a transparent, oscillating weight. It is manufactured entirely on an automated assembly line – the only mechanical watch to be produced so! Because of this automated assembly and the low number of inner parts, Swatch Group was able to offer this as a low-cost, completely mechanical watch. The move was a good one, as the company did very well with the offering and became a household name.

Electronic Watches

Electronic, or ‘quartz’ movements, rely on a quartz crystal for regulating the movement, and so they have fewer moving parts and are more accurate than mechanical watches. A varying electric voltage is applied to the crystal, which changes shape in response to each voltage, and the result is a regular oscillation. This replaces the balance wheel and spring. The frequency of this vibration is very regular and stable. It is often coupled with mechanical hands to combine the best of technology types into one good-looking, reliable watch.

Epson, the Seiko subsidiary that developed the quartz technology, was tasked in 1959 (by Seiko) with the challenge of developing a quartz wristwatch. They called the project ‘59A’ to prevent corporate espionage and to keep the project a secret. Seiko had a working prototype by the 1964 Tokyo Olympics and it was used for measuring times throughout the games. This was a marketing triumph and launched the watches into the popular consciousness.

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The first versions of the technology that were small enough to be practical in wristwatches were developed by the CEH research labs in Neuchâtel, Switzerland, from 1965 to 1967. They produced a miniaturized 8192Hz quartz oscillator, a thermo-compensation module, and an integrated circuit that was dedicated to the crystal, rather than the hybrid circuits used later in the Seiko Astron wristwatch model. The BETA 1 prototype was a success, setting timekeeping performance records at the International Chronometric Competition held at the Observatory of Neuchâtel, Switzerland in 1967. By 1970, other manufacturers were producing version of the beta 21 wristwatch. These included the Omega Electroquartz, the Patek Philippe, the Piaget, and the Rolex Oysterquartz.

The Seiko 35 SQ Astron was the first quartz watch to enter full production. It was released on 25 December 1969. Soon afterward, the Swiss Beta 21 came out, followed by the Omega Marine Chronometer the following year. This last example remains one of the most accurate wristwatches ever produced.

The technology for the quartz watch was not developed by a single entity however, nor was it done in the same country. Several countries each contributed to certain aspects of the system as a whole, and as a result, no one could patent the whole movement of the watch. The result of this was a wide range of manufacturers working on producing and improving the design. Rapid growth ensued. The explosion of quartz watches on the market knocked the mechanical wristwatch from the peak of the market, where it has sat for almost a hundred years. Quartz technology today is cheap and reliable, and quartz watches are still mass produced in great quantities. Despite this cheaper and faster production, quartz watches are ten times more accurate than mechanical watches – to within half a second per day.

In the 1970s, the mechanical watch industry consolidated into a few, select companies. The quartz watch industry boomed under the leadership of the Swatch Group of companies and production of quartz watches ramped up even further. Manufacture of watch batteries, oscillators and integrated circuits increased accordingly. The launch of the trend-setting SWATCH brand in 1983 solidified the company’s top position – one it still holds today. It is the largest watch company in the world.

It took 20 years, from the beginning of research into quartz watch technology until the company was able to successfully combine it with mechanical works to create the first hybrid, quartz-mechanical watch. The Seiko Spring Drive was introduced to the domestic market in 1999, and to the wider world in 2005. The watch utilises a spring drive and mechanical works to provide quartz-quality precision without the need for a battery. A spring powers a mechanical gear train, without need for a balance wheel – combining the best of quartz precision and mechanical tradition, with no need to replace a battery.

Miyota of Japan (Citizen Watch) introduced a new movement in 2010, which consisted of a three-pronged quartz crystal that vibrates with such a high frequency that precision is claimed to be within ten seconds a year. The second hand, rather than jerking around the face, moves smoothly. The three-pronged quartz crystal was originally made for the exclusive use of Bulova, for their Precisionist or Accutron II line.

Another way to ensure a timepiece keeps accurate time is to have it correct itself at regular intervals. An example of this is the radio time signal watch. These are quartz watches which communicate at regular intervals with outside sources, such as atomic clocks, GPS satellites, the DCF77 signal from Germany, the WWVB signal in the US, and other sources. The advantage of these watches goes beyond keeping accurate time, as they also automatically adjust for leap-years, daylight savings, and other anomalies – though otherwise they function as a normal quartz watch.

