Watch Education: The History Of Watches

From sundials to wristwatches, learn about the evolution of the watch from the days when the only way to tell time was to look up.


The keeping of time dates back to the beginning of civilization. Long before the Swiss and their watches, centuries before digital advances in counting mini-micro seconds, our ancestors were keeping their eye on the time when it came time to hunting, foraging and clubbing their neighbors. There was one big clock – universal to all. The sun was the big hand, and shadows on the ground were the little hand. It was the Egyptians though that perfected the use of time telling through natural methods – they are widely accredited with inventing the sundial, a time-telling device that is still in use today.

Astronomy was the next leap forward in knowing ‘what time it is’. Around 4000 B.C., the moon and the stars were added to the mix to create a calendar system and a more complex form of time keeping. The Zodiac system is still in use today, but is used more for astrology rather than its original use – time-keeping.

Jump forward to around 1500 AD and to a monastery in Italy, in which the canny monks built a contraption that would tell them what time to pray. Theses clocks told time audibly with bells and had no hand indicators. They also had to be wound twice a day. The first recorded clock ever built was in fact built for a future Pope. Monks in the German town of Magdeburg built the first clock in 996 in honor of the soon to be Pope Sylvester II.

It was the problems of telling time at sea that inspired the first watch of the modern era. In the 1700’s it was brought to the attention of England’s reigning monarch, Queen Anne, that there was an urgent need for the country’s navy to be able to reliably calculate longitude at sea. The Queen offered a prize of 20,000 pounds for anyone who invented a device that could achieve this.

A self-taught watchmaker by the name of John Harrison discovered that a precise reading of a ships longitude could only happen if you knew the exact time. For ten years Harrison toiled over versions of time-telling inventions before he produced the Harrison Marine Chronometer. He would soon be 20,000 pounds richer and time-telling would enter a new era.

In 1868, Patek Philippe produced the first wristwatch. It was originally marketed as a “lady’s bracelet watch”, intended as jewelry. In 1904, Alberto Santos-Dumont, an early aviator, asked his friend, a French watchmaker called Louis Cartier, to design a watch that could be useful during his flights.The first man’s wristwatch was born. Wristwatches gained in popularity during World War I, when officers found them to be more convenient than pocket watches in battle. Wristwatches were also found to be needed in the air as much as on the ground: military pilots found them more convenient than pocket watches for the same reasons as Santos-Dumont had. Eventually, army contractors manufactured watches en masse, for both infantry and pilots.

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