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The History of Timekeeping: Wrist Watches

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The Era of Wrist Watches

In our previous episode, we traveled back in time to look at some of mankind’s most ingenious inventions that made timekeeping possible. We began by examining 5,000 years old Egyptian sundials and water clocks, continued to the assembly of the first mechanical clock that was invented by Pope Sylvester II over a thousand years ago, and ended in 1865, with the invention of the world’s first truly accurate timekeeping device, the pendulum clock. In today’s episode, we’ll take a step back in order to understand how the final stage in the evolution of timekeeping devices came about: how wrist watches were born.

When an invention springs to mind
As written, Sylvester II invented the first mechanical clock in 996, though the technology didn’t become popular for a few centuries. Mostly because crafting and maintaining these types of clocks required advanced technical skills, they were heavy and large, and still very inaccurate. But a revolutionizing invention would soon change all that and make the history of timekeeping “tick” at a whole new pace.

history of watches

Around the year 1400, an unknown locksmith, probably from Nuremberg, invented something we call today “the main spring” – a coiled spring which he used to improve the functionality of his locks. Since many locksmiths at the time were also clockmakers, the spring soon found itself applied in clocks, as a device that could be wound to store energy, which could then be released over a long period of time.

A Main spring. The power plant of a mechanical watch.

A Main spring. The power plant of a mechanical watch.

This new invention made it possible to craft, for the first time in history, a clock so small it could actually be held in one’s hand. However, there was still no solution in sight to the problem of keeping the movement running at a constant rate as the spring ran down. This meant that for many more years to come, these spring-based clocks would still deviate by a few hours a day. Furthermore, this devices were still too large and clumsy to fit into pockets, so they were worn mostly as pendants and treated like sophisticated jewelry. However, despite these limitations, the trend caught on and Nuremberg’s clocksmith industry flourished so much that the term “Nuremberg Egg” became a synonym for “pocketwatch”.

One of the first Nuremberg Eggs, dates back to 1530.

One of the first Nuremberg Eggs, dates back to 1530.

If you read our previous chapters, you’d remember that in 1656 Huygens developed the world’s first accurate clock by harnessing the power and precision of the pendulum. Luckily, Huygens didn’t stop there. He also searched for a way to make pocket-watches accurate as well. In 1675, he achieved an historic break-through and developed a brilliant mechanism called the “balance wheel”, or a “hair spring”. This add-on could successfully absorb the main-spring’s energy output and release it back to the mechanism at constant beats. Thanks to this development, Huygens crafted the world’s first accurate pocket watch, which even had a minute hand.

watch calance wheel

A balance wheel at work (on the left)

Over the following 200 years, more inventors came along and perfected the reliability, accuracy and design of the trusty pocketwatch. In the middle of the 19th century, mass production was picked up by the Swiss Japy family. It wasn’t long before an American company called Waltham opened a watch factory as well, surpassing their Swiss counterpart in terms of production quantity, and low prices, thus driving the Swiss to focus solely on quality, a change that has affected the watch industry until this very day.

Waltham Movement 1899

A 1899 Waltham Movement Gentlemen’s Pocket Watch

The Rise of the Wrist Watches
According to the Guinness Book of Records, the first wrist watch was designed for the Countess Koscowicz of Hungary in 1868. It was simply an undersized pocketwatch embedded in a bracelet. But, the concept didn’t really become popular until WWI. During the war, in order to improve synchronization between soldiers during maneuvers, the men were equipped with wrist watches (which at first consisted of nothing more than a relatively small pocket watch and a leather-strap it attached to). By the time the war ended, millions of men returned home wearing a wrist watch – and the fashion soon caught on.

first wristwatchFrom then on, the road to perfect timekeeping was short. In 1923, John Harwood manage to craft a “self-winding” watch, using a rotor blade that would swing freely inside the watch every time the wrist was in motion, thus, winding the watch “automatically”. A few years later, two researchers at Bell Telephone Laboratories discovered that quartz crystal creates a frequency that is very consistent, leading to the development in 1927 of a highly-accurate clock. Less than 40 years later, The Centre Electronique Horloger (CEH) in Switzerland succeeded in incorporating the technology into wrist watches. But, by the time that happened, a whole new revolutionary technology had emerged – and in 1970, the first digital clock was already ticking. Astonishly, while it took almost a thousand years for mechanical clocks to evolve into mechanical wrist watches, it took less than five years for digital clocks to make that leap.

With this notion, the time has come to end our journey to find the answer to the question of how timekeeping began. Now, it’s time to step out to a new journey and search for new answers, for a far more mind-twisting question: What is time, anyway?

But that is story for a different day. Thank you for reading 

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