Extraordinary Ordinary Things: The Wristwatch

“Say, what time is it?” If you are like most people, you will take a glance at your wristwatch and quickly give the answer.

Today, the wristwatch is almost as much a part of us as our skin; however, just over a century ago, this wasn’t the case. In earlier agricultural populations, few people were concerned about the exact time because they didn’t need to be. Concern about approximate, if not exact time, was essentially in the domain of kings and emperors, servants of such royal personages, and the aristocracy, who represented only a miniscule fraction of the population. It is really only since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution in the mid-18th century that knowing the exact time has become a significant concern to a significant portion of the population.

In today’s throbbing densely populated cities and towns, it’s hard to imagine anyone not knowing—and not needing to know—what time it is, at least to the hour, and often to the minute, if not to the second. Life just couldn’t proceed without it. The wristwatch was ideal for meeting this ever-expanding need. This is why the wristwatch holds a place of honor in the list of what I like to call “extraordinary ordinary things.”

What Is a Wristwatch?

To understand the full impact of the wristwatch on society, we need to make a distinction between a clock and a watch, which is generally based on size. According to many dictionary definitions, clocks are big and watches are small. However, this distinction is artificial and insignificant. The real difference is that clocks are generally stationary (because they are big) and watches are portable (because they aren’t big).

Human beings have been trying to devise accurate and convenient means of telling time almost since the dawn of time. Sundials were used to tell the time of day, while candle clocks, water clocks, and similar devices were used to measure the passage of time (hours and fraction of hours). All developed by the ancients, these devices opened the door to concerns about time, but comparatively few people used them because they were bulky and not easily moved around. Royalty and the aristocracy were about the only people who took clocks with them because they had entourages of servants to carry them.  Even development of mechanical clocks in the 15th century did little to change this for essentially the same reason. Portable mechanical clocks developed only in the 16th century. These devices could be moved relatively easily from place to place, but they were still much too big and bulky for people to carry them around on their person. This wasn’t for want of trying; however, the road to success was long and difficult.

The first timepieces that could be worn also began making their appearance at the beginning of the 16th century, notably in the German cities of Nuremberg and Augsburg. Nuremberg clockmaker Peter Henlein (1485-1542) is often credited as the inventor of the watch, then known as a “clock-watch.” However, their appeal was largely ornamental. For the most part, they were worn by both men and women pinned to clothing or affixed to a chain and worn as pendants. Their use for telling time was secondary because they were inaccurate (losing more than an hour a day) and had to be wound as often as twice a day. According to one contemporary report, Peter Henlein (or Henle or Hele) had made significant strides to remedy these inconveniences.

“Peter Hele, still a young man, fashions works which even the most learned mathematicians admire. He shapes many-wheeled clocks out of small bits of iron, which run and chime the hours without weights for 40 hours whether carried at the breast or in a handbag.”


By the 17th century, the problems of the early clock-watches (now called simply “watches”) had been largely resolved. They were significantly smaller, lighter, and more accurate. About the same time, men began carrying their watches in pockets rather than as pendants, in large measure due to a major change in men’s fashions. In 1675, Charles II of England introduced the waistcoat to high society. Wearing a watch as a pendant just didn’t seem to fit. However, the switch to gentlemen carrying their watches in pockets (hence the name “pocket watch”) was not strictly for fashion’s sake; there were practical reasons for the change, as well.

Watches of the 17th century were prone to damage due to exposure to the weather, so putting them in a pocket would help keep them safe and sound. The new fashion also affected the shape of the watch. To fit snugly into place, these new pocket watches became rounded and flattened with no sharp edges. For further protection, glass was used to cover the watch’s face, which until then had been unprotected.

Are you getting the picture?  Elegant ladies bedecked with elegant broaches and pendants and elegant gentlemen with stylish watches in their waistcoat pockets. Although the advancing Industrial Revolution had made knowing the time an increasingly practical requirement, the common people still hadn’t been caught up in timekeeping mania. Clocks in factories had become increasingly common, as had the practice of “clocking in” and “clocking out” so that management would keep track of the workforce. However most people still lived in environments where waistcoats were not de rigueur and rigorous timekeeping was not yet an all-consuming passion.

