The concept of time and its measurement has fascinated man for centuries.
In turn, this fascination has kept many inquisitive minds occupied, contemplating evermore precise mechanisms for measuring it, giving to a whole field of study known as Horology.
Obviously the wristwatches of today are nothing like the earliest time-telling tools. Nevertheless, by peering back into the earliest horological devices, we can understand the milestones that gave birth to the immense luxury wristwatch industry that flourishes in the modern day.
Read on as we trace from the earliest shadow clocks through to the present-day’s horological masterpieces.
Time has always been a factor in the lives of man, and the importance of tracking it accurately has grown right alongside the advancement of mankind itself.
We cover this captivating evolution in the following subsections:
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In The Beginning…
Some of the earliest examples of time-telling instruments are what are known as shadow clocks. These tools use the movement of the sun across the sky and an upright ‘pillar’ to produce a shadow. The most primitive variations of these date back to 1400 BC.
While these were not extremely precise, would not work if the sun was obstructed by clouds, and could not be relocated and expected to remain accurate, they were still useful, if only in helping to segment the day.
Around the same time, Egyptians had also developed some of the earliest water clocks. Water clocks are comprised of a vessel which either fills up with water or ‘leaks out’ water at a steady rate. More like a timer than a clock, water clocks helped to track the passage of time in an accurate way and therefore mark a significant point in horological history.
There is yet another device that is similar in concept to a shadow clock, and one which you’ve probably heard of or seen before: the sundial. Sundials also use shadows, but this time it’s cast by a structure (gnomon) fixed onto a flat plate. Naturally, that flat plate possessing calibrated indications (hour-lines) is called the dial.
Sundials have a significant advantage over shadow clocks: the fact that they can be moved. As long as the gnomon is parallel to the Earth’s axis, the shadows on the dial can be considered to be correct. A seemingly trivial difference, this fact is vital as it allows the emergence of a ‘universal time’, where two individuals in different locations are able to synchronize.
The Mechanical Age
While notable inventions like water-powered escapements were conceived in the meantime, it would take until the 13th century for mechanical clocks to appear on the scene.
The first examples were pendulum clocks featuring a verge escapement, one not so conceptually different from the modern lever escapement, and were the standard for clocks for almost three centuries.
These were subsequently upgraded with anchor escapements in the mid-1600s. The new escapements were more accurate and decreased the length of the swing of the pendulum, eventually paving the way for what are now recognized as grandfather clocks.
It was also around this time that minute and seconds hands started appearing on clock faces. Before that point clocks were quite inaccurate, potentially off by hours each day, so only the approximate hour was tracked.
The Introduction Of The Mainspring
In the 15th century, the debut of the mainspring (along with the fusée) allowed clocks to be made in smaller sizes and eventually into portable pocket watches.
Originally, pocket watch cases were in the shape of a cylinder. They then transitioned into ball or egg shapes, and eventually into their most recognized shape by the 17th century. The reason for the rounded disc shape? It made an easy job of slipping the watch into a waistcoat pocket.
Many variations on the anchor escapement would be introduced, but none as groundbreaking as the lever escapement, created by English watchmaker Thomas Mudge in 1755. This escapement would become the escapement of choice starting in the 19th century, and continues as such through to today.
The Marine Chronometer
With the advent of navigation arose the need to keep accurate track of time at sea as it was critical in calculating a boat’s longitude (and therefore geo-location). This was met with a limitation: the most accurate pendulum clocks of the time were useless on a rocking vessel.
Christiaan Huygens, the inventor of the pendulum clock, as well a Robert Hooke, a renowned British scientist, would separately propose a similar solution – the hairspring.
The spiral hairspring was not only more compact than the swinging pendulum mechanism it replaced, it was also less susceptible to changing positions and therefore much more reliable. It’s also the same type of hairspring found in most modern mechanical wristwatches though as you can imagine, the modern hairspring is much more advanced not only in shape but also in material composition.
Once over the pendulum hurdle, and motivated by a £20,000 prize from the British government, many figures would attempt to create the most accurate clock, one worthy of the marine chronometer title. This would, in turn, bring about many advances to horology as a whole.
John Harrison is one of the individuals most prominently recognized for his marine chronometer prototypes. While his first three attempts were largely unsuccessful, it was his fourth (“H4”) Sea Watch No. 1 chronometer that proved successful.
Unfortunately the politics of the 18th century would get in the way of Harrison receiving the full £20,000 prize and official award but he was nonetheless granted smaller prizes that made him a millionaire by the end of his life.
19th Century Watchmaking
After death, Harrison’s innovations in horology would live on through his son’s work. They would also inspire countless other watchmakers to build upon his concepts.
