History of Watches: From Sundials to Smartwatches

(Last Updated On: July 8, 2019)

When you think about it, watches have come a long way.

While watches are a common accessory and fashion statement nowadays, the same thing can’t be said around 100 years ago. Today, we go back in history and highlight the history of watches and how this invention became an integral part of modern life.

A Brief History of Watches – From Sundials to Smartwatches

1. Circa 3,500 B.C.

History of Watches - Sundial

  • The first sundial was invented. After observing the daylight and dark’s natural rhythm civilizations around the world devised a method to measure the flow of time. At first, calendars are used which then became instruments with increased precision.

2. 1400 – 1500

History of Watches - Fusee Clock
Da Vinci’s sketch of a fusee clock.
  • In 1485, Leonardo da Vinci sketched a fusee for a clock.
  • In 1504 to 1508, the clockmaker Peter Henlein has invented the first modern pocket watch. He is also known as the father of the modern clock and the entire watchmaking industry.
  • In the 1500s, early clock watches became popular and were fastened to clothing or worn around the neck like a necklace. The clock watches only had hour hands and they’re not very good for keeping the time. Therefore, they were more like a status symbol for the rich.

3. 1600 – 1700

History of Watches - Balance Spring

  • In 1657, the balance spring was invented by either Christiaan Huygens or Robert Hooke (it’s a long-running dispute). The balance spring significantly improved the accuracy of watches.
  • In 1675, King Charles II of England introduced the waistcoat. During this time, watches have been reformed to the pocket style in order to fit the waistcoat’s pockets.
  • Around 1680, English clockmaker Daniel Quare invented a repeating mechanism for watches. The mechanism repeats a ringing bell sound every quarter hour.
  • In 1680, the minute hand is introduced in Britain and in France in 1700. It’s worth noting that the minute hand was invented by Jost Burgi back in 1577.

4. 1700 – 1800

History of Watches - Lever Escapement
Lever escapement
  • In 1704, Jacob and Peter Debaufre along with Nicolas Facio pioneered the use of rubies for their watch movements.
  • The year 1759 saw the invention of the lever escapement, courtesy of Thomas Mudge. Then in 1785, the escapement was improved by Josiah Emery which is now used in modern watches.
  • Swiss watchmaker and one of the fathers of precision watchmaking Abraham Louis Perrelet invented the self-winding movement in 1780.

5. 1800 – 1900

History of Watches - Patek Philippe First Wristwatch
First Patek Philippe Wristwatch (1868)
  • The year 1848 became a landmark year because it was the year when Louis Brandt opened his own workshop in La Chaux-de-Fonds. This Swiss city becomes the ground zero for a little-known watch company, Omega.
  • The year 1868 marks another historical milestone for the watchmaking industry. Of course, this is when Patek Philippe of Patek Philippe & Co. made the very first wristwatch. On top of that, the company also pioneered the chronograph, split-seconds hand, perpetual calendar, and minute repeater.
  • In 1876, the introduction of cheaper materials and industrialized manufacturing enabled watches to be mass-produced. This allowed regular workers to own watches as a practical possession than as a status symbol.
  • In 1880, Constant Girard of the Girard-Perregaux fame has developed a wristwatch concept for German naval officers. The order came directly from Kaiser Wilhelm I of Germany which amounted to 2,000 units. This marks the first notable commercialization of wristwatches.
  • The year 1884 marked the time when Greenwich, England was officially declared as the zero meridian (GMT +0). This became the worldwide standard of time zones.

6. 1900 – 2000

History of Watches - Cartier Santos
The Cartier Santos
  • During the 1900s, a type of wristwatch called Wristlet was introduced. This product was geared towards women.  It is more of a passing fad than an actual, serious timepiece. The gentlemen, who typically carried pocket watches, dismissed this fad and was quoted that they would “sooner wear a skirt than wear a wristwatch.

