The history of watches began in 16th-century Europe, where watches evolved from portable spring-driven clocks, that first appeared in the 15th century. The watch was made by inventors and engineers, developed from the 16th century to the mid-20th century, this was a mechanical device, powered by winding a mainspring which turned gears and then moved the hands; it kept time with a rotating balance wheel.
In the 1960s the invention of the quartz watch which ran on electricity and kept time with a vibrating quartz crystal, proved a radical departure for the watchmaking industry. During the 1980s quartz watches took over the market from mechanical watches, a process referred to as the “quartz crisis”.
Although mechanical watches still sell at the high end of the watch market, the vast majority of watches as of 2020 have quartz movements.
One account of the origin of the word “watch” suggests that it came from the Old English word woecce which meant “watchman”, because town watchmen used watches to keep track of their shifts. Another theory surmises that the term came from 17th-century sailors, who used the new mechanisms to time the length of their shipboard watches (duty shifts).
One of the major flaws of early watches was the variation in the torque exerted by the mainspring; that is, the force exerted by the mainspring was greater when fully wound than when it was nearly run down.
This was a serious problem because the timekeeping of a watch fitted with a verge escapement was greatly influenced by the force driving it.
The fusee, a cone-shaped, grooved pulley used in conjunction with a barrel containing the mainspring, was used to solve the problem almost as soon as the mainspring was invented (around 1450). The mainspring was designed to rotate a barrel in which it was housed; a length of catgut, later replaced by a chain, was wound on it, with the other end coiled around the fusee.
When the mainspring was fully wound, the gut or chain pulled on the smallest radius of the cone-shaped fusee; as the mainspring depleted, the leverage grew as the gut or chain pulled on a larger radius. With proper mainspring and fusee radii proportioning, an almost constant torque was maintained as the mainspring unwound.
The going barrel, in which the mainspring barrel directly drives the wheeltrain, is found on all modern mechanical watches and has largely replaced the fusee. Torque variations have been reduced to a minimum with higher quality mainsprings, and good timekeeping is ensured with a properly adjusted balance and balance spring.
Up until around 1580, the mechanisms of German watches were almost entirely made of iron; around this time, brass was introduced.
To control the rate of movement of the mechanism in the earliest watches, a simple wheel known as the balance was used. It was not subjected to a consistent restoring force, so its period of oscillation, and thus the rate of the timekeeper, were determined by the driving force. This explains why the fusee is so important.
The use of a spring to control the oscillations of a balance was a significant step in the history of timekeeping. In the late 1650s, English physicist Robert Hooke designed a watch with a balance spring; however, there appears to be no evidence that the spring was in the form of a spiral, a crucial element that would become widely used.
Christiaan Huygens, a Dutch scientist, was most likely the first to design a watch with a spiral balance spring (1674–75). The balance spring is a delicate ribbon of steel or another suitable spring material wound into a spiral shape. The inner end is pinned into a collet (a small collar) that fits friction-tight on the balance staff, and the outer end is held in a stud that is fixed to the movement. This spring acts on the balance in the same way that gravity acts on a pendulum.
When the balance is shifted to one side, the spring is wound and energy is stored in it; this energy is then restored to the balance, causing it to swing nearly the same distance to the opposite side when the balance is released.
If there were no frictional losses (e.g., air friction, internal friction in the spring material, and friction at the pivots), the balance would swing exactly the same distance to the other side and oscillate indefinitely; however, because of these losses, the oscillations die away in practise. The oscillations are maintained by the energy stored in the mainspring and fed to the balance via the wheel train and escapement.
The performance of a modern watch is determined by the uniformity of the balance’s period of oscillation—that is, the regularity of its movement. The balance is represented by a wheel with a heavy rim, and the spring attached to it provides the restoring torque. The inertia of the balance is determined by its mass and configuration. The spring’s restoring force should ideally be directly proportional to the displacement from its unstressed or zero position.
The balance is mounted on a staff with pivots, which run in jewels in high-quality watches. At each end of the balance staff, two jewels are used, one pierced to provide a bearing and the other a flat end stone that provides axial location by bearing against the domed end of the pivot. The performance of the watch in various positions, such as lying and hanging, is influenced by frictional effects at the pivots.
