A Swiss watch

12 things you probably didn't know about watches

A dozen timely tales from the development of watch technology down the centuries.

1 Watches as we now know them could probably not have come into being without the invention of the mainspring, the spiral torsion spring of metal ribbon that is the source of the power in mechanical watches. Mainsprings appeared in the first spring-powered clocks in the 15th century, and evolved into early pocket watches by about 1600. Some credit the mainspring to German clockmaker Peter Henlein (1485-1542) circa 1511. Henlein was certainly one of the first craftsmen to make small ornamental ‘taschenuhr’ (portable clocks often worn as pendants or attached to clothing). However, some surviving examples show that spring-driven clocks had already been developed by the early years of the 16th century, so in respect to mainsprings, Henlein might have been a bit behind the curve.

2 Pocket watches and waistcoat pockets are a male sartorial coupling that dates back to the 17th century. The foppish British monarch King Charles II popularised the wearing of waistcoats among the fashion-conscious classes in the 1670s, and the gentleman’s watch - the tablet PC of its day, although several magnitudes more expensive - developed into to the flat circular timepiece on a chain that would fit neatly inside the waistcoat pocket. The pocket watch-waistcoat combo continued for over 200 years, and was still fairly widely evident well into the first half of the 20th century, but had come somewhat to symbolise overly-officious workplace management. More recently pocket watch popularity has had somewhat of a resurgence: premium timepiece brands such as Panerai, Parmigiani, and Vacheron Constantin have recently released new pocket watch models.

3 The first wristwatch with an alarm function was produced by luxury Swiss watchmaker Eterna in 1908, but it did not enter into production until 1914. Eterna produced several other innovations during the 1930s, such as the smallest production wristwatch with a ‘Baguette’ movement (an elongated rectangular movement, the length of which is at least three times as great as the width), and an eight-day alarm watch. Eterna advanced self-winding watch technology in 1948 with the development of the ‘Eterna-matic’ automatic movement: its use of five strategically-placed ball bearings made the movement highly efficient and reduced friction and resistance on the oscillating weight that wound the mainspring - thus reducing wear and extending its working life.

4 In the lead up to the First World War a pioneer of aviation technology also played a role in helping to popularise the manly wear of wristwatches. Alberto Santos-Dumont (1873-1932 - pictured) made several contributions to the field of aircraft design during its pioneering period. Santos-Dumont’s final monoplane designs were called the Demoiselle series. When travelling in the Demoiselle, Santos-Dumont needed to measure the time interval. In 1904, Santos-Dumont complained to his friend Louis Cartier about the difficulty of checking his pocket watch to time his performance during flight. Santos-Dumont then asked Cartier to come up with an alternative time tool that would allow him to keep both hands on the controls of his aircraft. The result was a watch with a leather band and a small buckle, to be worn on the wrist.

5 Necessities of 20th century warfare were a factor in making the wearing of wristwatches by men more socially acceptable. Attitudes changed as fighting soldiers found that wristwatches were the more practical timekeeping device (than fobbed pocketwatches) on the changed battlefield. During the First World War the unprecedented wide battlefronts meant that the movements of thousands of soldiers had to be synchronised to a much more precise nature than in previous military conflicts. Millions of troops were issued with a ‘trench watch’, doing much to dispel the pre-war image of the wristwatch (or ‘wristlet’) as unmanly. It was also important that trench watches could be read in zero lighting conditions, and that they were robust enough to survive life in the warzone. Several watchmakers brought-out chronographs with radium-illuminated dials and protective (often decorative) shrapnel guards.

6 The self-winding or automatic watch rewinds the mainspring of a mechanical movement by the natural motions of the watch wearer. It works by an eccentric weight, called a winding rotor, rotating with the movement of the wearer’s wrist. The back-and-forth motion of the winding rotor couples to a ratchet to wind the mainspring automatically. Although the first self-winding mechanism for pocket watches was invented by Swiss horologist Abraham-Louis Perrelet (1729-1826), the first ‘self-winding’, or ‘automatic’, wristwatch was patented by Bolton-born watch-repairer-turned-engineer John Harwood (1893-1964) in 1923, and went into production in 1929 - but not for long. The watch had no crown and was set by rotating the bezel. However, the products based on Harwood’s patents (also produced in France, Switzerland and the US) proved tricky to manufacture and were insufficiently robust. Nonetheless, Harwood was awarded the Gold Medal of the British Horological Institute in 1957.