Milestones

  • In 1904, aviation pioneer and Brazilian inventor Alberto Santos-Dumont worked with his friend Louis Cartier to devise a timepiece that will allow the former to time his flight performance while keeping both hands on the control. Cartier worked with his master watchmaker, Edmond Jaeger to create a prototype for the Santos wristwatch. This was the advent of the very first pilot watch, the Cartier Santos-Dumont.
  • In 1905, Visionary Hans Wilsdorf founded the Wilsdorf and Davis in London. Three years later, Wilsdorf opened an office in Switzerland which then started the Swiss luxury watch company, Rolex.
  • During the WWI, the importance of watches was highlighted. Delays must be avoided therefore, watches must be synchronized. Soldiers were given wristwatches called “trench watches” and housed pocket watch movements. These watches were large and bulky, and the crown is positioned at 12 o’clock. It looks pretty much like a pocket watch.
  • On January 3, 1957, the Hamilton Electric wristwatch by the Hamilton Watch Company has made its debut. It is the first ever battery-operated electric wristwatch and also the first model to never require winding.
  • In 1969, Seiko released the Seiko Quartz Astron (ref. 35SQ) which is the world’s first quartz movement powered watch. This kickstarted the rise of the quartz movement.
  • In 1972, Hamilton introduced the very first commercial electronic digital wristwatch, Pulsar. It first retailed for the pricey sum of $2,100 (roughly $12,000 today). However, as the 70s come to an end, digital watches were sold for $10 a piece.

7. 2000 – Present

History of Watches - Timex Data Link 150

  • In 1994, the Timex Data Link 150 was released and it’s one of the many watches with built-in database functionality. However, other watches had no useful way to transfer data to a more permanent medium like a computer. The Data Link 150 solved this by allowing the user to transfer information to and fro a computer via an optical sensor.
  • The year 2002 saw the introduction of the very first wristwatch with a built-in camera. That was the Casio Wrist Camera, which is capable of capturing 120-by-120-pixel photos in grayscale.
  • The Seiko E-Ink Watch, released in 2005, is another milestone for digital watches. It’s the first timepiece to utilize an e-ink display. Five years later, a new and improved model was released with an active matrix e-ink display. This allowed better clarity and added four shades of gray.
  • Many people thought that digital watches are going obsolete. since they can always check the time with their smartphones. However, Cupertino tech giant Apple proved them wrong with the release of the Apple Watch Series 1. The watch successfully merged fashion and function. It had the ability to sync the watch with an iOS device to send messages, display call information, monitor health statistics, and more. Since then, digital wristwatches have become more popular with consumers.

How Switzerland Came to Dominate Watchmaking?

History of Watches - Swiss Watch Industry

Many watch enthusiasts agree that nothing runs quite like a Swiss-made watch. You can’t really talk about the history of watches without touching upon Swiss watches. How did this small country become such a dominating force in the global watch industry?

Switzerland facts

  • The art of watchmaking is not even present in Switzerland until the 14th century. It was when the Huguenot refugees had set up shop in Geneva that started the whole thing. Records show that by the year 1554, there were watchmakers working in Geneva.
  • In 1601, the very first watchmaking guild was established in Geneva. At this point, Geneva watchmakers have established a reputation for making high-quality timepieces.
  • During the 19th century, the Swiss watchmaking industry grew considerably. By the year 1850, the Swiss were making over two million watches per year. England, the country’s main competitor, can only manage 200,000 watches annually.
  • Although American watches posed a threat to the Swiss, the country turned it around with the release of the Rolex Oyster, the world’s first waterproof watch. On top of the trademark Swiss innovation, the country managed to tip on the winning side.
  • During the 1970s, the Swiss watchmaking industry faced another threat in the form of the Japanese quartz watches. The quartz-powered watches were more accurate and not to mention, cheaper. The Swiss watchmaking industry crumbled under this pressure. However, over time, Nicolas Hayek founded Swatch and released their own quartz models.
  • Today, the Swiss watchmaking industry is once again feeling the pressure against tech giants like Apple. Apple managed to outsold Swiss watches with their own Apple Watch.

