You might know what wrist to wear a watch but do you know when watches were invented? Watches have been around a lot longer than you might think. For example, in the mid-1600s, Blaise Pascal developed an early version of the modern wristwatch via a string. Using a very ingenious method, the string that connected the watch on his hand was also tied to a clock he kept tucked away on his person. Needless to say, this device was not terribly accurate, but it certainly was a step in the right direction regarding personal timekeeping.
To understand the invention of the first watch, we have to understand a very basic overview of clock making as a whole. The art of keeping time has been a common thread in human history, dating as far back as the Egyptians using sundials and obelisks, while the Greeks used hourglasses. Keeping time was always more of an art form than a science, that is until the first-ever mechanical clock was invented!
The First Clocks
Clockmaking (as we understand clocks in the modern sense of the word) has always been a European endeavor. That should really come as no surprise, considering that Europe was more or less the center of modern civilization from about 1200 AD to 1700 AD. The renaissance was already several hundred years in the past, Colonialism had yet to truly take hold, and the desire to invent and create was at an all-time high. The focus on progress and ingenuity was centralized within all European countries, and time was at the center of the race.
The invention of the first mechanical clock came around 1280 AD when a clock tower was erected to help monks keep time to track their daily prayers. From this point forward, mechanical clockmaking exploded, eventually becoming a personal luxury that private citizens yearned for. While the first mechanical clocks were certainly rudimentary (only able to keep track of hours), the development of timekeeping over several hundred years eventually spurred the emergence of smaller, more accurate timepieces that could b worn on your person. These smaller clocks were known as “watches.”
The Emergence Of The Pocket Watch
When we are asking the question “when were wrist watches invented,” the pocket watch is the cornerstone in providing an accurate answer. Although we think of watches as being of the wristwatch variety, the truth is that the first watches were actually pocket watches designed to be worn inside garments.
Almost like the first cell phones, which were extremely cumbersome, the first pocket mechanical watch types were clunky in their own rite. While we can look back now and giggle at the silliness of the first portable phone (especially compared to the phones that we now carry), you still have to tip your cap to the incredible ingenuity and the marvel of technology that that first phone represented. The same is true with the first-ever watches.
The first mechanical watch types (read pocket watches) were almost like mini clocks. And, in classic human hindsight, it is very easy to look at the pocket watch and view it as both an incredible advancement in technology while also being slightly shocked that it was something people clamored to get their hands on.
Peter Henlein is credited with developing the first-ever portable watch in the year 1504, though the device was apparently unreliable and inaccurate. It wasn’t until watchmaking came to Switzerland in the mid-1500s that watchmaking took on a new level of sophistication and accuracy.
Before the Swiss ever made watches or clocks, the French and the Germans were in constant competition for who could produce more accurate clocks. Along with all of the radical ingenuity that was taking place in the 1500s, there was also a great deal of civil unrest throughout Europe stemming from the Protestant Reformation and the struggle of many peoples to escape and avoid religious persecution.
One such group was a large number of French clockmakers who no longer felt safe as protestants in the Catholic country of France. To escape religious persecution, the French fled to Switzerland (which has always had a reputation of staying neutral). When the French brought their superior clockmaking skills to the skilled jewelers of Switzerland, something amazing happened. Clockmaking and high-end jewelry collided in a way that would change clockmaking for the better forever.
In the mid-1500s, John Calvin, a protestant leader of the faith Calvinism, declared that wearing jewelry was a grave sin. Being that Calvin had a hold over much of northern Europe and an especially large following in Switzerland, many world-renowned Swiss jewelers found themselves out of work. As a result of John Calvin’s declaration that no one who followed his teachings could/should wear jewelry, the Swiss jewelers of the time, of whom there were large numbers, turned their sights to watchmaking.
As it turned out, watches were exempt from the Geneva jewelry ban that came from Calvin’s presence in Switzerland. This event, paired with the large influx of French watchmakers to Geneva escaping religious persecution, quickly turned Geneva into the watchmaking capital of the modern world, a reputation it still holds to this day. That is why to this day, a Swiss watch wears more like a piece of fine jewelry than they do a wristwatch.