The great change in this respect occurred with invention and popularization of the wristwatch, in large measure thanks to the military.

Soldiers first began wearing wristwatches near the end of the 19th century when they were used for synchronizing troop movements without potentially revealing the plan to the enemy through signaling. Many military men already had pocket watches; however, the inconvenience of using them during the heat of battle or while mounted on a horse made them impractical. Coping with the problem, led military men, notably officers, to strap their pocket watches on to their wrist.

Seeing an opportunity, in 1893 the Garstin Company of London patented a “watch wristlet” specifically designed to strap a pocket watch to the wrist. As the military increasingly felt the need for watches on the wrist, companies began developing true wristwatches, i.e. watch and strap fitted together as a single unit.

The use and popularity of wristwatches for men really took off during and following the First World War (1914–1918), creating a mass market among the general public.

H. Williamson Ltd., based in Coventry, England, was one of the first to capitalize on the perceived opportunity. During its 1916 annual general meeting, a prescient speaker noted “. . . the public is buying the practical things of life. Nobody can truthfully contend that the watch is a luxury. It is said that one soldier in every four wears a wristlet watch, and the other three intend to get one as soon as they can.”

By the end of the war, almost all enlisted men were wearing a wristwatch, which they continued to wear after being demobilized. The fashion quickly caught on. By 1930, the wristwatch had become virtually ubiquitous, while the pocket watch had gone into sharp decline.

One of the last bastions of pocket watch supremacy was the railroads, largely due to their greater reliability than wristwatches. Moreover, pocket watches could more easily be fitted with special features to help make trains run more smoothly, safely, and on time. To that end, they were required not only by on-board railway conductors (the classic image of a railway pocket watch in use), but also by engineers, switch yard controllers, and other key personnel for whom accurate timing was critical.

The Rise of Electronic Watches

An inconvenience, if not a major drawback, of early wristwatches was that they had to be frequently rewound to keep them going. Although the first practical mechanically self-winding watch was invented in 1923, it had limited commercial success.

The first electric-powered wristwatches made their appearance during the 1950s, and over time swept the market. These electric watches kept time with a balance wheel powered by a solenoid. A few upscale electric watches kept time by a steel tuning fork vibrating at 360 Hz, powered by a solenoid driven by a transistor oscillator circuit. The hour, minute, and second hands were still moved mechanically by a wheel train.

The first commercially available quartz watch, the Seiko 35 SQ Astron, entered the market in 1969. Its basic attraction was its accuracy, which was considerably better than anything that had preceded it. It was a real game-changer because it was the first non-mechanical watch. Instead of a balance wheel to beat out and display the time, it used a battery-powered vibrating quartz crystal. Quartz watches were considerably more accurate than mechanical watches, permitting significantly longer periods before needing to be reset. Moreover, they had no moving parts. Since the hour, minute, and second hands were displayed as images generated on the watch’s face, quartz watches were significantly more shock-resistant than previous mechanical models and didn’t require periodic cleaning.

However, there was a trade-off. The faster the quartz crystal vibrated, the greater the power consumption. Thus, the first generation quartz watches used relatively low frequencies of only a few kilohertz (approx. 8,000 Hz). In second-generation products, addition of power-saving  CMOS logic and LCDs significantly increased battery life and permitted higher crystal frequency (just under 33,000 Hz), which in turn increased accuracy to 5–10 seconds/month. In other words, you needed to reset your watch only after several months, and perhaps only once a year.

In 1972, the Hamilton Watch Company (Lancaster, Pennsylvania) introduced the Pulsar, the world’s first digital wristwatch. It displayed the time with LED digits rather than moving hour, minute, and second hands. It retailed for the pricey sum of $2,100, the equivalent of more than $12,000 today. These Pulsars sold in 1972 were created for high-end customers (including an 18-carat gold case) to help test potential market take-up of the new concept. When market potential was confirmed, in 1973 Pulsar went into mass production and was launched to the general public in the opening scene of the Roger Moore James Bond film “Live and Let Die.” Bond’s use of the extraordinary device caused a sensation.