7 Apollo astronauts sported Omega Speedmasters during moonshots; but what is the wristwatch of choice for explorers of inner space? Jacques Cousteau (1910-1997 - pictured) is credited with improvements to the aqua-lung, and first came to attention of mass audiences via the cinema with his 1954 documentary ‘The Silent World’. In the film he is seen wearing a Rolex Submariner, the first precision wristwatch developed for use undersea. The Rolex Oyster Perpetual Submariner debuted at the Basel watch fair the year that ‘The Silent World’ came out: the ones appearing must have been among the first available, and exposed the stylish metallic watches to cinema-goers. The watchmaker may have cannily realised that Cousteau’s exploits would popularise scuba diving as a recreational pursuit, so more divers would need to keep track of time spent underwater.

8 The development of the electric quartz crystal wristwatch gained much of its driving impetus planning for the 1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo. In 1959 Japanese watchmaker Seiko gave an order to its subsidiary Epson to start development on a prototype quartz wristwatch to be ready to take time measurements throughout the 1964 Olympics, and Seiko had a working prototype of a portable quartz watch which took part in time measurements throughout the event. Prototypes of an electronic quartz wristwatch were first made by the Centre Electronique Horloger (CEH) research laboratory in Neuchâtel, Switzerland. Between 1965 and 1967 pioneering development work was done on a miniaturised 8192 Hz quartz oscillator, a thermo-compensation module, and an in-house-made, dedicated integrated circuit; however, hybrid circuits were used in the later Seiko Quartz-Astron (35SQ), which was the first quartz wristwatch to enter production, in 1969.

9 The digital watch concept had its origins in the 1968 sci-fi feature film ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’. Director Stanley Kubrick commissioned Hamilton Watch Company to design a futuristic-looking - but non-functioning - timepiece to be worn by the film’s space pilots (pictured). Hamilton had a reputation for futuristic watches. In 1957 it had introduced the first electric watch, the Electric 500. In 1970 Hamilton tried to leverage its association with the movie by producing a functional wristwatch, the Odyssee 2001. This then inspired Hamilton to develop of the first digital electronic watch - the Pulsar - working in partnership with the Eletrodata company. Launched in April 1972, the first Pulsar had an LED display and was made in 18-carat gold with a high retail price of around $2,100.

10 The Patek Philippe Caliber 89 was created in 1989 to celebrate the maker’s 150th anniversary. The world’s most complicated pocket mechanical watch took five years of R&D, and another four years to manufacture. Made from 18-carat gold, it weighs 1,100g, exhibits 24 hands, has 1,728 components in total, and 33 ‘complications’ (special features), including a thermometer and a star chart. Four watches were made: three in different hues of gold (white, yellow, and rose), and one in platinum; any one of them would set you back between $5.12m and $6m. What do you get for your dosh? Its complications include: century, decade and year displays, date of Easter, day of the month, day of the week, equation of time, hour of second time-zone, leap year indicator, month, Moon phase display, power reserve, split second hand, star chart, Sun hand, thermometer, time of sunrise, time of sunset, 12-hour recorder, and winding crown position indicator.

11 One of the greatest (but possibly least-known to the layperson) names in British watchmaking was Isle of Man-based George Daniels (1926-2011 - pictured), inventor of the co-axial escapement (or ‘Daniels Escapement’), patented in 1980. This is a modification of the lever escapement with some features of the detent escapement, and is considered by some to be one of the most significant horological advancements in watch movement design since horologist Thomas Mudge invented the lever escapement in the 18th century. The co-axial escapement functions with a system of three pallets that separates the locking function from the impulse, thus virtually eliminating the sliding friction component of the lever escapement (i.e., the sliding of the pallet stones over the teeth of the escape wheel), and thereby eliminating the need for lubrication of the pallets. What sliding friction remains is due to the impossibility of maintaining an exact tangential geometry throughout the duration of an impulse. The co-axial escapement has been used by Omega since 1999. Daniels’ collaborator Roger Smith continues the traditional methods learned from his mentor in his Roger W Smith brand.

12 The Cesium 133 wristwatch prototype (pictured) was unveiled by Bathys Hawaii in October 2013. Unlike so-called ‘atomic wristwatches’ that use a radio signal generated by the US government to keep accurate, the Cesium 133 (named for the most stable isotope of the element) has a self-contained Cesium source that generates the time signal independently. Powered by rechargeable lithium batteries, the time is displayed on an analogue dial with a moonphase indicator. At 60mmx50mmx23mm the watch is comparatively largish, but watchmaker Dr John Patterson (who co-developed the 133 with engineer George Talbot) anticipates a size reduction and increased battery life when the production version enters the market in 2014 as a limited edition of 20 pieces with an estimated price of $12,000.

“Within a single chip there is a laser, a heater, a sealed cavity of cesium gas, a microwave filter, and a photodiode detector,” Dr Patterson explains. “The 133 is able to achieve levels of accuracy on the order of one second per thousand years.” *

Recent articles

Info Message

Our sites use cookies to support some functionality, and to collect anonymous user data.

Learn more about IET cookies and how to control them