Humans have always had a fascination and need to observe the passing of time. Of course, we can tell when day is going to night, winter to spring, but humans have a need to learn more. Throughout the history of the world, there has been several major changes to the number of devices and methods used to tell time. We’ve invented ways of marking the passing of hours to minutes to milliseconds. We’ve even improved on those discoveries beyond what humans’ thought could have been possible way back in the day. While all of it can’t be noted in one article, I’ve put together a brief read on the origin of watches and how they’ve changed throughout time.

What Defines a Clock?

Before we dive into the origins of watches, we should define what constitutes a clock. A clock must have two basic components:

  • A constant action to mark off equal increments of time. Early examples of this were movement of the sun across the sky or the sand in the hourglasses. In modern times, clocks have used a balance wheel, vibrating crystals, or electromagnetic waves with the internal workings of atoms as their regulators.
  • A means of keeping track of the increments of time and a way to display the results. For example, the position of clock hands and digital time displays.

The Earliest Clocks

The origin of watches starts around 3,500 BCE, when the Egyptians became the first recorded people to formally divide their day into parts, similar to how we have hours. To do this, they used the Obelisk, which was a slender, four-sided monument that tapered into a point towards the top of it.An Obelisk in Egypt

The Egyptians were able to partition the day into morning and afternoon by using the shadows that the Obelisks created when the sun hit it. Obelisks were also used to show the year’s longest and shortest days depending if the shadow at noon was the shortest or longest of the year.

In 1,500 BCE, the Egyptians created the sundial, which is possibly the first portable timepiece in human history. The sundial consisted of a plate with markings like a clock and a straight edge object that could cast a shadow onto the plate.

The sundial was able to divide a sunlit day into 10 parts, plus two additional “twilight hours” in the morning and in the evening. With this said, Sundials depended on the rotation and movement of the sun. As the sun moved from the east to the west, the shadows that formed were used to predict the time of the day. In the morning the straight edged object, known as a gnomon, was placed facing the east and, in the afternoon, the gnomon was placed facing west.

SundialHowever, the sundial had some vital drawbacks. For example, different longitudinal locations would create different shadow lengths and because of this, the sundial’s shadow hand would move at different speeds. Also, and most notably, it would not work at night due to no sunlight to cast a shadow.

To bridge the gap between the time the sun set from when it rose, people used water clocks. One of the oldest water clocks was found in the tomb of Amenhotep I, an Egyptian pharaoh who was buried around 1500 BCE. In between 100 BCE and 500 CE, more advanced mechanized water clocks were being developed by Greek and Roman astronomers and horologists.

Origins of Watches: The First Watch

Throughout the origins of watches, a major turning point came about in 1504 when, Peter Henlein, a locksmith and watchmaker from Nuremberg, Germany, created the first pocket watch. He built it during a 4-year asylum at local Franciscan monastery after being involved in brawl on September 7, 1504. The watch was small, drum shaped, portable, and could run for about forty hours before it needed rewinding.

He became well-known as a maker of small portable clocks. They were ornamental, spring-powered, and brass. They were also very rare and expensive and because of this, they became fashionable among the aristocrats of the time.

Railway Timekeeper Pocket Watch

As time went on, the pocket watch continued its evolution. During the 1850’s, Patek-Phillippe created the first keyless pocket watch. During the second half of the 18th century, pocket watches were being produced with the second hand, along with the minute and hour hand.

This allowed for more accuracy in telling time. By the time the 20th century came around, watchmakers were issued certificates to show proof that they created precise watches. These certificates started to become more of a requirement than a luxury for them.

The 20th Century

By the beginning of the 20th century, people in Europe were starting to wear watches on a bracelet. The wristwatch, as it’s called, began its popularity around this time. Some people credit Abraham Louis-Breguet as the creator of the wristwatch in 1810.

However, Patek-Philippe also credit themselves as the creators of the world’s first wristwatch in 1868. While it’s popularity in Europe was undeniable, it was still being overlooked in the US as a fad. In America, it was considered a woman’s accessory and a fad that would surely pass in time, but once the first World War started, things changed drastically.

Waltham Watch Ad 1918During WWI, European fighters were starting to take their old pocket watches and strap them to their wrists. This was done so that their forces could keep track of time and stay in sync as a force to carry out missions as planned. As one could imagine, this was very important for a soldier.

By 1916, America began accepting the wristwatch as more than just a European fad and it began to grow as the standard option of time keeping for not only women, but men alike. As the years went on, more watchmakers began to create wristwatches and the technology continued to get better.


No Time Like the Present

In this post, I covered briefly the origin of watches. Watches, like most things in today’s world, have been in and out of popularity. Nowadays, there are plenty of watchmakers and watches are being produced at all different price points. The pioneers of the industry, such as Omega and Patek Philippe, are still going strong and will likely continue to do so. Watch technology has gotten vastly better and there are styles for just about everyone out there. One thing is for sure, wristwatches will continue to be worn and will always be an important part of the modern world as an important piece of style and functionality.

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Marija · February 21, 2019 at 11:18 AM

Hey JT!

I really loved this article! It’s so cool to imagine how people kept track of time long time ago, comparing to today.
I’m a type of person that tends to be 5 minutes late almost everywhere. Have a feeling that in 3000 BC nobody would notice or care much!:D

Anyways, really liked your concise, strait to the point history of watches! Thanks for sharing!

PS Seems like your Watch this man can be interesting to girls too!:)

    JT · February 22, 2019 at 3:43 PM

    I appreciate you reading this! Crazy how far things have come since thinking about the beginning of time.

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