Top 10 Historically Significant Watches of All Time

1. Cartier Santos

Cartier Santos

The Cartier Santos is one of the first-ever wristwatches. Prior to the Santos, people have been pulling a pocket watch for checking the time. The Cartier Santos solved this problem and it ultimately revolutionized the world of watchmaking.

2. Rolex Submariner

Rolex SubMariner

When Rolex released “The Sub”, the watch industry hasn’t been the same since.

The Submariner was not released as a luxury item, it was intended to be a tool watch for professional divers. However, it became so popular that it earned cult status as a top-tier sports watch. The Submariner is the most popular model in Rolex’s lineup and for good reason.

3. Patek Philippe Perpetual Calendar Chronograph

Patek Philippe Perpetual Calendar Chronograph

The Patek Philippe Perpetual Calendar Chronograph is the first perpetual calendar chronograph. This watch was historically significant. It not only did track the date but also managed to measure small increments of time.

3. Omega Speedmaster

Omega Speedmaster

Also referred to as the “Moonwatch” or “Speedy”, the Omega Speedmaster took over the world by storm. It remains as one of the most famous watches in the world. It was originally designed to be used by race car drivers but it underwent rigorous NASA testing and became the first official timepiece of the agency. It’s the first timepiece ever to be worn on the surface of the moon.

4. Tissot Antimagnetique

Tissot Antimagnetique

The balance spring of a watch is very vulnerable to a magnetic field. Once it came in contact with magnets, the spring sticks to the watch and the timepiece runs faster than normal. Consequently, in 1930, Tissot introduced the Antimagnetique which earned the distinction as the world’s first mass-produced watch that’s protected from magnetic fields.

5. Cartier Tank

Cartier Tank

Introduced in 1918, the Cartier Tank is supposedly inspired by the silhouette of a World War I tank.

The Tank saw a very limited release back in 1919 with only a grand total of six units made. However, today it’s more accessible and remains a target for bootleggers.

6. Seiko Astron

Seiko Astron

Formerly known as the Seiko Quartz-Astron 35SQ, the Astron Wristwatch was the world’s first watch that comes with quartz movement. Seiko pulled up the curtains of Astron in Tokyo on December 25, 1969. This marked the beginning of the Quartz crisis and revolution.

7. Audemars Piguet Royal Oak

Audemars Piguet Royal Oak

The Audemars Piguet Royal Oak was everything a luxury timepiece was not supposed to be. Released in 1972, it was the very first luxury watch that’s made from stainless steel. The octagonal form and exposed crews have remained unchanged over the years.

8. Zenith El Primero

Zenith El Primero

When it comes to precision, the Zenith El Primero is certainly one of the top contenders.

The makers of the El Primero worked on the watch’s movement for a full seven years which is an incredible feat by itself. The movement is very complex and it beats at an impressive 36,000 vibrations per hour. This made it possible to have an accuracy of 1/10th of a second. The El Primero is still in production today.

9. Casio G-Shock

Casio G-Shock

The original Casio G-Shock was invented by Japanese engineer Kikuo Ibe out of the frustration from the fragility of most mechanical and quartz watches. He knew he had to make a watch that can withstand a great deal of punishment. The G-Shock is not a watch that you’ll hear from the mouth of a diehard mechanical watch enthusiast. But it’s a groundbreaking model nonetheless.

10. Swatch Quartz

Swatch

While it used to be an industry giant, the Swiss watch industry was in a bad shape during the 80s. Swiss watches were losing out to quartz watches in a big way.

In response, the Swiss responded with the Swatch. It is a relatively simple but innovative timepiece with only 51 parts. Consequently, the Swatch was a commercial success and it allowed the Swiss watch industry to catch a second wind.

Watches Have Come a Long Way

The art of watchmaking has a long and rich history. The legacy of timepieces will continue to become an integral part of our lives.

Hopefully, this article has helped you understand some aspects of the history of watches.

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