A Brief History of Pocket Watches:
Wristwatches are now mainstream, but pocket watches have been an accessory for the past few centuries. It’s because of them that we have the modern-day term “time is money.” Pocket watches were also an important status symbol in the 18th century because they were so expensive to make. The more ornate and fine-crafted your pocket watch was, the richer you were guessed to be. If you were wearing one, everyone knew that you had made it big. Here’s a brief history of these iconic timepieces to show how they evolved.
Section 1: Where did the idea of a pocket watch come from?
The modern pocket watch started as a ring. There was nothing particularly special about the ring when it was first created. The actual movement of the watch was just a compass needle wrapped around the base of the ring. Later, the “ring watch” grew much larger with the invention of the Grand Seiko in 1959. These watches had one key improvement over the rings: the chain wound around a spool that held the watch’s hands. Later, people started wearing watches in a much more practical fashion, around their wrists. Some of these early wristwatches looked like diving watches, others were plain-jane.
Things got interesting when the pocket watch made its appearance in the early 1600s.
Who made them?
Throughout history, most pocket watches have been made by hand in Europe. The finest watches of the 17th and 18th centuries were hand-wound and made entirely of precious metals. The cases and the movement of the watch were made of bronze, ivory, and jewels. They were decorated with exotic decorations and engravings and they were worn in certain social circles to mark social status.
However, it wasn’t until the 19th century that mechanical watches started to make their way into everyday use. In 1839, Thomas Savery designed the first mechanical watch that could be made in the U.K. His invention of the telegraph helped him find work as an engineer at London’s Metropolitan Board of Works where he was put in charge of developing new methods of communicating with operators across London.
What’s the difference between a pocket watch and a wristwatch?
While they both show the time, a wristwatch is kept on your wrist and a pocket watch is attached to your pocket. So why are they called the same thing? Well, even though they are often used to tell time, wristwatches aren’t actual timepieces like pocket watches.
The pocket watch started as simple one-eyed watches in 17th century France. To make them, they would be rolled out and connected to a chain that was attached to your wrist. Your wrist was then encased within a sleeve or belt to protect it from any damage. In many cases, this way of hiding the watch was a bit inconvenient because you couldn’t tell what time it was unless you took the watch off of your wrist.
Why are they important to us now?
For most of the 19th century, pocket watches were essential tools for traveling or for the busy worker. Today, they are more a historical symbol than a functional device. The only watches you would see on someone in the street are those used by professionals, and even then, you won’t see them very often.
How did pocket watches evolve?
In the 1760s, the first pocket watch was made by English watchmaker Thomas Baker and it sold for more than 100 pounds. The wristwatch, which has long since been eclipsed by the quartz watch, was invented in 1872 by Swiss watchmaker Edmund Huebler. The first watch was made of glass and sold for $8, but the invention of the quartz watch essentially rendered these devices obsolete.
How have they changed over time?
In the 17th and 18th centuries, pocket watches were limited to just one movement, the escapement. Because each movement had to be very accurate and precise to keep time, the idea of taking a few components from other watches to assemble your own was unheard of.
Then around 1820, the stopwatch pocket watch first appeared. It contained one moving part, the stopwatch, and eight jewels which held a mirror for the operator to keep track of the seconds. It was a major advancement from the earliest pocket watches and was called an “automatic.” This was the first device ever developed which helped people to easily track time accurately without having to know how to read a balance wheel.
The pocket watch in The 18th century
The very first pocket watches were made from wood and copper. They weighed anywhere from 22g to 45g each and could display anything from one hour to twelve hours. You could buy a cheap one for 10 to 15 pence and a few of these were even sold as commodities for other people to use. They were smaller than watches today and could fit easily into a pocket. You could even wear them to be seen with a gentleman’s waistcoat. The price for one of these early pocket watches was between £10 and £15, which was pretty expensive in those days.
As pocket watches improved in quality, their use increased. This was because their limited size made them better suited for the pockets of men. These pocket watches were then replaced with clockworks and quartz movements in the 1900s.
The pocket watch in 19th century
In the 19th century, pocket watches made of silver and gold were popular. They used a standard size, 1.2 inches (3.3 cm) and were engraved with the owner’s initials, and were usually meant to be worn on a man’s belt. They didn’t need to be encased in a case and were simple, lightweight, and very portable. Unlike today’s watches, they didn’t need batteries or a battery charger and were powered by their mechanical movements.
The 1850s – 1890s
The pocket watch used to be seen as a status symbol. It was a signal that you were wealthy and ambitious. The pocket watch was also quite popular as a holiday gift, not just for the high price but also for the pride it brought the recipient. During the Victorian era, wristwatches were worn all year round and were used for everyday activities.
The 20th century
The development of pocket watches is pretty complicated. The main thing to keep in mind is that they evolved into pocket watches to make them more compact. There was a time when pocket watches were made out of metal (hence the name) and not brass. This meant that if you wanted to get a metal pocket watch, you were better off looking at a fancy timepiece from the 1930s and before. It was also pretty expensive to make and it was more for the collectors than regular folks. For more history, see our article on Pocket Watches
The early years of the 20th century
1903: Electric Clocks (1912): Before the electric clock was the electric watch. The first electric watch was invented by Leon Moisseiff and he became a wealthy man by selling them. The Moiseiff Electric watch sold for 50 dollars.
Where do they go from here?
If you’ve been eyeing one of these timepieces and know nothing about them, you might be tempted to go out and get one for yourself. It’s an amazing piece of history and craftsmanship that is perfectly fitting for any man’s collection. But beware, they are incredibly intricate and can be very expensive. If you do buy one, keep it on a watch chain that’s hidden in the back of your closet.
Main Image Credit: RHS Timeless Watch Shop
Pocket watches date back to the 17th century, and remain a popular accessory to this day. Several of today’s major watchmakers are still based in Switzerland where pocket watches originated. Although the technology of pocket watches has changed considerably over the years, the connection that people have to the products remains strong. In other words, the love for pocket watches is not just a trend, it’s a way of life.
See also: How to choose a pocket watch