Throughout the 1700s and into the 19th century, watchmakers were able to craft progressively smaller clocks and pocket watches until the first wristwatch came to be, purportedly at the hands of Patek Philippe in 1868. Some Girard-Perregaux wristwatches used by German officers have also been dated close to that period, around 1880.
The Era Of Mass Manufacturing
European watchmakers had for centuries become accustomed to crafting timepiece by hand. Some had the means to create all their parts in house, while others outsourced specific components and then assembled them under one roof. Either way, even towards the end of the 19th century, the process was highly dependent on manual labor.
Across the pond, industrialization was taking over the American continent. The concepts of the radical movement preached mechanization of production and interchangeability of components. But could this work for a device as precise as a watch?
The founders of the Waltham Watch Company thought so, and after observing the process at work in a Springfield Armory, they set out to apply the same methods to watchmaking.
Did it work? Well… You’ve heard of Waltham pocket watches, haven’t you? Not only did it work, the implementation was massively successful.
It didn’t take long for Swiss watchmakers to take notice of the innovative way in which Americans were mass manufacturing pocket watches. Before the 20th century came around, several industrial machines had already made their way to Swiss manufactures, though the Americans were still ahead in this regard.
Unfortunately not all countries adapted as quickly, if at all. For instance England, a country that had contributed some of the most important advancements in horology, was eventually left behind as they stuck to their old hand-crafting ways. Indeed, this fact is often pinpointed as one of the reasons for the relatively low number of British watch manufacturers that have survived ’til the modern day.
Watches Of War
The first mass-produced wristwatches would come to be in the 1900s, the earliest ones being by Cartier, and rise to fame quite promptly. Nevertheless, they did not see as much use as later during the World Wars, where synchronized troops could make the difference between won or lost battles and, ultimately, life or death.
It was during the war times that many of the styles so coveted and widespread today came to be. The pilot’s watch style was very much devised for war pilots. Field or trench watches, likewise, were meant for boots on the ground.
Curiously enough it was during these war times, when most countries devoted every single resource (include watch factories) towards the war effort, that Switzerland was able to get a leg up on other timepiece-manufacturing countries like the United States. Once the wars were over, Switzerland sat on the throne of the watch industry once more.
The Quartz Crisis
While absolute for a couple of decades, the Swiss reign over the watch industry would not go unchallenged. The ’60s brought with them a tsunami of electric innovation that would come crashing down not only on Swiss watchmakers, but on the entire mechanical watch industry.
This dismantling of the industry is now known as The Quartz Crisis.
The first successful commercial quartz watches came out of Japan in the early ’70s. The Swiss did not stand still while this occurred, though; a group of about 20 Swiss watch manufacturers (including Rolex) collaborated on an early quartz movement. Nevertheless, what they came up with was inferior and, as each brand gained knowledge with the new type of movement, they separated and began working on proprietary versions.
This lack of strategy on behalf of the Swiss industry as a whole left a huge window of opportunity, one which Japan capitalized on. The most successful version of that Swiss quartz movement was produced in 6,00o units in 1970. By 1979, the entire country of Japan was exporting more than 100 million timepieces every year.
These kinds of production numbers make it easy to comprehend why the majority of watch manufacturers imploded. Quartz watches were significantly more accurate and significantly less expensive than mechanical ones. Very few reasons were left for the everyday customer to justify sticking to the traditional mechanical watch. Demand for the product simply disappeared.
The Rebirth Of An Industry
The decade of the 1970s was enough to undo the centuries of tradition that had given birth to hundreds of watch manufacturers, and only a select few survived. Those that did required some very remarkable and unique timepieces to do so; think Rolex GMT-Master, Audemars Piguet Royal Oak, and Patek Philippe Nautilus, to name a few icons.
And while each brand had a different proposition, all of them were able to make it through the lean times in the same manner – by positioning their products as a luxury accessory, one that indicated status and wealth, as opposed to the utilitarian role they used to fulfil.
A great illustration of this pivot by the wristwatch industry is offered by Jean Claude Biver’s Blancpain, who in the ’80s marketed themselves with the slogan “Since 1735 there has never been a quartz Blancpain watch. And there never will be.”
The Atomic Age
It worth noting that quartz watches, though significantly more accurate than a mechanical timepiece, are not the most accurate watches out there. This title is reserved for atomic clocks which are mechanisms that employ radioactive atoms such as Cesium-133 to keep track of time.
Atomic clocks are so accurate that they only lose a couple of seconds over thousands of years. Compare this with Rolex’s most modern chronometer standards that certify their watches to within +2/-2 per day, and the sheer magnitude of the discrepancy becomes painfully tangible.
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"A very informative and entertaining recap of the history of watches. Learning about the past definitely offers a valuable perspective when analyzing the modern watch world."Rating: 5.0★★★★★