Electronic watches have many advantages over mechanical ones, but a potential disadvantage is the need to be powered by an electric power source. This source is usually a replaceable battery. The first example of this was the Hamilton Electric 500, put out in 1957 by the Hamilton Watch Company. Watch batteries – technically referred to as ‘cells’ – were designed specifically for use in watches. They are low-profile, small and light, and provide small amounts of power for a long period of time, rather than greater power output for shorter durations. Some cells can last for years without need to replace them. In many cases, once the cell has been depleted, replacement requires a trip to a watchmaker or repair shop – a service often provided by jewellers as well. Though some watches allow for home replacement of batteries, it is often a good idea to let a professional do it with the proper tools as, especially when it comes to water-resistant watches, proper tools and techniques can mean the difference between a flawless fit and seal, and one with some damage that may allow moisture to enter the works. For some warranties, it is also important to keep a record of professional watch servicing when necessary.

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Most cells today are silver-oxide or lithium, replacing the less-environmentally-friendly mercury cells of the past. Alkaline batteries are available as a cheaper alternative, but have a much shorter usable life, and so aren’t usually the best deal in the long run. Some solar-powered watches use rechargeable cells.

Some watches – even electronic ones – are powered by the motion of the wearer. Seiko’s kinetic system harnesses the motion of the wearer using a rotating weight to power a tiny generator. Instead of winding a spring, as is done in self-winding mechanical watches, this system generates electrical power.

Solar powered watches are, of course, powered by ambient light. Photovoltaic cells on the face of the watch convert light into electric power to charge a rechargeable cell or capacitor within the watch.

These watches require regular exposure to sufficient light – sunlight is best – and if they get it, they will never need winding or charging. In some cases, a few minutes of sunlight is sufficient to save up weeks’ worth of energy. The Citizen Eco-Drive is an example of this. Early solar watches include the Synchronar, Nepro, Sicura, and some Alba, Cristalonic, Citizen and Seiko models. As technology improved, solar watches soon became almost indistinguishable from non-solar watches to the casual glance.

A final, and far less common, source of power is exemplified by the Citizen Eco-Drive Thermo, which uses the temperature difference between the ambient air and the wearer’s arm to generate power.

Watch Display Types

Analogue Display

Traditional watches used analogue forms to display the time and date information – usually hands and/or dials. There is normally an hour hand, a second (or minute) hand, and often a third hand to measure out the seconds. This third hand moves either every second (typical of mechanical watches), once every fifth of a second (also called a ‘beat’, typical in quartz watches, and appears to be a smooth movement to the naked eye), or once every two-fifths of a second (two beats) in the case of a duplex escapement. A second hand that truly glides around the face is achieved through use of the tri-synchro regulator system present in Spring Drive watches. Normally, all three hands are mechanical, but some watch designs incorporate a liquid crystal display to simulate hands while producing what was, at the time, a very advanced technological look.

Almost all watches that fall into the category of jewellery or collectibles use analogue displays. The style can and does vary widely of course, but the emphasis is always on clarity of display and almost always on the ability to accurately tell the time at a glance. Watch faces tend to be large, letters clear and contrasting with backgrounds, etc.

Some watches are even designed specifically for left-handed wearers (those who wear the watch on the right wrist), so the winding knob (crown) can be easily wound without having to remove the watch from the wrist.

Marketing images of analogue watches most often show display times of 1:50 or 10:10. This configuration creates a shape on the watch that reminds the viewer of a smile – or at least it is meant to do so – and often highlights the name or logo of the manufacturer between the hands. Digital watches most often show 12:08, which is one of the brightest displays, and shows off the technology to greatest effect.

Tactile Display

There are situations, and particular users, that require a watch to communicate using touch, rather than sight or even sound. Examples of tactile watch interfaces include the Silen-T wristwatch by Swiss luxury watchmaker Tissot. There are raised bumps around the bezel, but it otherwise looks like a regular watch. If the wearer holds a finger to the face for a moment though, it triggers the tactile function. The wearer can then run a finger clockwise around the bezel. When the wearer touches the bump for the current hour, the watch face vibrates continuously. When the bump for the current position of the minute-hand is reached, the watch face vibrates intermittently.

