Now that we know the basics of how watches work, it’s helpful to know where they came from, their history and the trial and error process that created the world of perfect accuracy that we enjoy today.
Mechanical watches have a long history beginning nearly 500 years ago when they diverged from the first portable clocks. Before the invention of the mainspring in the beginning years of the 15th century, clocks were cumbersome affairs that were far from portable and usually confined to buildings like churches and city halls. For most people, the only way to determine the time was through the use of sundials or listening for church bells to mark the time. This created a need for a small, portable method of keeping time, though at first it was only for the aristocracy.
Credit for the invention of the watch proper is often given to a German clockmaker named Peter Henlein who lived from 1485 to 1542. His concept of a watch was a pendant hung from the neck and richly ornamented. Henlein and others produced these expensive highly sought after early watches to an aristocratic market that was going crazy for keeping time. Known as the “clock-watch” these early German watches were portable, but not small, only had an hour hand, and lacked glass crystals. They typically had to be wound twice a day and were overall cumbersome and highly inaccurate and served more as status symbols than timekeepers. But that same basic design, a mainspring wound up which moved the hands and kept time through the use of a rotating balance wheel would remain the basic mechanical watch up until modern times.
Over time, they evolved into a tear drop shape known as Nuremberg Eggs until finally by the end of the 16th century many different shapes of watch could be found. By the 17th century, watches had become small enough to be kept in a pocket. From this came the typical pocket-watch shape that persists until today and gradual increases in accuracy as technology of watchmaking developed and improved.
The invention of the level escapement in 1759 and jewel bearings in 1702 allowed watches to be made much thinner than earlier types. This gave a distinct advantage in both weight and the gracefulness of handling the watch. This in turn opened the door for the development of the wrist watch.
By the 19th century, mass production of watches had begun and the prices had gradually dropped over time to the point that they were no longer mere status symbols only available to the rich, but in fact most of the middle class by this time could afford pocket watches. The burgeoning need for extreme accuracy in the railway industry further pressed the need for perfect accuracy. This led to further technological
development that pressed for both accuracy and the ability to mass produce watches with consistent quality.
The world’s first true wristwatch is thought to have been made by Abraham-Louis Breguet for the Queen of Naples in 1810. The concept was not new, as early as 1571 watches known as “arm watches” existed, but were cumbersome and impractical for day to day use. Most of the early wrist watches after 1810 were made for women and were more bracelets than timepieces. They were decorative women’s jewelry pieces, whereas the durable pocket watch remained popular among men.
This all began to change as soldiers began adopting the wrist watch for synchronizing their maneuvers and signalling each other. During the first world war, glow-in-the-dark dials had been developed along with tempered glass crystals for durability. This led to a general craze among the male population for wrist watches. The first self-winding wristwatches appeared in 1923, and the pocketwatch slowly lost favor over the 20th century and are now rarely worn.
In the 1950’s, a hybrid between mechanical and technological watches developed. Instead of being powered by physical winding, the watch making industry moved toward electricity to power them. Early on, the hands of the watch were still driven mechanically, but the power source had changed. This proved to be a fundamental shift unprecedented in the world of timekeeping, much like electricity transformed every other aspect of the world.
Perhaps the biggest revolution in watchmaking across its entire history happened in 1969. The invention of the quartz crystal resonator in a single year changed the face of the watch world forever. More accurate than any mechanical watch can be, and can be manufactured much much more cheaply, quartz watches not only allow anyone to own one, but has made them outright disposable. By 1970 the LED display was developed, and in 1974 the first wrist watch ever to hold Marine Chronometer certification made its debut. By the 1980’s, quartz watches had taken over every aspect of the watch market other than high-end luxury mechanical watches. They now make up the overwhelming majority of watches that grace people’s wrists.
But the development of the watch has not stopped. The latest revolution in watch history happened in 1990 with the introduction of watches that keep their accuracy by receiving radio signals. This has allowed wrist watches to achieve the accuracy of atomic clocks and thus have achieved practical time-keeping perfection.
And the innovations continue, from super refined automatic movements, to fully digital and internet capable Apple Watches.