Instead of the eye-watering price of $2,100 for the concept model, the mass-produced model launched in 1973 retailed for $395, which at the time was more expensive than certain models of Rolex. Progress was astounding. Given Pulsar’s success, other companies quickly entered the digital watch market, and prices plummeted. By the end of the 1970s, digital watches regularly retailed for under $10. In the 1980s, digital watches could even be found in cereal boxes as cheap giveaways.

Because of their manifest advantages, by the 1980s quartz watches totally dominated the watch market, and they continue to do so today.

In 1990, The Junghans Company (Germany) offered the MEGA 1, the first radio-controlled wristwatch. To increase accuracy, the watch’s quartz oscillator is daily set to the correct time by coded radio time signals picked up by a radio receiver built into the watch.

In a further thrust toward accuracy, in 2013 Bathys Hawaii introduced the Cesium 133 Atomic Watch. Containing a tiny cesium atomic clock on a chip (integrated circuit), this watch is claimed to keep time to an accuracy of one second in 1,000 years. 

As a side note, one of my all-time favorite standup comedians (although he did most of his monologues sitting down) was Irishman Dave Allen (1936–2005). Certainly one of his funniest routines is his account of the dialogue when he decided to teach his very young son how to tell the time.

If you learned to tell time on an analogue timepiece, i.e. with an hour hand, minute hand, and second hand, you will probably find this classic comedy routine both funny and nostalgic. If you learned to tell time on a digital timepiece, that is, with hours, minutes, and seconds displayed as numbers, you will probably greet the routine with laughter and a sigh of relief that you didn’t have to endure the mounting mayhem it so expertly portrays.

You can find the routine at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0QVPUIRGthI

From the Unbelievable to the Everyday

If you were born after 1931 and have been paying due attention to comic strip literature (yes, some people do consider it literature), then you are probably familiar with the name Dick Tracy. Launched in 1931, Tracy was a hardboiled big city police detective. Run in hundreds of newspapers in the U.S. and around the world, Tracy is memorable for two unique features. First, his face was always shown in profile while all the other characters could be seen full-face. Second, Tracy solved most of his crimes with the aid of a totally phantasmagorical two-way wrist radio he used to communicate with his crime-fighting colleagues.

Remember, this was the 1930s when the vacuum tube reigned supreme. The transistor was not yet even a glint in the eyes of its three inventors (Joe Bardeen, Walter Houser Brattain, William Schockley, 1947). A single one of these potential components would have been bigger than Tracy’s entire watch. Moreover, at the time no one knew how to do wireless telephony. Yet in 1931 Dick Tracy already had a functioning two-way wireless communication device strapped to his wrist. 

Today, of course, a smartwatch that permits only two-way radio or telephone communication might not be considered smart at all; quite the contrary, it might be considered rather dumb. However, this would be too harsh a judgment. First-generation smartwatches could not carry live communication without being wirelessly connected to a smartphone nearby. Since 2015, a number of companies (Apple, Google, Samsung, etc.) have introduced models that allow you to make telephone calls independent of a smartphone. So Dick Tracy’s phantasmagorical two-way communication device on the wrist has become an almost everyday reality—and, since smartphones provide internet connection, so very much more.

For example, just as with a smartphone, an internet connected smartwatch provides a whole world of capabilities, such as message notifications, GPS navigation, calendar synchronization, and customized apps.

And of course these largely standard functions can be augmented by whole host of other built-in functions and interesting apps. Recently, certain functions, notably heart-rate monitoring and fall alert, have been credited with saving lives.

In one such incident, 67-year old Toralv Østvang reported when he experienced a serious fall in his bathroom, his Apple Watch automatically contacted local emergency services to come to his rescue. Basically, the watch was programmed to detect if he ever fell. Then, if he remained immobile for 60 seconds, to send an alert, including information about where the fall occurred, to a nearby rescue service. Someone once described a modern automobile as a motorized computer network. In like manner, rather than being a timepiece on the wrist, today a smartwatch might better be described as a computer network on the wrist. Dick Tracy would be amazed