Watches 2017-10-17T08:29:43+00:00


Steve Jobs once said, “My favorite things in life don’t cost any money. It’s really clear that the most precious resource we all have is time.”

History of Watches

Horology is the study of timekeeping, and it has gone a long way from the sun dials of old. People have been marking time for ages, but it wasn’t until the 14th century that the first mechanical “ticking” clocks came about, and it would be more than 300 years before the first one small enough to carry around was invented. The watch is defined as a timepiece small enough to be worn on the wrist or placed in a pocket. The origin of the word “watch” could have been the Old English wæcce, which means “wakefulness,” or to refer to the duty shifts of soldiers, when they were “on watch.” In the mid 15th Century, it is “a clock to wake up sleepers.” People whose job it was to keep awake at night were those that wore watches.

It is interesting to note that the first wristwatch was developed as early as the 16th Century, and women almost exclusively wore them. Men had pocket watches until the 20th Century. Robert Dudley, the 1st Earl of Leicester and determined suitor of Elizabeth I, gave her a wristwatch (also known as an arm watch) in 1571. The oldest surviving one was given to the first wife of Napolean Bonaparte, Joséphine de Beauharnais, in 1806.

It wasn’t until the 17th Century that watches became widely worn by civilians. The invention of the balance spring by Robert Hooke and Christiaan Huygens greatly improved its accuracy as a timekeeper in the 1657. Before that, watches could be off from a few minutes to a few hours. It was also around this time that watchmakers added the minute hand. In 1695, Thomas Tompion replaced the verge escapement with the cylinder escapement, with more improvements made by George Graham in the 1720s. Robert Hooke invented a tooth cutting machine (for the escapement) that made it easier to produce the mechanisms of the watch, making it more affordable.

However, watches were still prone to errors because changes in temperature affected the balance spring. Pierre Le Roy solved this problem in 1765 by the addition of the bimetallic temperature balance wheel, later refined by Thomas Earnshaw. It was in 1759 that Thomas Mudge invented the lever escapement, refined by 1785, which is considered the most important breakthrough in watch technology. It is still in use today for mechanical watches, kitchen timers, alarm clocks, and non-pendulum clocks.

With all these innovations, watches were mostly produced for the British elite in the 17th and 18ths Century. Efforts for mass production did not take off until Aaron Lufkin Dennison set up the watch factory Waltham Watch Company in the US in 1851. The company closed down in 1957, having produced more than 40 million timepieces in its lifetime.

Watches and the military

The most important function of watches as far as the military was concerned was in synchronizing troop movements during war. Wristwatches were therefore an essential part of their arsenal. The British Army began using it in the 1880s, and was especially useful during the First Boer War. It was at this time that the Mappin & Webb company produced the “campaign watch,” which was widely used by soldiers in the Sudan campaign and the Second Boer War. Swiss watchmakers Girard-Perregaux and others supplied the German Navy with their own timepieces starting from 1880.

During World War I, watchmakers produced timepieces designed to survive the rigors of war with unbreakable glass and luminous dials. All British soldiers  were used their own wristwatches from 1917. This opened up the market for wristwatches to the masses after the war, because many soldiers came home sporting them. Before that time, men only wore pocket watches. Many companies began producing wristwatches for men, Most notably, one of the early producers was the Wilsdorf and Davis company, set up in 1905 in London. Hans Wilsdorf put the Swiss company Aegler under contract to produce a wristwatch line. The company would later become Rolex.

Later developments

The first quartz watches came into being in 1969, which made use of a quartz crystal resonator to count off the seconds in place of the balance wheel. It was more accurate and affordable, and overtook mechanical watches in terms of production. However, the most expensive watches still use mechanical springs, valued more for its craftsmanship and design rather than its accuracy in timekeeping. The most expensive watches in the world today still use the tourbillion mechanism developed in 1795 by Abraham-Louis Breguet, a French-Swiss watchmaker. Most have multiple “complications,” or features, such as the day, date, moon phase, and even temperature. Many of these rare and exclusive timepieces are made of precious metals, and some are even made of diamonds!

Types of watches

Watches move in different ways. The movement measures how time passes, and may be purely mechanical, purely electronic, or a mix of both. The most common type of watch uses electronic movement while presenting time in mechanical fashion, i.e. hour and minute hands.


Mechanical watches rely on spring and levers (escapements) to tick off the seconds, and tend to be less accurate than other modern types of watches are. They are also more expensive to produce because the mechanisms are complex and delicate. However, the sheer skill required to produce these timepieces put them at the top of the list of watch collectors despite their limitations in terms of time keeping. There are two types of mechanical watches in terms of power source: manual and automatic. Manual watches have to be rewound periodically, while automatic watches has a rotor that uses physical movement, i.e. shaking the watch, to wind the spring. Abraham-Louis Perrelet  invented the first automatic or self-winding pocket watch in 1770, but it was watch repairer John Harwood that invented the first automatic wristwatch in 1923.


Electronic watches, on the other hand, have no moving parts in the mechanism. It relies on quartz crystal vibrations to mark time. When a quartz crystal receives an electric charge, it vibrates at a specific frequency, which in turn moves the mechanical hands. It requires a power source, though, so electronic watches require a battery to run.  Epson developed the first “quartz” watch in response to an order by Seiko in 1959. Other quartz wristwatch prototypes were also developed by Swiss research laboratory CEH.  These first prototypes worked so well that by 1970, 18 watch manufacturers were getting into the game. Seiko headed the pack in mass production with the Seiko 35 SQ Astron in 1969.


Seiko pioneered the quartz watch for mass production, but went into research to combine the mechanical and electronic watch movements. In 1999, it came out with the Seiko Spring Drive, which uses quartz to mark time and mechanical gear train to provide the power, eliminating the need for a battery or a balance wheel.