Since time immemorial humankind has tried to measure the passing of time. Various time-keeping tools have been created over the centuries by different civilisations, such as the gnomon or the sundial. More sophisticated instruments, such as clocks and watches, then came into being.
A quick definition to get us started. A watch is an instrument for keeping time which is worn about one’s person. A watch is different to a clock, pendulum clock or any other time-keeping instrument because it can easily be transported around the place without affecting how it works.
Who invented the watch?
It’s difficult to say for sure. The watch as we know it today is derived from the mechanical clock, which slowly but surely reduced in volume and became a table clock with the invention of the mainspring. It can be moved around without its transportation stopping or altering its movement.
The first watchmakers where craftspeople (locksmiths, gunsmiths and armourers, goldsmiths) who were not afraid to push the boundaries of what was already available to create new and unusual pieces. It is easy to imagine that these early watch creators wanted to demonstrate their talent by offering increasingly complex and ever smaller timepieces. The table clock became smaller and smaller, so much so that it could eventually be worn around the neck or in a purse: the watch was born.
The first watches date from the late 15th century
The first watches date from the late 15th century (about 1480). However, this invention is often attributed to a clockmaker in Nuremberg, Peter Hele or Henlein, who designed very small clocks at the beginning of the 16th century (around 1510). The casing of these first watches was oval-shaped for a long time, hence the nickname Nuremberg egg. They became progressively flatter and finally became pocket watches.
Until the beginning of the 20th century, the most widespread model was the pocket watch, which as its name suggests, was worn in the pocket or attached to the end of a ribbon or chain. The wristwatch was invented in 1904 by Frenchman Louis Cartier and Swiss Hans Wilsdorf. At this time, wristwatches were primarily worn by sportsmen and female customers.
The evolution of the watch
In the 20th century, the wristwatch became more widely accessible. Up until the 1920s, watches had manual rewinding mechanisms, which means that the spring needed to be manually re-tightened each day. Automatic watches changed all this forever in 1926 with the addition of a rotor which re-tightened the spring with the natural movements of the wrist..
But it was not until 1957 that a real revolution took place in the world of watches: the appearance of electric watches, which needed neither manual rewinding nor wrist movements to operate. This new product became very popular, especially with sports-people, and continues to enjoy the same popularity today. This invention was followed by the second revolution in 1969: the creation of the first quartz watch.