The balance and spring can be brought to time, or “regulated,” by varying either the spring’s restoring couple or the balance’s moment of inertia. In the first case (by far the most common), this is usually accomplished by supplying a pair of curb pins mounted on a movable regulator index that lengthen or shorten the balance spring as needed.
In the second case, screws are provided at opposite points on the balance’s rim; these screws are friction-tight in their holes and can thus be moved in or out to adjust the balance’s inertia. There is no regulator index in “free-sprung” watches, and the only adjusters are the screws on the balance rim.
Many modern mechanical watches use a lever escapement, invented in England around 1755 by Thomas Mudge, which allows the balance to oscillate freely, only coupling to it when delivering the impulse, which is taken from the mainspring via the wheel train and unlocked by the balance. It was developed into its modern form with the club-tooth escape wheel at the beginning of the nineteenth century, but it was not widely used until the early twentieth century.
The club-tooth escape wheel in high-quality watches is made of hardened steel, with the acting surfaces ground and polished. An improved lever escapement is distinguished by a double-roller safety action in which the intersection between the guard pin and roller, which occurs beneath the roller, is much deeper than in early single-roller watches; thus, any friction caused by jolts encountered in wear causes less constraint on the balance and less endangerment of the watch’s timekeeping properties.
The lever escapement is by far the most important watch escapement today; it is used in its jewelled form in watches of moderate to excellent quality, and it is used in cheaper watches with steel pallet pins and a simplified fork-and-roller action (known as pin-pallet watches).
A step-up ratio of approximately 1 to 4,000 between barrel and escape wheel is required in the wheel train of a modern watch.
This involves four pairs of gears, with the ratio between each pair typically ranging between 6 to 1 and 10 to 1. Due to space constraints, the pinions must have a limited number of leaves (teeth), typically 6 to 12. This creates a number of unique gearing issues, which are exacerbated by the fineness of the pitch. Any error in centre distance, form, or concentricity is thus proportionally more significant than in larger gear trains.
The first patent for the use of jewels in watches was issued in London in 1704; diamonds and sapphires were used. Synthetic jewels made of fused powdered alumina (aluminum oxide) are increasingly popular. Watch jewels are highly polished; a uniform outside diameter for the jewel bearings is critical because they are pressed into precisely sized holes smaller than the jewels themselves and held in place by friction.
From the beginning, wristwatches were almost exclusively worn by women, while men used pocketwatches up until the early 20th century. The concept of the wristwatch goes back to the production of the very earliest watches in the 16th century. Some people say the world’s first wristwatch was created by Abraham-Louis Breguet for Caroline Murat, Queen of Naples, in 1810.
However, Elizabeth I of England received a wristwatch from Robert Dudley in 1571, described as an arm watch, 229 years earlier than the 1810 Abraham-Louis Breguet. By the mid-nineteenth century, most watchmakers produced a range of wristwatches, often marketed as bracelets, for women.
Wristwatches were first worn by military men towards the end of the nineteenth century, when the importance of synchronizing maneuvers during war without potentially revealing the plan to the enemy through signaling was increasingly recognized. It was clear that using pocket watches while in the heat of battle or while mounted on a horse was impractical, so officers began to strap the watches to their wrist.
The Garstin Company of London patented a ‘Watch Wristlet’ design in 1893, although they were probably producing similar designs from the 1880s. Clearly, a market for men’s wristwatches was coming into being at the time. Officers in the British Army began using wristwatches during colonial military campaigns in the 1880s, such as during the Anglo-Burma War of 1885.
During the Boer War, the importance of coordinating troop movements and synchronizing attacks against the highly mobile Boer insurgents was paramount, and the use of wristwatches subsequently became widespread among the officer class. The company Mappin & Webb began production of their successful ‘campaign watch’ for soldiers during the campaign at the Sudan in 1898 and ramped up production for the Boer War a few years later.
These early models were essentially standard pocketwatches fitted to a leather strap, but by the early 20th century, manufacturers began producing purpose-built wristwatches.
