Evolution of watches

First published: 10-04-2015

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Since the earliest civilisations, we have had a fascination with time and how to measure its passing. This came to a head in the 15th century, when technology developed that allowed people to possess their own transportable clock - a watch!

Since then, watches have undergone radical transformations, making their way from pockets to wrists, with their appearance changing dramatically through the years. The biggest change in watches came during World War One, when everyday men realised how practical and accurate they could be.

Fast-forwarding by nearly a century, we're taking a look at how the watch has developed and how modern designs measure up against their vintage counterparts. In the beginning…

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Long before using the watches we wear on our wrists, the way to measure time was less practical. Portable watches were initially developed in the 15th century following the invention of the mainspring - legend has it that this was created by Peter Henlein, a watchmaker from Nuremburg, but this 'fact' is widely disputed!

What we do know is that the first watches created were pretty cumbersome and, since they were so inaccurate, they were more decorative than useful. They were very large, typically worn around the neck and only had an hour hand.

It was in the 16th century that mechanical movements were invented, which helped the mainspring stay a little bit closer to the actual time. A balance spring was invented in 1657, which went some way towards regulating the beat of the mainspring; this was a huge step in the development of watches.

Watches also changed shape radically around this time. Charles II of England may have been a fairly questionable king, but he did one fantastic thing for the country - he brought us the waistcoat in 1675! This sparked a revolution in fashion and also meant that watches had to be adapted in terms of shape to fit neatly into a waistcoat pocket. Thus, the pocket watch was born. Wristwatches: they're just for girls

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Long before the King of Waistcoats was born, Queen Elizabeth I of England helped inspire one of the greatest horological developments of all time. In 1571, her court favourite, Robert Dudley, gifted her an 'arm watch' - a time-telling device that could be worn upon her person. Sound familiar?

This was one of the first steps towards the creation of a wristwatch. This design came to be known as a 'wristlet' and was initially only worn by women - and noble women at that. Another famous watch was the one given to Queen Caroline of Naples in 1812, presented by Abraham-Louis Breguet, the leading Swiss watchmaker.

Men saw such watches as totally inappropriate for use by the stronger sex and so, for hundreds of years, these were rarely, if ever, seen on a man's wrist. Technological advances

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While wristwatches were becoming more popular with the ladies of Europe, the menfolk turned their attention to making pocket watches better. A minute hand had been added at the end of the 17th century, which sparked a revolution in watchmaking.

During the 18th century, British manufacturers led the way in the creation of watches, before the Americans really stepped things up a notch in 1851, when Aaron Lufkin Dennison opened up a factory in Massachusetts.

A number of small, aesthetic developments occurred around this time too. Prince Albert - a regular watch-wearer and generally dapper chap - created the 'Albert chain' in the 1850s, which attached the pocket watch to an outer garment for security. Furthermore, the way in which watches were wound changed as well. Where previously, one had to use a key, the crown was now developed, which fit snugly on the side of the case.

A bright spark from France called Nicolas Mathieu Rieussec developed the chronograph function in 1821, which was a huge step forward in terms of increasing a watch's capability. This came at the start of a period of improved accuracy, when train companies around the world realised the necessity for total synchronicity to aid rail safety. By the end of the 19th century, watches were accurate to within a few seconds. The impact of the war

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Having spent hundreds of years insisting that the wristwatch was far too feminine for any self-respecting man to wear, men cottoned on to their practicality towards the end of the 19th century. Whereas early wristlets were quite vulnerable to the elements and were therefore seen as more suited to delicate ladies, by the 1890s, watches were a bit more resilient and when wartime came along, a revolution occurred.

The Boer War of 1899-1902 saw a wave of men in the officer classes turning to the wristwatch to help them synchronise attacks. This helped to avoid giving away their tactics to the enemy and ended up helping the British win the war. The official 'campaign watch' was marketed by watchmakers Mappin & Webb in 1898, targeted specifically at military officers.

These early versions of men's wristwatches were essentially pocket watches fixed onto leather straps. The first purpose-built wristwatches were created at the start of the 20th century and their military practicality was enhanced in 1905 when an aviator friend asked Louis Cartier to make him a watch specifically for use in the air.

It was in World War One that a wristwatch revolution took place. After the success of the Boer War, many members of the British military started to rely on watches to help them stay organised, but pocket watches were wholly impractical for use in both the air and trenches.

From that point, the wristwatch became the device of choice for men in all areas of the military and, from 1917 onwards, the British War departments began to issue wristwatches to the servicemen.

When the war ended, the wristwatch remained a hugely popular item for men who had served and, since then, it has never gone out of fashion. Thoroughly modern watches

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With the wristwatch cemented as an accessory for both men and women, developments were soon made to keep improving accuracy and usability. In the 1930s, most wristwatches were relatively petite - especially by today's standards - measuring 28-32mm wide. The tendency was still to have the design mimic that of a pocket watch, in that the crown was positioned at the 12 o'clock point, rather than at 3 o'clock like it is now.

In the 1960s, a huge change came about thanks to the creation of quartz movements. This has revolutionised the way watches are made, and nowadays, the majority of models are made using quartz. Mechanical movements are typically reserved for high-end watches. This - combined with the World War One effect - brought the watch firmly into the mass market, where once it was reserved for the sophisticated upper classes of years gone by.

It was a sign of their prestige when, in 1969, a wristwatch was worn during the moon landings. It was Buzz Aldrin's Omega Speedmaster that was the first watch on the moon, since Neil Armstrong had left his in the Lunar Module. Since then, luxury watches have become a real status symbol for the rich and famous; you will rarely see a President, movie star or sporting legend without one.

Over the years, watches have increased in size dramatically and the current trend for men's watches is for no smaller than 40mm. Many watches measure over 50mm - nearly twice the size of the average watch in 1930!

In terms of style, many manufacturers have come full circle. A lot of watches are made in the 'vintage' styles; they come with Roman Numerals akin to the designs of old pocket watches and visuals that hark back to the days of ornate railways clocks.

However, you can always rely on watchmakers to bring you the newest innovations in timepieces. You can find watches with a number of clever complications and, as we move further into the digital age and smartwatches herald new exciting developments, it seems that the story of watches is far from finished.


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