History of Watches: The History of Timekeeping and Evolution

History of Watches

Time is a concept that is hard to grasp and almost impossible to keep track of. However, for centuries humans had tried to measure and keep track of the TIME. And, for that purpose, a large variety of timekeeping devices has been invented.

These range from earlier hourglasses to present-day smart wristwatches. However, the history of watches is a relatively short one. Below is the timeline of the evolution of watches and clocks.

The Wristwatch History and Timeline of the Evolution of Watches

A) 1200-1300

1291. Prince Asulid of Yemen invented the remarkable astrolabe, an astronomical instrument used to predict the positions of the sun, moon, planets, and stars.

B) 1300-1400

1348 – 1364. Clock-maker Giovanni Dondi dell Orologio of Padova, Italy built his Astrarium: a complex astronomical clock.

C) 1400-1500

Around 1410. The development of the Mainspring helped make clocks and watches portable. This paved the way for the production of domestic watches.
Around 1492. First mechanical watch developed in Europe.

History of Watches

D) 1500-1600

1517. Production of smaller watches begun.
1554. French watchmaker and goldsmith Thomas Bayard set up shop in Geneva to become the first “Orologier” (watchmaker) in Geneva.
1556. The Calvinist elders of Geneva banned citizens of the city from wearing jewelry. The ban forced the local jewelers/ goldsmiths to find a new craft such as watchmaking.
1558. Elizabeth I, reputed to have worn a ring-watch with an ‘alarm’, acceded to the throne.

E) 1600-1700

1601. The Genevan Corporation of Watchmakers (The Swiss guild of watch and clockmakers) was founded.

1632. Jean Boutin, a renowned watchmaker from France, invented the technique of painting enamel for cases and dials.

1656. Christian Huygens, a Dutch mathematician, and scientist invented and adapted the pendulum as a regulator of clocks, which improved their accuracy significantly.

1675. Christian Huygens again invented the spiral balance spring for watches, thereby considerably increasing their accuracy.

1685. Switzerland (Geneva) emerged as the watchmaking capital of Europe after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes by Louis XIV.

1695. For the first time in the history of watches, a half-quarter repeater watch produced in England.

F) 1700-1800

1704. French watchmaker de Beaufré produced the first watch with jewels.

George Graham clockmaker1710. George Graham built a watch with a pendulum and weights. It also had a hand that indicated the quarter-second.

1731. John Hadley, an English mathematician, made the first sextant. It soon became an essential navigational tool.

1741. In his treatise on watchmaking, Antoine Thiet the Elder described the principle of the minute-repeater watch. Such a watch was first made by the English watchmaker Thomas Mudge.

1747. Birth of the Swiss watchmaker Abraham Louis Breguet. Breguet’s inventions include the lever escapement with divided impulse faces, the pare-chute shock-absorber, the flat balance-spring known as the Breguet overcoil, the Tourbillon, and a compensation device for watches. He died in Paris in 1823.

1755. The Parisian watchmaker Caron created a ring-watch that was wound by rotating the bezel and set using a key. He created it for Madame de Pompadour.

1757. Thomas Mudge invented the lever escapement. This English watchmaker also devised mechanisms for the equation of time, perpetual calendar, minute-repeater, etc.

1760. Opening of the first Swiss watch shop, Beyer, in Zurich. In the same year, Voltaire set up a watchmaking workshop in Ferney.

1775. Frenchman Jean-Antoine Lépine invented a simplified flat calibre with bridges called ‘the Lépine calibre’. The principle is still used in mechanical watches.

1776. Jean-Moïse Pouzait, a Genevan watchmaker, invented the watch with the independent ‘Second Hands’. It was the precursor of the chronograph.

1784. English watchmaker Thomas Earnshaw invented a new spring detent escapement for chronometers.

1790. Genevan watchmakers Jacquet-Droz and Leschot developed a watch attached to a strap.


Global Competition in the watch IndustryG) 1800-1900

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1822. A patent was granted to inventor Nicolas Mathieu Rieussec for ‘Seconds Chronograph’. It was for the ‘timepiece or measurer of distance covered’.

1828. A patent for a ‘physics and astronomy counter’ with split-seconds was granted to inventor Louis-Frédéric Perrelet and his son.

1830. Watchmaker Antoine Louis Breguet developed a ‘keyless winding mechanism’.

1831. Joseph Thaddeus created the split-seconds chronograph.

1839. Vacheron & Constantin developed a full set of machines and tools to manufacture watches, the precursor of the mass production of watches. Vacheron & Constantin also started using interchangeable parts such as ‘the first pantograph’ developed by Georges-Auguste Leschot.

1844. Swiss watchmaker Adolphe Nicole filed a patent for a system that returned the chronograph hand to zero.

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Adrien Philippe1845. Adrien Philippe patented ‘keyless winding mechanism’.