The Swiss company, Dimier Frères & Cie patented a wristwatch design with the now standard wire lugs in 1903. In 1904, Alberto Santos-Dumont, an early Brazilian aviator, asked his friend, a French watchmaker called Louis Cartier, to design a watch that could be useful during his flights.
Hans Wilsdorf moved to London in 1905 and set up his own business with his brother-in-law Alfred Davis, Wilsdorf & Davis, providing quality timepieces at affordable prices – the company later became Rolex. Wilsdorf was an early convert to the wristwatch, and contracted the Swiss firm Aegler to produce a line of wristwatches.
His Rolex wristwatch of 1910 became the first such watch to receive certification as a chronometer in Switzerland and it went on to win an award in 1914 from Kew Observatory in London.
The impact of the First World War dramatically shifted public perceptions on the propriety of the man’s wristwatch, and opened up a mass market in the post-war era. The creeping barrage artillery tactic, developed during the War, required precise synchronization between the artillery gunners and the infantry advancing behind the barrage. Service watches produced during the War were specially designed for the rigours of trench warfare, with luminous dials and unbreakable glass.
Wristwatches were also found to be needed in the air as much as on the ground: military pilots found them more convenient than pocket watches for the same reasons as Santos-Dumont had. The British War Department began issuing wristwatches to combatants from 1917. The company H. Williamson Ltd., based in Coventry, was one of the first to capitalize on this opportunity. During the company’s 1916 AGM it was noted that “…the public is buying the practical things of life. Nobody can truthfully contend that the watch is a luxury.
It is said that one soldier in every four wears a wristlet watch, and the other three mean to get one as soon as they can.” By the end of the War, almost all enlisted men wore a wristwatch, and after they were demobilized, the fashion soon caught on – the British Horological Journal wrote in 1917 that “…the wristlet watch was little used by the sterner sex before the war, but now is seen on the wrist of nearly every man in uniform and of many men in civilian attire.” By 1930, the ratio of wrist- to pocketwatches was 50 to 1.
The first successful self-winding system was invented by John Harwood in 1923.
The first generation of electric-powered watches came out during the 1950s. These kept time with a balance wheel powered by a solenoid, or in a few advanced watches that foreshadowed the quartz watch, by a steel tuning fork vibrating at 360 Hz, powered by a solenoid driven by a transistor oscillator circuit.
The hands were still moved mechanically by a wheel train. In mechanical watches the self-winding mechanism, shockproof balance pivots, and break resistant ‘white metal’ mainsprings became standard. The jewel craze caused ‘jewel inflation’ and watches with up to 100 jewels were produced.
In 1959, Seiko placed an order with Epson (a daughter company of Seiko and the ‘brain’ behind the quartz revolution) to start developing a quartz wristwatch. The project was codenamed 59A.
By the 1964 Tokyo Summer Olympics, Seiko had a working prototype of a portable quartz watch which was used as the time measurements throughout the event.
The first quartz watch to enter production was the Seiko 35 SQ Astron, which hit the shelves on 25 December 1969, which was the world’s most accurate wristwatch to date.
Since the technology having been developed by contributions from Japanese, American and Swiss, nobody could patent the whole movement of the quartz wristwatch, thus allowing other manufacturers to participate in the rapid growth and development of the quartz watch market,
This ended — in less than a decade — almost 100 years of dominance by the mechanical wristwatch legacy. The introduction of the quartz watch in 1969 was a revolutionary improvement in watch technology. In place of a balance wheel which oscillated at 5 beats per second, it used a quartz crystal resonator which vibrated at 8,192 Hz, driven by a battery-powered oscillator circuit.
In place of a wheel train to add up the beats into seconds, minutes, and hours, it used digital counters. The higher Q factor of the resonator, along with quartz’s low temperature coefficient, resulted in better accuracy than the best mechanical watches, while the elimination of all moving parts made the watch more shock-resistant and eliminated the need for periodic cleaning.
The first digital electronic watch with an LED display was developed in 1970 by Pulsar. In 1974 the Omega Marine Chronometer was introduced, the first wrist watch to hold Marine Chronometer certification, and accurate to 12 seconds per year.
