A (brief) History of the Watch

by Zhang Ron on Apr 24, 2024

A (brief) History of the Watch

Watches Weren't Always a Wrist-Worn Accessory

While watches seem like they've been around forever, they've only been widely worn on the wrist for a little over 100 years. The origins of timekeeping devices date much further back to ancient civilizations like the Egyptians, Babylonians, Greeks, and Chinese who used sundials and water clocks.

These primitive time-tracking methods eventually led to advancements like the hourglass in medieval Europe and the first mechanical clocks powered by springs in the 15th century. The pendulum clock, invented in 1656 by Christian Huygens based on Galileo's design, was a forerunner to portable timekeepers we now call watches.

The First Watches Were "Clock-Watches"

Many credit German locksmith Peter Henlein in the 1500s with creating the first portable "clock-watches." These ornamental brass timepieces were several inches wide, had just an hour hand, and were worn hanging from a chain around the neck - more jewelry than accurate timekeepers for the noble classes.

The term "watch" may have originated from the Old English word for "watchman" who used portable clocks, or from sailors timing their work shifts on ships.

The Pocket Watch Era

In 1675, when British King Charles II made waistcoats fashionable for men, it became popular to carry smaller, flatter watches in pockets rather than as pendants. Watchmaking innovations like glass crystals, stem-winders, and more accurate lever escapements made pocket watches both practical and a luxury status symbol through the 1800s.

The Wristwatch Revolution

While the first wristwatches were made by Breguet in the early 1800s for royal women as decorative pieces, it wasn't until military needs in WWI that strapping a timepiece to the wrist became an essential tool for soldiers who couldn't use pocket watches in battle. Veterans continued wearing their "trench watches" making wristwatches an acceptable everyday accessory for men.

So while humans have tracked time for ages, the wristwatch as we know it today is a relatively modern concept - a once impractical novelty that harsh battlefield conditions made a necessity just over a century ago.

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