1846. By this time the Swiss watch industry was producing over half of the world’s watch production.

1847. Antoine LeCoultre also developed a keyless winding mechanism.

1860. The Observatoire de Neuchâtel issued the first rating certificates for watches.

1861. Birth of Charles-Edouard Guillaume who invented the alloys Elinvar and Invar. The alloys are used to control the effect of temperature changes on the clock and watch accuracy. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1920.

1862. The first chronograph with a reset function was developed.

1870. Sandford Fleming, a Canadian engineer, proposed the introduction of clearly delimited time zones.

1875. Nemitz discovered calcium sulfate as the first luminescent substance for numerals and hands.

1876. Following the Universal Exhibition in Philadelphia, Swiss watchmakers stepped up the pace of mechanization to tackle American competition.

1877. Genevan watchmaker Charles-Auguste Paillard invented the palladium balance-spring.

1878. First Swiss institution to officially control watch rates was founded, now known as Bureau officiel des chronomètres (BO).

1880. Genevan François Borgel created the first water-resistant (screwed) watch case.

1883. The United States and Canada introduced Universal Time, the world is divided into 24 equal time zones, and the Greenwich meridian was chosen as the prime meridian.

1888. Watch manufacturer La Champagne introduced the collection of wristwatches.

1889. The patent for a wristwatch was filed in Bern.

1890. Genevan Dealmaker A. Beyeler introduced ‘transfer press technology’ for applying numerals and names to dials.

1897. Integral Balance was developed by Charles-Edouard Guillaume.

1900. Leroy built the most complicated pocket watch of that time.

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H) 1900-2000

1904. Wens Wilsdorf started the mass production of the women’s wristwatch.

1904. Cartier created the Santos. The watch was named after Alberto Santos-Dumont, a Franco-Brazilian aviation pioneer. There is an interesting story behind the making of the watch.

The French watchmaker Louis Cartier and Santos-Dumont were good friends. While celebrating his winning of the Deutsch Prize conquest in Paris, Santos complained to his friend Louis Cartier about the difficulty of checking his pocket watch to time his performance during flight.

Alberto Santos Dumont

Santos-Dumont wanted an alternative watch that could be useful during his flights, a watch that would allow him to keep both hands on the controls.

Cartier wanted to help his famous friend and created a wristwatch with a leather band and a small buckle. And, since then Santos-Dumont never took off again without his personal Cartier wristwatch, Santos.

1907. LeCoultre created the ultrathin pocket watch movement. At 1.38 mm, it was the world’s thinnest watch movement.

1909-1910. Patents for wrist chronographs were filed in Berne.

1913. The metallurgist Harry Brearley developed Stainless Steel. An alloy of iron, chromium, and nickel is widely used in watches.
1914. Eterna developed the first wristwatch with an alarm.

1916. Swiss trade fair MUBA held in Basel (first time in the history of wristwatches).

1916. Heuer filed two patents: One, for the ‘Micrograph’ to 1/100th of a second; Second, for the ‘Semi-micrograph’ to 1/50th of a second.

1917. Louis Cartier created the Tank watch.

1919. Nickel-steel alloy compensating balance-spring was made by Charles-Edouard Guillaume and Imphy steelworks.

1921. An hour-angle watch was developed for pilots. Watch manufacturers including Jaeger LeCoultre, Longines, Lange & Söhne, IWC, and Vacheron Constantin offered different wristwatch models that could be used in aeronautics. The hour-angle watches were used to determine longitude.

1923. The English watchmaker John Harwood filed a patent for the watches with higher water resistance which he developed by doing away with the crown and stem.

1924. Watchmaker John Harwood developed a self-winding wristwatch with a central oscillating weight. He filed the first Swiss patent for the same.

Seiko Mens Watch1925. A pendant watch movement was used to create a perpetual calendar wristwatch. This was the first known wristwatch with a perpetual calendar.

1926. Series production of self-winding wristwatches started. These wristwatches used an oscillating weight mechanism.

1926. Rolex created the Oyster wristwatch with a water-resistant case and crown. In 1927 Mercedes Gleitze wore the Rolex Oyster when she swam the Channel.

1927. Patek Philippe produced Packard, the world’s most complicated watch of that time. Packard was named after the automobile magnate James Packard.

1929. LeCoultre created the world’s smallest movement, the 101 calibers. It weighed less than one gram. The movement comprised 74 parts and measured 14 x 4.85 x 3.4 mm.

1929. Jean-Louis Reutter, an engineer at LeCoultre (later Jaeger LeCoultre) invented the perpetual motion Atmos.

1929. Eterna launched the first eight-day alarm wristwatch.

1930. Tourbillon wristwatch launched for the first time in the known history of watches. By this time ‘wristwatches’ and ‘pocket watches’ had an equal market share.

1931. Emile Borer created the Rolex Perpetual, the first self-winding wristwatch with the unidirectional rotor which swung in a complete circle.

