Who Invented The Watch: Spring-Wound, Pocket & Wrist

who invented the watch

Watches are such a common item and they’re often something we take for granted. But a long time ago, watches weren’t so common and someone had to come up with the idea of a watch. So who invented the watch ? How different was it from the ones we use today ? Why were watches invented in the first place, and when ? Let’s find out. 

Watches are often credited as being first made by Peter Henlein in Nuremberg, Germany in the 15th century. These were actually the spring-wound clocks, and were worn around the neck. The pocket watch evolved from this, a sleeker and more accurate version, until the late 19th century. Wristwatches evolved from pocket watches in the late 19th century when British military officers started using them on the battlefield.

The invention of the watch as we know it today, took a lot of innovation. Many people were involved in making clocks smaller and putting them on our wrists, and each person added something different. Here are some of the biggest innovators in clockwork, and how this led to wristwatches. 

Peter Henlein is credited to have invented the spring clock. But the spring had to be re-wound several times a day. As the spring unwound the clock became slower and thus unreliable. This version of clocks only had one hand. the hour hand. It was often worn by noblemen and royals as a status symbol and less for actual time keeping. 

Christiaan Hyugens and Robert Hooke invented the spiral balance spring in 1675, and it was meant to add more accuracy to clocks by controlling the oscillation speed of the balance wheel. This major improvement led to the possibility of finally manufacturing accurate pocket watches. 

Temperature changes also affected early watches, so a balance wheel made of two metals was invented to mitigate this effect. It was first invented in 1765 by Pierre Le Roy and later improved upon by Thomas Earnshaw. This again improved accuracy by reducing the amount of variables that can affect the watch. 

The lever escapement was the biggest breakthrough in clocks and watches. This allowed the balance wheel to spin free for most of its cycle, standardizing the length of seconds and improving accuracy. The lever escapement was initially made by Thomas Mudge in 1754, and then improved upon by Abraham-Louis Breguet, Peter Litherland, and Edward Massey.

When was the watch invented ?

The earliest patent of a wristwatch dates back to 1893, and belonged to the Garstin Company in London. However, wristwatches have been made earlier than this, with a wristwatch gift given to Queen Elizabeth I of England by Robert Dudley. Then there are the wristwatches of Josephine de Beauharnais (1806) and the Queen of Naples (1810). 

These versions of wristwatches were almost exclusively worn by women, while men wore pocket watches. Wristwatches became popular among men when the British military switched from pocket watches to wristwatches to aid their troops in the late 1800s. 

Wristwatches are the miniature version of a time keeping device, and to truly understand when they were made and why, we need to understand the history of time keeping in general and how we evolved from the ancient sundial to the smartwatches we know today. 

Ancient sundials were the first form of watch

Ancient sundials have been recorded as early as 1500 BC, in ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia. The sundial relies on the sun to cast a shadow onto a plate with several markings where each hour would be, in a circle or semicircle. As the sun rises and moves through the sky, the shadow’s direction changes and if the sundial is placed correctly, time can be told correctly. 

Sundials are the earliest form of recorded timekeeping, but it’s likely they weren’t the first. The ‘technology’ behind sundials is actually shadow, movement, and shadow length. It’s entirely possible humans have been using shadows to tell time for far longer than sundials, but there are no recordings of this. 

Archimedes made the first rudimentary clock in 3 BC

Archimedes (ancient Greek mathematician, engineer, and physicist) made the very first mechanical clock, with gears, weights, counter-weights, and a series of water floats. This was essentially a water clock, and also a cuckoo clock ! Yes, it has little birds singing every hour and it was the first of its kind. 

Water clocks were the basis for many clocks used until the advent of winding gears. 

Clocks with gears were the next big step

Clocks that required winding were the next step and came about in Europe in the 15th century, but it’s not entirely clear who made the first one. However, the first recorded clock belongs to Philip the Good, Duke of Normandy (reigned 1419-1467). This version of time keeping presented two new issues: the spring had to be re-wound every few hours, and as the spring unwound the speed of the gears slowed down, essentially distorting time. 

There were many advances, breakthroughs, and innovations in clocks and improving their accuracy. But these were slow and for many decades clocks could only show the hour not the minutes.

Pocket watches were the first version of a small, personal clock

The pocket watch relied on the same mechanism as the large clocks, but made as small as possible. The earliest pocket watches were actually worn as pendants, as they were several inches wide and tall and weren’t very accurate to begin with. Once their accuracy improved, they started being worn by men in their waistcoat pockets. This trend became so popular the shape of the pocket watch became what we know today: a flat, round watch with smooth edges, and a chain to tie the watch to your coat. 

Women still wore their watches as pendants, even in this smaller form. This was due to a combination of waistcoats reserved mostly for men, and women preferring the pendant look.

Wristwatches came about in the 19th century

The change from carrying your watch in your pocket, to carrying it on your wrist is not well documented, but it’s well known that the very first version of a wristwatch was made in 1810 for Caroline Murat, Queen of Naples. Women started wearing these small watches on their wrists, while men continued wearing their watches as pocket watches. 

Why Did Men Start Wearing Watches?

So what changed to make men wear wristwatches ?

Towards the end of the 1800s, the British military saw that wristwatches were more practical than pocketwatches on the battlefield. They could be used to synchronize movements, during the of day, and know when to expect their allies to be in place. This removed the need to signal their position which gave them an advantage over the enemy. 