By the mid-1600s, there were over 300 master watchmakers in Geneva alone, and by the mid-1700s, Geneva was producing over 60,000 watches per year! The mix of ideas and cultures spurred by the protestant reformation ignited the fuse that would inevitably result in the explosion of the watchmaking industry worldwide that all seem to come from this compact geographical area. The convergence of two perfectly mastered skills of fine jewelry and clock making became the basis for the high-end luxury watches we know and wear today.
The First Wristwatch: A Royal Affair
If you have a used Patek Philippe watch, you’re quite lucky. You may have heard of Patek Philippe and their best dress watches or their incredible and precise watches, but did you know they had royal ties? The first wrist watch ever created was designed for Countess Koscowicz in Hungary in the year 1868. Although some argue that the clock watch made by Patek Philippe was made for Queen Elizabeth I, and others who argue it was made for Queen Victoria, the agreement tends to be that the early watches were made in 1868 by Patek Philippe. And since the Guinness Book Of World Records has the recipient of Patek Philippe’s novel wristwatch as Countess Koscowicz, that tends to be the most agreed-upon storyline.
Once Patek Philippe developed the first wristwatch, the race was on! Other watch manufacturers of the time, like Audemars Piguet and Vacheron Constantin, both of whom were contemporaries and competitors of Patek Philippe, began to mass-produce wristwatches in lieu of the previously standard pocket watch. The wristwatch became the socially coveted item, effectively announcing the end of pocket watches and the rise of this new wearable watch that looked like jewelry but helped to keep time. The watch was really and truly born at the turn of the early 20th century when suddenly, wristwatches were completely en vogue.
A Timeline Of Important Clock And Watch Events:
If you are interested in how the watch anatomy was developed, here is a quick timeline of some important watch and clock events throughout history
1283 - The first recorded mechanical clock (weight driven) was erected at Dunstable Priory in Bedfordshire England
1504 - Peter Henlein develops the first-ever “portable clock.”
1540s - French watchmakers land in Geneva in their pursuit of escaping religious persecution due to the reformation
1560s - Geneva announces a jewelry ban in keeping with the Calvinist teaching that wearing jewelry was a sin.
1755 - Vacheron Constantin becomes the first big brand in Swiss watchmaking
1859 - Swiss watchmaker, Patek Philippe begins making watches
1868 - Patek Philippe makes the first wristwatch for Countess Koscowicz in Hungary
1884 - Greenwich Mean Time Established and adopted worldwide, effectively making watches and the idea of being “on time” the new driving force behind worldwide transportation.
As you have undoubtedly surmised by this point, there is no hard and fast date for when watches were actually invented. Watches, like their predecessor mechanical clocks, have always been in constant flux. Although Patek Philippe gets the credit for the first “wristwatch,” there were undoubtedly those who had a similar watch design and even executions of similar ideas before Patek Philippe’s unveiling of the first wristwatch.
What makes the Patek Philippe wristwatch so incredible is that it was fit for royalty. Patek Philippe had so much confidence in the accuracy of their machine that they were willing to present it to a royal figure in one of the first-ever cases of “influencing.”
Additionally, while we don’t know exactly what the watch that Patek Philippe presented to Countess Koscowicz looked like, we can be sure that it was a stunning piece of jewelry, being that Patek Philippe (like so many other Swiss watchmakers) were jeweler turned Swiss watchmaker after the Geneva jewelry ban in the mid/late 1500s. In short, the two most common dates associated with the question “when were watches invented?” are Peter Henlein’s invention of the first pocket watch (i.e., portable clock) in 1504 and Patek Philippe’s presentation of the first women’s wristwatch in 1868 to Countess Koscowicz.
The most incredible thing about the invention of watches is that, unlike other inventions where there was a single creator, a modern watch is the result of hundreds of years of constant improvement, the collision of multiple cultures, and the perfect storm of opportunity and necessity. Watches may be one of the most important technological advancements in human history, and they are still undergoing small evolutionary changes to this day!