1931. Louis Cottier created a watch showing the time of 29 world cities.

1933. Breitling filed patents for a chronograph with two push-buttons.

1933. Patek Philippe created the Calatrava.

1937. Dubois-Depraz removed the column wheel to devise a new system for chronographs.

1942. Breitling developed the Chronomat.

1948. The American Harold Lyons invented the ammonia maser atomic clock.

1948. Eterna-Matic created the first self-winding watch with a rotor on ball bearings.

1952. The invention of the first electric watches with contacts by Elgin and Lip.

1952. Breitling created the Navitimer.

1955. Vacheron Constantin created the Extrapolate.

1955. The Memovox, the first self-winding watch with alarm created by Jaeger LeCoultre.

1955. Calculating from 0 hours on January 1st, 1900, the second was defined as 1/31,556,925.947th of the year during which the earth revolves around the sun.

1957. The Hamilton Watch Company presented a new generation of electric watches.

1961. An aquatic version of the Cricket watch was made. This watch, with its especially loud alarm, was created by Vulcain in

1947 to a project by Robert Ditisheim.

1963. Favre-Leuba created the Bivouac altimeter/barometer watch.

1966. Launch of the first prototype for a quartz wristwatch, known as Beta 1.

1967. New definition of ‘second’. The 13th Conference on Weights and Measures defined the second as the duration of 9,192,631,770 periods of the radiation corresponding to the transition between the two hyperfine levels of the ground state of the cesium-133 atom. This replaced the astronomical definition where a second equalled 1/86,400th of the average solar day.

1967. The first analog quartz watch, Beta 21 presented by the Centre Electronique Horloger (CEH) in Neuchatel.

1969. The Omega Speedmaster became the first watch to be worn on the Moon. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin wore the Omega Speedmaster watch during the mission Apollo XI.

1969. Heuer, Breitling, Bürer, and El Primero by Zenith launched the first self-winding wrist chronographs.

1969. First quartz watch with LED display launched.

1969. Tag Heuer created Monaco.

1970. The first mass production of the quartz watches with analog display (Beta 21).

1972. Audemars Piguet created the Royal Oak.

1978. Quartz watches became more popular than mechanical watches.

1978. Ebel created the ‘Sport Classique watch’.

1979. launched of the world’s thinnest watch, Delirium. This watch measured 1.98mm.

1980. Corum launched the Golden Bridge, a miniature baguette movement.

1982. The first Swatch watches were launched in the United States and in Europe a year later.

1983. The official launch of the Swatch watch, in Zürich Switzerland.

1983. The first books on the history and technology of the wristwatch were published.

1983. Jean-Claude Biver and Jacques Piguet re-launched the Blancpain brand.

1985. IWC launched the Da Vinci chronograph with the perpetual calendar.

1985. Creation of the Astrolabium Galileo Galilei astronomical watch by Ludwig Oechslin.

1985. Foundation of the Académie des Horlogers Créateurs Indépendants (AHCI).

1986. Creation of the first series-production self-winding Tourbillon wristwatch by Maurice Grimm and André Beyer for Audemars Piguet.

1988. Jean d’Eve launched the Samara, the first quartz watch whose power source was an automatic rotor, the Generator.

1989. Creation of the Planetarium Copernicus.

1989. On the occasion of its 150th anniversary, Patek Philippe created the most complicated pocket watch of its time.

1991. Seiko launched a quartz watch electrically powered by an oscillating weight.

1992. Creation of the Tellurium.

1994. Lange 1 is created by Lange & Söhne.

1996. Philippe Dufour invented the Duality, a wristwatch with a double regulator, a complication that is considered to be even more complex than the Tourbillon.

1999. Omega launched the coaxial escapement, developed some 20 years previously by George Daniels.

2000. First results of research into silicon as a material for wristwatch escapements.

2000. François-Paul Journe unveiled the first resonance watch.

I) 2000-Till Date

2000. Richemont bought Jaeger-LeCoultre, IWC and A. Lange & Söhne for CHF 2.8 billion.

2004. A flurry of multiple Tourbillons: GyroTourbillon by Jaeger-LeCoultre, Tourbillon Révolution by Franck Muller, Double-Tourbillon 30° by Greubel-Forsey and Thomas Prescher’s triple Tourbillon.

2005. Creation of the Fondation de la Haute Horlogerie.

2005. Seiko launched the Spring Drive Kinetic. It was the first self-winding mechanical watch with an electromagnetic escapement.

Published By The Library of Alexandria

2005. Swiss watch exports exceeded the CHF 12 billion mark for the first time in the history of watches.

2006. The U.S. watch and clock industry reached $622 million.

2007. The U.S. watch and clock industry reached $661 million.

2008. The U.S. watch and clock industry reached $713 million.

2009. The global economic crisis caused the U.S. clock and watch industry to collapse. Exports reached an all-time low at $318 million.

2012. Swiss watch exports reached $23 billion. Exports to China reached US$1.8 billion.

This is the short history of watches. Hope this helps you understand the timeline of the evolution of watches and clocks. It shows how the concept of the watch evolved from a simple hourglass to a more complex and high-tech watch of today.

It also shows us how a watch evolved from a time-telling device to becoming an investment piece and a fashion accessory in the 21st century.

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