History of Watches

People have been wearing watches for many years, and will probably continue to do so in the future. Wearing a watch can be for practical uses as well as fashionable ones. Like all other inventions, watches have a very interesting history from the time they were made all the way to the present day.

The Earliest Watches

Contrary to popular opinion, the earliest watches didn’t just tell the time. Like an Apple watch today, watches back then also had several functions. One might even say that keeping time may not have been the top priority of the most luxurious watches in the beginning.

The first timepiece that was actually wearable is usually cited as the Nuremberg egg by Peter Henlein. The clockmaker from Germany came out with these offerings in the early sixteenth century. Some dispute this origin, saying that these watches were actually invented in the late fifteenth century in Italy. Whichever version we believe, the fact remains that these timepieces were considered more of a decoration than for actual timekeeping.

These eggs were worn around one’s neck, attached to clothing, or even embedding in pieces of jewelry. The mainspring mechanism meant that the clocks were portable, though they needed regular winding. Plus, watches that displayed the minutes were quite rare. The usual functions of the common watch back then included tracking the current month or moon phases.

The First Pocket Watch

In the history of the watch, a man named Peter Heinlein can be credited with making the first ever pocket watch. He did so in between the years of 1504 and 1508. Although Peter Heinlein is the man considered to be the inventor of the pocket watch, it was Leonardo Da Vinci that created or sketched what is known as a fusee. This Fusee is a pulley system that has since helped pocket watches keep better time.

Being on Time

After and during the Industrial Revolution, the concept of being on time for appointments and meeting became much more important than before. Without standardized timetables, though, it was impossible to make sense of train schedules. Plus, the increase of factory labor as opposed to agricultural labor also enhances the concept of time through the practices of clocking in, hourly wages, etc.

Since time was now something to capitalize on and hence measure out, workers wanted to be on time to avoid fines. During that era, then the most ambitious people became known as stemwinders, as they were always winding up their watches. This became a positive moral attribute and a symbol of independence. Watches did remain expensive, though, so having a watch was also a sign of social ascension and economic success.  We’ll now look at a slightly detailed history of watches and clocks through the ages:

Watches in the 13th- 16th Centuries

The oldest mechanical watch is recorded as being from England. There are several ancient clocks that still work, one of which dates back to 1386 and is located in Salisbury Cathedral. There are no faces or hands for this clock, but it can tell you the time by striking the number of hours.

In the 14th century, there were about three mechanical clocks of interest in Italy. One would ring a bell each hour, another was an astronomical clock, and the third one kept track of the sunrise, date, and hours as well. With more progress, blacksmiths started to make clocks with very loud bells. These could be heard across towns and houses.

By the 16th century, clocks were also made using bronze, brass, and silver instead of iron. It was in the 1540s when the Swiss watch industry was officially born. This was actually due to the ban on wearing jewelry, enforced by a reformer named John Calvin. Stripped of their trade, jewelers turned their skills towards watches. These were technically not jewelry but functional accessories, but the talent of the jewelers made them works of art. By 1574, people saw the first pocket watch. This was made of bronze, with religious images on both sides.

Watches in the 17th-19th Centuries

This was the era when pendulum clocks were invented. While Galileo studied the concept in 1602, the first patent for these watches was by Christian Huygens more than 50 years later. With the pendulum, time deviation in clocks was reduced to about 15 seconds from the previous 15 minutes.

By the 17th century, pocket watches had also made a lot of progress. Before this, they were only capable of displaying the current hour. By 1680, minute hands came into being, with the second hand coming about a decade later.

Eventually, the pocket watch became a more coveted fashion than the traditional pendant timepiece. This was probably due to the introduction of waistcoats by Charles II of England. Watches had been in a pendant case before, hence the name. Now that they were in a pocket, the shape of the watch was curved and flattened to prevent the edges from causing damage. The face of the watch also got a glass cover to protect the somewhat delicate hands inside.

Use of Clocks and Watches

By the 1700s, more and more people were wearing and owning clocks or pocket watches.  Abraham- Louis Perrelet made the first self-winding mechanism in 1770, while Jean-Antoine Lupine engineered a thinner kind of mechanism in the same year. This resulted in slimmer watch designs, which could be concealed more easily.

The same century also saw the lever escapement created and become widespread in Britain watchmaking. However, Swiss manufacturers still used the cylinder escapements until almost the 20th century.

Mass Production of Watches

Now that there was so much technology regarding watches, watch manufacturers were able to make their unique systems for replicating tools, machinery, and designs. The United States saw a mass production movement take place, especially in Connecticut and Massachusetts.

With cheaper materials, there was also a mass production of pocket watches. This made them accessible to even the common man. Plus, the many watches produced also made a difference in their winding. By 1860, key-less winding had come into being, replacing the key with a kind of crown.


We now come to the invention of wristwatches, which was in 1812. The first watch if this kind was made especially for the Queen of Naples. While wristwatches were around in the 1570s, they never really caught on then and were mostly referred to as arm watches.

At first, only women were known to wear wristwatches due to the latter’s sensitivity to the elements. It was the military that first popularized the use of watches for men. This was in the year 1880 when Constant Girard orders a mass production of 2,000 wristwatches for the offers of the German Navy. Alberto Santos-Dumont, an aviator from Britain, was also searching for a timepiece which would free up his hands during flights for proper timing. His friend was Louis Cartier, who designed the perfect Santos wristwatch. The aviator popularized the timepiece, and the rest is history.

Modern Developments

There are several modern developments today which have changed the face of wristwatches everywhere. For instance, we have a stopwatch now, which has a 1930 patent held by the Breitling Watch Company. The invention might have been in the late 1700s, though.

We also have electric watches, which were introduced during the 1950s. These have a balance wheel that’s powered by a thin wire called a solenoid. After this mechanism, it wasn’t long before the quartz watch came along in 1969. This movement meant that all the mechanical moving parts were removed and replaced with a neat battery.

The battery meant that the wristwatch was now able to absorb higher levels of shock than before. Plus there was no more need for winding oiling and frequent cleaning. Digital counters now maintain an exact time instead of a wheel train.

After quartz watches, we’ve now been introduced to the advent of smartwatches such as the Apple watch. These watches allow us to tell the time, handle our calls, set reminders for tasks, and have a myriad of other functions. Some people even use them as phones, which is a long way ahead of the time when clocks didn’t even have minute hands!

The Future of Watches

Pocket watches used to be a major fashion statement and an indicator of social status. People would have their watches stowed away in their pocket, usually attached to a chain so they don’t get lost. Pulling out a gold pocket watch to check the time was a matter of pride. Now, many wealthy people wear expensive luxury watches like Rolexes as a display of their riches and status.

We’ve also seen watches made from all sorts of materials, including stainless steel, gold, and silver. Now, many watchmaking companies are experimenting with materials like titanium, silicon, carbon fiber, and even ceramic for better watch movements and performance. With more advancement in technology going on as we speak, the watches of the future might be unrecognizable from the device available today!


Today we have digital watches, watches that cost tens of thousands of dollars (or more), smart watches that track our fitness activity and more. With the growth of smartphones we pretty much always know the time, the watch is much more about fashion and functionality today than knowing the exact time.