Turning Back Time: A Fascinating History of Watches

Like your watch? Thinking of getting a new smartwatch?

Watches have undergone many technological leaps since we knew them, especially since the introduction of smartwatches. Artists are also getting creative, creating timepieces like this living wristwatch with plants.

It makes you wonder about the history of watches and how it came to be, doesn’t it? How did people know how to tell time with only using the sun and some rocks? How did clocks become portable enough for people to wear them on their wrists?

Let’s explore how the ancient people used a sundial, who was the wristwatch inventor, when the first wristwatch came about, and more. Keep reading to learn more about the history of watches.

First Forms of Time-Telling in the Ancient Times

You can trace the history of watches to the sundial, which was the first form of time-telling we know of. It dates back to 3,500 BCE when the sundial was a common way to tell time in Egypt and China.

A sundial utilizes the current position of the sun as well as its shadow to check the time. It consists of a plate with markings similar to a watch today and an object in the middle that will cast the shadow.

At that time, it was the most accurate form of telling time as long as it remained stationary. People back then didn’t need clocks that could tell time up to the second that much. For obvious reasons, though, it doesn’t work at night.

In 16th century BC, there’s evidence that people used a water clock. It’s similar to an hourglass, but in this case, the water clock used the flow of water to tell the time. The invention of an hourglass was to come later, with the first mention of it dating back to 8th century CE.

People back then also used candles with a set height and girth to tell time. The candles also used the same type of wax to be consistent. Each candle burned for 4 hours; it had 12 sections that are 1 inch each, so each section represents 20 minutes.

The first mention of this type of time-telling was in a poem by You Jiangu, a Chinese poet in 520 CE. According to his description, the candles were inside a wooden enclosure.

This is to prevent wind from blowing them out. To observe the candles, the case had transparent horn panels on the side.

A similar device was also in use by King Alfred the Great of England and in medieval churches. They measured the time by counting how many whole candles had burned. Like the clock mentioned by the poet, these candles were all of similar size and make.

The First Invention of Pendulum and How Portable Watches Came to Be

By 1100 CE, mechanicals clocks came around, which had counterweights, pulleys, and bells. However, they were still inaccurate that they would lose 30 minutes or so in a day. They weren’t that much more accurate than the devices they replaced.

Sometime between 1500 and 1510, the German locksmith Peter Henlein created spring-powered clocks. These replaced the heavy drive weights, which allowed clocks to be smaller and more portable. People could now place them on tabletops or carry it with them as pocket watches.

Henlein called his invention Nuremberg Eggs, and they’ve become the precursor to more accurate time-telling and wristwatches. It got the name “watch” from the sailors who used to for their 4-hour “watches.” The downside to these smaller clocks is their sizes, which led to their inaccuracy.

The pendulum, which was the key to achieving accuracy, didn’t come about until Galileo Galilei discovered it in 1594.

At the time, though, he didn’t use it for clocks. It was only in 1657 when the Dutch scientist Christian Hyugens made the first pendulum clock. This invention had an error of less than 1 minute a day, which was the first time a device had achieved such accuracy.

Through many different advances, pocket watches became as reliable as pendulum clocks. Then would then evolve to be wristwatches, the watches we know today.

How World War I Contributed to the Worldwide Acceptance of Wristwatches

Wristwatches were around before WW1, but people considered them to be nothing but a mere fad. They were still inaccurate; women wore them more for decoration rather than practicality.

WW1 changed that, however, as soldiers had to use a watch to time their bombardments. The easiest way to do that was to strap their pocket watches on their wrist. This enabled them to tell the time at a glance in a place where riffling through their pockets meant death.

The military then asked watchmakers to create timepieces that used a bracelet. European soldiers also began using unbreakable glass for the watch so it could survive in drastic conditions. They used radium so they could tell the time at night.

Civilians started seeing the practicality of wristwatches and so they adopted the use of it, as well. In 1916, The New York Times newspaper published an article highlighting its importance, saying that it’s more than a fad.

One of the most iconic watches, Cartier’s Tank collection, even came to be because of the war. Its founder, Louis Cartier, was once at the forefront as a soldier when he saw the Renault tanks. He created it in 1917, modeled after the bird’s eye view of the cockpit and lateral tanks.

Watches had undergone various technological advancements since then. Luminor, in particular, developed watches for underwater commandos leading up to WW2.

As you know, today wristwatches are still sticking around even with smartphones around. Even if these devices are able to tell time with more accuracy, people are still using watches. However, it’s undergoing another evolution as smartwatches are becoming commonplace among the middle-class.

Interested in the History of Watches?

If the history of watches piqued your interest, you may want to read more about it or technology, in general. Don’t hesitate to check out our other blogs and guides to learn more!

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