September 27, 2017

From wrist watches to pocket watches, timepieces still continue to fascinate people across the world. But how did they come to be? Instead of reading an entire book about the subject, you can dip into this blog post to get a concise history of how watches evolved from "portable clocks" to the Apple Watch.

Pocket watches became a hot trend in the early 1500s when German inventor Peter Henlein created watches that didn't require falling weights as the source of their power. This innovation gave rise to the first wave of small portable watches, which were at first worn as a pendant on a chain around the neck.

Early models of mainspring-powered watches were round (resembling an egg) and often bulky, but the introduction of screws in the 1550s let them attain that modern flatten shape we know today. Another standout feature of those early designs was the lack of glass – the only protection from the outside influences was a brass lid.

In 1675 a new fashion style emerged – pocket clocks that were small enough to be worn in pockets. Charles II of England popularized this new way of carrying watches across entire Europe and North America. 

Pocket watches gave way to the burgeoning trend of wearing wristwatches, that were initially adopted by women, before trench warfare demonstrated their convenience to men.  Check out this World War I piece of journalism by the English war correspondent Philip Gibbs in Belgium:

The watch hands [on the officers’ wrists] pointed to the second which had been given for the assault to begin, and instantly, to the tick, the guns lifted and made a curtain of fireround the Chateau of Hooge, beyond the Menin road, six hundred yards away.


The company officers blew their whistles, and there was a sudden clatter from trench-spades slung to rifle-barrels, and from men girdled with hand-grenades, as the advancing companies deployed and made their first rush forward.

Mechanical watchmaking was all the craze for decades, and its features were fine-tuned such as time precision and water-proofing. Switzerland soon became the hot-spot for classic and valuable timepieces.

By the 1970s, quartz had made wristwatches popular, cheap, and reliable. Soon, many watchmaking firms wanted to bring watches into the computer age. In 1977 multifunctional wristwatches, such as the Pulsar Pulse Time Computer, inspired by microprocessor calculators, came to market. In 1982, Seiko introduced the TV watch. Let's just say the world wasn't ready to watch TV on their wrists then.

By the end of the 1980s, several different watches worked also as pagers; and in 1993 Casio marketed the Zapping, a wristwatch that was also a TV remote control.

When cellphones became ubiquitous, some wristwatch manufacturers saw a slump in sales due to phone users using these devices to tell time. But, as Time reported in 2013, "decades after the pocket watch became antiquated, the pocket-to-wrist cycle may repeat itself. More and more tech companies are betting on the proposition that the next big thing will be wearable technology." 

These tech firms, from Apple to Samsung to Pebble, are making a big bet by bringing computers to our watches. "Maybe we’re so deeply saturated with the imperatives of clock time that we want to put it away,” says Alexis McCrossen, a history professor at Southern Methodist University and the author of Marking Modern Times: A History of Clocks, Watches, and Other Timekeepers in American Life. "Maybe we don’t want it on our wrist anymore. Maybe we don’t need it."

We often miss what we don't have which could explain the resurgence of pocket watches, sometimes refashioned as large wrist watches. Hermes, Patek Philippe and Vacheron Constantin are known for crafting exceptional pocket watches, while the master maker is Breguet. The pocket watch's appeal could centre on its look, as this report stated in 2013: "The pocket watch has a certain intrigue and appeal that a smart watch simply cannot match. After all, if you take the back off your pocket watch and look inside you'll be greeted by the sight of an intricate set of gears all moving in harmony, whereas if you take a peek inside your brand new iWatch you'll see nothing but a few micro chips and a battery."

We could see high-tech wrist watches enjoy a comeback, after a sluggish start from Apple Watch and its competitors. During Apple’s most recent earnings conference call, Apple CEO Tim Cook boasted that Apple Watch sales were up 50% year over year, as BGR writes.  

Some analysts estimate Apple Watch sales will increase by 33% in 2018. So don't write Apple Watch's obit yet.

What we can see in the history of watches are two main points: fashionistas still appreciate the classic look of a pocket watch, and tech-friendly innovations such as the Apple Watch may give the wrist clock a comeback that could ripple for decades. 

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