This resulted in any men involved in the military to own a wristwatch, which is the closes to the watches we know today. In fact wrist watches became standard issue in the military and were eventually handed out to recruits. 

Why was the watch invented ?

Wristwatches were initially invented as a more convenient way to tell time, as opposed to carrying around a pocket watch. But they didn’t pick up in popularity until British military officers started using them to coordinate their plans and troops more effectively. This led to a mass production of very simple wristwatches to be handed out to officers and troops. 

Watches became far more popular as they reached a large audience, most of which were military men. But as time went on watches became more common, and eventually got smaller. 

Watches became an essential everyday item

By WWI watches became an everyday item but still a bit expensive. Having a watch meant you could easily tell time, but having a watch on the battlefield still offered a great advantage and meant you could rely on when and where troops would be. That is when campaign watches started featuring unbreakable glass and luminous displays, so you could still tell the time in the trenches, in the dark. 

How did we get to smartwatches?

The jump from gear-train watches to smartwatches took far less time than the jump from clocks to wristwatches. With the ever-faster progress of technology, mechanical watches were eventually replaced by quartz watches. The main issue with mechanical watches, despite the many improvements over the years, is the fact that gears wear down, and they become unreliable as they age. 

Let’s take a look at the key moment that led to smartwatches, starting with the first jump from mechanical watches to quartz.

How Did Quartz Watches “Change The Game”?

A quartz watch is still a regular watch, but it uses a quartz crystal resonator that vibrates at a frequency of 32 768 Hz. This frequency is the most adequate for time-keeping and quartz watches are thus far more accurate than mechanical watches.

Quartz Crystal Watch Benefits:

  • has very high durability, meaning it rarely needs replacing
  • does not respond to temperature changes as easily as the metal gears in mechanical watches
  • is a very common material, so it is easy to manufacture

Seiko was the first company to put out a quartz watch

In 1959 Seiko, a Japanese company producing watches, asked Epson (a daughter company) to develop a quartz watch. The idea Epson came up with was to use a quartz crystal in place of the balance wheel. This crystal would resonate at a specific frequency when voltage from a battery would be applied. 

The development of this watch took several years, and it was in 1969 that Seiko unveiled their first quartz watch, and it hit the shelves on December 25th, 1969 (the 35 SQ Astron model). Various competitors improved upon the quartz watch, and made it far more common than it was initially. 

A cool thing the quartz watch did, it was the first watch to use a battery, and thus could allow a digital display. These were the first digital display watches, and were the precursors to the smart watches by first allowing digital display to exist. 

Unless you’re currently wearing a smartwatch, you’re wearing a quartz watch. But how did we go from quartz to smartwatches ?

Seiko makes progress again

With digital, battery-powered watches allowing for an interface with the user, watches could now be optimized to store a small amount of data. The very first watch to do this was the Pulsar, made by Hamilton Watch Company in 1972, and it would later be bought by Seiko in 1978.

So now Seiko planned to make watches more similar to personal computers, starting with data input. The Data 2000 watch came out in 1983, and had a small external keyboard you could attach to the watch. The watch could store up to 2000 characters, akin to the idea of a sticky note app on your phone today. At the time, this was revolutionary. Seiko improved upon the model and released several upgraded versions. 

Wireless data transfers between a smartwatch and a PC

In 1994 the Timex Wireless Smartwatch could allow for wireless data transfer between your PC and the watch. The data transferred was simple by today’s standards: uploading appointments and schedules made on MS Outlook’s predecessor. But it was a big jump in the amount of data that could be stored, and how. 

In 2000, a big jump came in the form of Linux watches (invented in ’98 and perfected since by Steven Mann). This was later improved upon by IBM, with smartwatches that could hold up to 8MB memory and ran Linux. 

In 2003 Fossil came out with a smartwatch that also came with a small stylus to input data directly onto the small interface of the watch. 

In 2004 Microsoft came out with SPOT, the first smartwatch on this list that resembles today’s smartwatches. It could offer info on news, weather, stock prices, and sports. 

Sony Ericsson and Fossil also developed a smartwatch that could connect via bluetooth to phones, but only Sony Ericsson phones. This hindered their popularity and eventually the model was discontinued.

Read Also: Who Invented The Xbox?

The 2010s brought more innovation, closer to the smartwatches of today

In 2011 Motorola released a smartwatch that could show time, steps, and calories burned. It was one of the first fitness-oriented smartwatches and this was the gateway for making smartwatches more popular. If the watch was synched to a smartphone, it could display the caller ID, SMS, and calendar appointments and alerts. 

Eventually, Samsung and Apple joined the smartwatch race, with each coming out with its own line. Samsung came out with Samsung Galaxy Gear in 2013, and Apple with Apple watch in 2015. 

Each company made progress in terms of battery life, apps and widgets, water resistance and wearability. Eventually they were able to complete very complex tasks like online payments and video calls. 

Modern watches have come a long way from sundials and spring clocks, and today they serve more than one purpose. Since the advent of cell phones, telling time has become as easy as just looking at your phone. Wearing a watch for time telling became useless, but watches were still worn, mostly for aesthetics. 

That is until smartwatches came about, and the fact that they can be connected to your other devices means they do more than just tell time.