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When Were Watches Invented? Everything You Need to Know

when were watches invented

In today’s day and age, motivational speakers and experts continue to explain the importance of time management and how effectively managing time can lead us to success. Amongst all this time-talk, one can’t help but wonder over the history and evolution of time, and ask questions like ”when were watches invented?”

The History of Time Itself

Pocket watch and old books

Though humans have always found ways of keeping time, (with the first record of time dating back to 2000 BC,) the concept of portable clocks, or watches, is fairly recent. A number of historians argue that the history of time dates back to the 15th century, during which explorers needed equipment to keep track of days spent at sea. Explorers used stars to determine the exact latitude, but to get an accurate reading on longitude, knowledge of local time was needed. This need for an accurate navigational tool birthed the idea of watches.

The journey began with the lesser-known quadrans, a disc mounted with a protractor that could help determine what time it was. From there on, different mediums to read time started emerging, one after the other.

To further clarify the question, “when were watches invented,” let’s dive into understanding how different versions of time-reading machines came into existence, until we finally settled for modern-day wristwatches.

When Were Watches Invented? – A Brief History

In the early 16th century, the journey continued from mechanical pendulum-based watches to portable clocks. These quickly gained popularity under the name of “creation clock watches,” and acted as transitory devices between full-sized clocks and watches you could carry with you. 

Over time, the invention of the mainspring came into being. The mainspring was essentially an instrument bearing a wound-up piece of metal ribbon which acted as the key source of generating power in mechanical watches. This magical little gadget allowed future watchmakers to make watches that were smaller in size, yet reported time with the same accuracy and precision. All that was needed was to wind the clock every so often to keep the mainspring running.

With the mainspring up and running, watchmakers continued to invent other pieces of equipment that would go into developing a watch with more accuracy and precision. This equipment included the balance spring, the cylinder escapement invented by Thomas Tompion, and the duplex escapement by Jean Baptiste Dutertre. During the same period, improvements in manufacturing, such as the tooth-cutting machine, were also made to increase the production volume.

What About the Chic Pocket Watches?

Pocket Watch Pendant

While learning about the history of watches and asking, ”when were watches invented,” we cannot forget the classy vintage pocket watches. Soon after the invention of clock watches, people started realizing the importance of time. They wished for some smaller watch they could carry around, and keep safe in their pocket. From being worn as a pendant to being chained to the pockets on the front of coats, pocket watches soon gained popularity, and started being considered a symbol of class and status.

By the early 15th century, clock-makers worldwide were already working day and night to invent portable timepieces. Amongst them was a clockmaker named Peter Henlein from Nuremberg, Germany, who took the lead and invented the very first pocket watch. This stunning timepiece cost a fortune, and was shaped like an egg with a power reserve of approximately 12 hours. 

The Swiss watch industry emerged in the mid-1500s. During this time, materials like brass, bronze, and silver became increasingly popular, leading portable pocket watches to become a staple in every man’s wardrobe. While pocket watches had no glass protecting the dial, the timepiece consisted of hinged casings to protect the hour and the minute hands, while showing the time.

How Pocket Watches Started Securing Their Place as Wristwatches

The concept of wristwatches goes back to the 16th century, when women exclusively wore wristwatches, while the men showed off their shiny pocket watches. While the man responsible for creating the first wristwatch is still up for debate to this day, learning about the watch is crucial to answering questions like ”when were watches invented?” Many historians credit this invention to Abraham-Louis Brequet, while others believe it was Robert Dudley who invented the first wristwatch in 1571 for Queen Elizabeth I. Nonetheless, these wristwatches started being mass-produced by the 19th century and were mostly marketed as a type of bracelet with a timepiece.

The Radical Turn of Events for Wristwatches 

The end of the 19th century witnessed a radical turn of events in the realm of wristwatches. The military saw watches that were once limited to only women as an opportunity to help them synchronize their movements and attacks during the war. While using pocket watches seemed like a challenging and impractical option, the decision regarding wristwatches worn by military men ended up fruitful. In fact, to remove the gender stigma, a London-based company named Garstin Company patented Watch Wristlet designs –  these could easily be marketed to men during the colonial military era of 1880. 

From there on, the wrist watches played a fundamental role in helping the military in campaigns and battles like the Anglo-Burma War, the Boer War, and even during the campaign at Sudan in the late 18th century. These early models of wrist watches were nothing more than pocket watches being fitted into a leather strap that could be worn around the wrist. By 1919, the legendary Cartier introduced their famous Tank Watch, inspired by the treads on military tanks used in the First World War.

The First Men’s Wristwatch Is Born

Although men continued to prefer being seen with a classy pocket watch which had also become smaller over the years, the impracticality of repeatedly taking out the pocket watch had started to become increasingly apparent. One such man pivotal to the invention of the men’s wristwatch was the flying legend Alberto Santos Dumont.

He expressed concern to his friend Louis Cartier about how using a pocket watch limited his hand movement, and caused hindrance while flying a plane and measuring the accuracy in timing simultaneously. This allowed Louis Cartier to design the first pilot watch, the Cartier Santos, in 1904.

While the 19th century connected the military to wristwatches, the 20th century focused on manufacturers producing purpose-built wristwatches. Swiss company Dimier Frères & Cie patented a wristwatch design bearing standard wire lugs, which was soon followed by Rolex, a company that invented its first waterproof watch in 1920.  Rolex later received certification as a chronometer in Switzerland, and went on to win an award in the same year from the Kew Observatory in London. 

Soon afterwards, other noteworthy brands of watchmaking started emerging. These brands included Breitling, Jaeger-LeCoultre, and even Quartz. Today, dozens of watchmaking brands continue to experiment with new materials to create thinner and incredibly lightweight watches in both traditional watch models and new smart watch models.

The Era of Automatic Wristwatches

Irrespective of gender, both men and women had to wind their wristwatches constantly to keep the mainspring running. However, this changed in 1923, when John Harwood developed the first self-winding wristwatch. The automatic wristwatch became an overnight success, and was replicated by hundreds of watchmakers after his death. 

The automatic watch has become one of the most popular styles of watch on the market, and has been recognized as a symbol of luxury. The concept used by John Harwood was fairly simple. It was based on using your kinetic energy to keep the timepiece powered throughout the day. This method has captured the attention of watch enthusiasts for decades, but there have been other styles of the watch that have gained popularity over the years.

Since the 15th century to date, the invention of watches and timepieces has come a long way. In fact, the first person to go into space in the 1900s was also wearing a mechanical watch, the Strela.

Modern-Day Smartwatches

Modern technology for people. Man controls smartwatch

The latter half of the 20th century marked the birth of the smartwatch. Basically a computer for your wrist, the first-ever smartwatches came about in the 1980s, by Japanese brands like Casio and Seiko. They added the option of access to television and radio through their versions of smartwatches. From then on, the market was flooded with one smartwatch after another, each adding something new to its wide range of features. Today, the market for smartwatches continues to rise, with brands like Apple, Samsung, and Fit Bit occupying a major share of it.

In Conclusion

Whether you are a horology expert, an artisan watchmaker, or simply a watch collector, knowing about the history of timepieces and answering the question, ”when were watches invented” is a crucial part of the job. It provides a learning opportunity, and familiarizes you with the painstaking efforts to achieve our modern-day wrist watches. Nowadays, there is an impressive variety of wristwatches in every price segment. From cheap digital watches to high-end luxury mechanical wristwatches, there’s something for every taste.

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