Radio Controlled Watches
In 1990, Junghans offered the first radio-controlled wristwatch, the MEGA 1. In this type, the watch’s quartz oscillator is set to the correct time daily by coded radio time signals broadcast by government-operated time stations such as JJY, MSF, RBU, DCF77, and WWVB, received by a radio receiver in the watch.
This allows the watch to have the same long-term accuracy as the atomic clocks which control the time signals. Recent models are capable of receiving synchronization signals from various time stations worldwide.
A smartwatch is a computer worn on the wrist, a wireless digital device that may have the capabilities of a cellphone, portable music player, or a personal digital assistant. By the early 2010s some had the general capabilities of a smartphone, having a processor with a mobile operating system capable of running a variety of mobile apps.
The first smartwatch was the Linux Watch, developed in 1998 by Steve Mann which he presented on February 7, 2000. Seiko launched the Ruputer in Japan- it was a wristwatch computer and it had a 3.6 MHz processor. In 1999, Samsung launched the world’s first watch phone.
It was named the SPH-WP10. It had a built-in speaker and mic, a protruding antenna and a monochrome LCD screen and 90 minutes of talk time. IBM made a prototype of a wristwatch that was running Linux.
The first version had 6 hours battery life and it got extended to 12 in its more advanced version.
This device got better when IBM added an accelerometer, a vibrating mechanism and a fingerprint sensor. IBM joined with Citizen Watch Co. to create the WatchPad. It features a 320×240 QVGA monochrome touch-sensitive display and it ran Linux version 2.4. It displayed calendar software, Bluetooth, 8 MB RAM, and 16 MB of flash memory.
They targeted this device at students and businessmen at a price of about $399. Fossil released the Wrist PDA, a watch that ran Palm OS and contained 8 MB of RAM and 4 MB of flash memory and featured an integrated stylus and a resolution of 160×160. It was criticized for its weight of 108 grams and was discontinued in 2005. In early 2004, released the SPOT smartwatch.
The company demonstrated it working with coffee makers, weather stations and clocks with SPOT tech. The smartwatch had information like weather, news, stocks, and sports scores transmitted through FM waves.
You had to buy a subscription that cost from $39 to $59. Sony Ericsson launched the Sony Ericsson LiveView, a wearable watch device which is an external BT display for an Android Smartphone.
Pebble is an innovative smartwatch that raised the most money on Kickstarter reaching 10.3 million dollars between April 12 and May 18. This watch had a 32 millimeter 144×168 pixel black and white memory LCD manufactured by Sharp with a backlight, a vibrating motor, a magnetometer, an ambient light sensor, and a three-axis accelerometer.
It can communicate with an Android or iOS device using both BT 2.1 and BT 4.0 using Stonestreet One’s Bluetopia+MFI software stack. As of July 2013 companies that were making smartwatches or were involved in smartwatch developments are: Acer, Apple, BlackBerry, Foxconn, Google, LG, Microsoft, Qualcomm, Samsung, Sony, VESAG and Toshiba. Some notable ones from this list are HP, HTC, Lenovo and Nokia.
Many smartwatches were released at CES 2014. The model featured a curved AMOLED display and a built-in 3G modem.
On September 9, 2014, Apple Inc. announced its first smartwatch named the Apple Watch and released early 2015. Microsoft released Microsoft Band, a smart fitness tracker and their first watch since SPOT in early 2004.
Top watches at CES 2017 were the Garmin Fenix 5 and the Casio WSD F20. Apple Watch Series 3 had built-in LTE allowing phone calls and messaging and data without a nearby phone connection.
During a September 2018 keynote, Apple introduced an Apple Watch Series 4. It had a larger display and an EKG feature to detect abnormal heart function. Qualcomm released their Snapdragon 3100 chip the same month. It is a successor to the Wear 2100 with power efficiency and a separate low power core that can run basic watch functions as well as slightly more advanced functions such as step tracking.
Hopefully, this article was helpful in answering some of your clock-related questions. If you have any clock-related questions, feel free to use the comment section below. And if you want to know why clocks don’t appear in dreams, we have a great article on just that so do give it a click if you are interested “Why don’t clocks appear in dreams? Clocks and dreams!“. Here is also a link about the history of clocks if you want to give that a look “History of timekeeping devices“