Watches – A Brief History of Time – From Sundials to Smartwatches

A History of Watches

Although mankind has tried to track time as long as we can remember, it wasn't until the early 1900's that the wristwatch came into fashion. People relied on more primitive clocks until a watchmaker in the 1500's started making clock watches. As we look at the history of the watch it is important to look at the beginnings of tracking time. From sundials to a pocket watch let's look at the history of watches as they develop into electric watches in the modern age.



Early Time Pieces

We have striven as a species to measure time even since we first started planting crops. The ancient tribes knew that the seasons dictated when to plant and when to harvest crops. It was necessary to track time both short term and long term to control society. Luckily the Earth provides three measures to track time.  And all of these ways are easy to see with the naked eye.

Although ancient people tracked the phases of the moon, the natural day/night cycle of the planet became the main time tracking means for the common person. Sundials became a popular way for people to track what time of day it was and when the summer and winter solstices were figured out sundials started tracking the hour of the day. Once ancient people conquered basic time tracking it was inevitable that mechanical advancements would lead to a better clock.

Clock Watches

A watch maker in Nuremberg Germany is credited by some as the inventor of the watch.  But other German craftsmen were also making watches and no one is certain he was the very first to make clock watches. These first clock watches were mechanical pieces with a mainspring instead of weights used to drive the clock. This allowed them to be wound up and worn as jewelry.

People wore them as pendants or females would carry them in their handbags. These original clock watches were not very accurate.  Also, they tended to be worn as ornaments by the nobility to show status.


The history of the wristwatch really begins with the pocket watch. Clock watches were pinned on the outside of clothing and tended to weather when exposed to the elements. By the late 1600's people were wearing waistcoats to keep the pocket watches safe from rain and sand. With glass face plates and rounded edges the pocketwatch became extremely popular with the invention of the balance spring.

Up until 1657 pocket watches were only marginally accurate because the spring used to drive them had less force as it unwound. At this point in the history of watchmaking, the error rate of pocket watches goes way up.  It went from an error rate of several hours per day down to around ten minutes per day. This allowed pocket watches to be used less as jewelry and instead allowed people to use them for their intended purpose of time telling.

The railroad industry pushed for higher accuracy and the watch makers made many improvements to increase accuracy and they started adding a seconds hand.

Pocket Watch

Pocket Watch


The first wristwatch shows up in around 1571.  Although, they were not popular until soldiers started using them in the late 1800's. Early watches were worn by women and were once again more focused on the aesthetic quality than on time telling accuracy. Officers in the campaign at the Sudan in 1898 used wristwatches to coordinate attacks and troop movements.

Later during the first World War artillery barrages made knowing the time a life or death matter and soldiers demanded tougher watches. With the invention of unbreakable glass and luminous dials, watches began to look like our modern watches.

Electric Watches

In the 1950's electric wrist watches were made and it didn't take long for watch makers to improve the original designs. Within twenty years, quartz watches replaced the mechanical watches that dominated the watch market for so long.

By sending electrical signals through a quartz crystal, the new watches were extremely accurate. Since the mechanical parts were no longer needed, the new watches were cheaper to manufacture. Before long, radio controlled watches allowed watches to communicate with an atomic clock to achieve the ultimate in accuracy. People then wanted other features and the smartwatch revolution started.

Ever since we first started painting in caves, humankind has tried to describe the world around us. From sundials to smartwatches took a few steps and what watch history would be complete without looking to the future.

Although sundials and clock watches are still around, it is the newly connected device that will be the future. With many features on these devices, we still need to track time and where better than on your wrist.