Necessity is indeed the mother of invention … here’s a look at THE HISTORY OF WATCHMAKING and how it’s metamorphosized over time
Time has always been one of those things we always need to keep track of. We never have enough of it, we always keep running out of it, we always need more of it. Watches and clocks have always been helpful in that regard, but what’s the history of timekeeping? And how has it evolved through the centuries?
Shadow clocks and sundials – constructions that utilised the shadows cast by the rotation of the sun – were made by the Egyptians as early as 3500 BC. While they were mostly static structures that required solid placement and access to sunlight, they were the first step towards more complex forms of timekeeping.
Alternative methods like water clocks of varying complexity were developed around 1600 BC, while a method of tracking the movements of stars as a method of telling the passing of time at night using merkhets – plumb-lines that were aligned with the north pole-star – had been in use since 600 BC.
Other cultures, especially the Greeks and Romans, would adopt both sundials and water clocks and would refine the latter, while the water clocks used by the Persians in 328 BC could almost be comparable to modern-day clocks in terms of accuracy, despite the lack of mobility.
Other methods such as candle and incense clocks and hourglasses would later be developed, with the third being considered one of the most reliable due to both the ease of construction and use.
All these would eventually lead to the clocks we are more familiar with. The first geared clock, constructed in the 11th century by Iberian-Arab engineer Ibn Khalaf al-Muradi, was a variation of water clock, the design making its way to Europe by way of Alfonso the 10th of Castile and aiding in the development of Western clock- and watch-making.
Come the 16th century, portable and wearable timepieces – worn on clothing or like a necklace hanging from a chain – in Germany were made possible through the invention of the mainspring in the 15th century. However, having highly questionable accuracy, these early timepieces were more baubles and status symbols for the nobility of the time to show off.
Eventually as time progressed, so did the styles and needs to accommodate them. No longer kept as pendants, watches were redesigned into a familiar rounded shape for ease of keeping in the pockets of their owners. This was interestingly less about fashion but more due to the fact that watches at the time were far more susceptible to environmental damage.
It was around this time that watchmakers began to work on improving the accuracy of their timepieces rather than having them be mere fashion statements. The fusee, a chained pulley that shifted leverage as the spring of the watch unwound, as well as developments to the 13th century Verge Escapement improved timekeeping by a large degree.
The 1750s and 1800s saw even further advancement with the invention of the Lever Escapement by Thomas Mudge and more precise and refined machining tools, along with the pantograph by Georges-Auguste Leschot. With the standardisation of the internal workings and greater interchangeability between watches that shared a calibre, watches would eventually see mass production come 1851 in Massachusetts, USA, thanks to Aaron Lufkin Dennison – rather than remaining as luxury goods meant purely for the wealthy upper class.
By 1860 watches were no longer wound by key, but by the more familiar crown, with the creation of the simplified pin pallet escapement and duplex escapement allowed for the creation of even cheaper watches that could be afforded by the common worker.
By the 1880s wristwatches began to become more commonplace due to their convenience in comparison to pocket watches, where previously they had been regarded as more of a woman’s accessory akin to a bracelet.
Eventually as we approached the 20th century, many of the more modern advances that we are familiar with began to appear. Bridge construction for watches would see the phasing out of the method of ¾ plate constructions that were used, and the production methods of artificial sapphire being developed only helped things further, with the very first electronic (though not digital) watches would be put together in the 1950s.
Technology has come a long way since we used sun, water and stars to keep a track of time, from multifunction digital watches to smart-watches that are miniature computers in their own right. The phrase “Necessity is the mother of invention” indeed rings true; it’s quite extraordinary how mankind could expand on a simple idea over the course of generations – each better than the last.
Photos © iStock by Getty Images