The Bradley, by Eone Timepieces of Washington DC, came out on 11 July 2013 via the Kickstarter site. This is designed for the visually-impaired, but can also be used by the fully-sighted. The watch features two ball bearings that indicate the time via touch, as well as raised markings at the hour positions.

Digital Display

A digital display does not use hands to indicate the hour, but instead displays numbers, either in the 12 or 24 hour configuration, such as 01:34 or 18:15. These digits are usually shown using a seven-segment display – two stacked vertical ones on the left, two on the right, and a horizontal one at each of the top, middle and bottom.

As early as the 19th century, digital displays were used with some mechanical pocket watches. Way back in the 1920s we saw the first digital mechanical wristwatches. The first electronic digital watch, however, did not come along until 1970, with the Pulsar LED prototype, a joint venture of Hamilton Watch Company and Electro-Data. Hamilton Watch Company had made a futuristic clock for the 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey, and the work inspired John Bergey, then head of Hamilton’s Pulsar division. By 4 April 1972, the Pulsar was released. It was designed with an 18-carat gold case, red light-emitting diode (LED) display, and sold for a then-whopping US$2100 – still significant money for a watch.

Such watches remained out of financial reach for most customers until 1975, when LED watches with less expensive, plastic cases were mass-produced by Texas Instruments for a mere $20, dropping to $10 the following year. Pulsar lost $6,000,000 following that release, and the Pulsar brand was sold to Seiko.

Not all early LED watches were successes. The Black Watch, for example, manufactured and sold by British watchmaker Sinclair Radionics in 1975, was not reliable and the company was plagued by returns and complaints, finally ceasing production after only a few years on sale.

Most LED watches required the wearer to press a button in order for the time to display, mainly as an energy-saving measure. The LED lights, though efficient, were still too high a draw on the tiny watch cells to be practical if on all the time. This limitation, along with the red colour of the display, which some users put up with, rather than embraced, meant that the LED display was quickly replaced once a viable option came along. That option was the liquid crystal display (LCD).

These used less power than LED displays, and could be seen without pushing a button to activate them – unless in total darkness (as is the case with all other types of visual display watches), in which case most of them were equipped with a tiny light, illuminating LEDs, or electroluminescent backlighting.

The first six-digit, LCD watch was the 1973 Seiko 06LC. This was a reliable watch, readable in broad daylight, and not only was it very accurate, but the added tenths and hundredths of a second digits made it clear to users and onlookers that this was a serious precision timepiece. Other watches of the period that used LCDs include the 1972 Gruen Teletime LCD Watch, the Cox Electronic Systems Quarza (which had the first Field Effect LCD readable in direct sunlight and produced by the International Liquid Crystal Corporation of Cleveland, Ohio), and the Ebauches Electronic SA prototype eight-digit LCD wristwatch, which showed time and date. This last was produced by Brown, Boveri & Cie of Switzerland, and became the LCD supplier to Casio for the 1974 CASIOTRON.

One drawback of the LCD display was that it used polarised light to produce the display. If the viewer were wearing polarised glasses as well, the watches could be difficult to read.

Digital watch technology continued to grow rapidly through the 1980s and beyond, sometimes innovating well beyond their time. Seiko, for example, developed a TV watch! Casio made the TS-1000, a digital watch with a thermometer built in, and another watch that could translate fifteen hundred Japanese words into English! Neither of those caught on back then, but the Casio CFX-400 scientific calculator watch of 1985 sold quite well. Casio also made the DBA-800, a watch that could dial telephone numbers. Citizen developed a watch that could respond to voice prompting. Timex released a watch in 1995 that could hold data downloaded from a computer, and some that employed dot-matrix displays.

The high technology fad of the late 1980s to mid 1990’s faded – perhaps taken over by similar tech advances in the form of mobile and smart phones – and the watch industry is now mostly producing simpler models, with little variation between models, and lower price points, as well as high-end status pieces out of reach of most people’s budgets.