Towards the end of the Middle Ages, the tooling used to fabricate clock parts became more precise, allowing for components to be created at much higher tolerances and most importantly, smaller and smaller. Machines that were once giant, unwieldy iron labyrinths of gears, cams and pulleys which gained their power from weights weighing hundreds of pounds, slowly began to transform themselves into elegant contraptions that would receive their power to run from a discrete little spring hidden away inside the movement, that could be easily be wound by hand.
These smaller and lighter parts - manufactured out of brass, bronze, or other alloys - allowed the clock to become portable during the 1400s. The earliest existing spring-driven clock was a gift to Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy and can today be found in the Germanisches Nationalmuseum.
An early spring-driven portable clock ca. 1570
As portability became increasingly common, the next logical step in the evolution of the mechanical timepiece would be wearability. Thanks in part to the invention of the mainspring, the clock-making community centered in the Bavarian town of Nuremberg began to increasingly focus on the production of the tiny clocks, which would eventually become the first watches.These early watches were designed to be worn primarily as pendants or carried in the pocket, and soon became known as Nuremberg Eggs for the oval-shaped designs many of them adopted. Before long, these miniature mechanical marvels became popular among the European nobility and the very wealthy.
Nuremberg clockmaker, Peter Henlein (sometimes “Hele”), is largely credited with being one of the early pioneers of the new “clock-watches” that had been sweeping the continent. Henlein’s accomplishments are immortalized in a passage by the German humanist, Johann Cochlaeus:
“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 forty hours, whether carried at the breast or in a handbag.”
A Nuremberg Egg credited to Peter Henlein, ca. late 1500s.
In addition to the upper classes, watches also found use among commoners engaged in certain trades, and one profession in specific gave the watch its name. As is so often the case, the word “watch” traces its origins back to distant roots, in this case: Old English. The term woecce refers to the watchmen of old who were tasked with keeping vigilant watch over their posts, be it a town wall, a castle rampart or the mast of a tall ship. The first miniaturized portable clocks were used by these men to inform them when their duties would begin and end. Similar to the way that the term “trainers” began to be applied to the footwear used by athletes in training, these timepieces would soon adopt the name of the watchmen who made use of them, helping them to remain ever vigilant and watchful.
Over the centuries, the mechanical watch became more refined. New and better materials were introduced that could perform better and could be honed to more precise tolerances, leading to watch movements that became more accurate and reliable. New techniques were also incorporated into the production process such as heat treating steel components, which turned them blue and made them more resistant to corrosion. Despite these advances, the basic premise of how a mechanical timepiece functioned remained unchanged. Any contemporary of Peter Henlein could look at a watch movement made in 1900 and immediately identify most of the parts and understand their function. The mainspring, gear train, and balance, all doing what they had done in Nuremberg in the 1500s.
The first major change to the mechanical watch wouldn’t transpire until the introduction of the automatic (or sometimes called perpetual) movement. A number of watch manufacturers had experimented with creating a movement that could wind itself without the user having to manually wind the mainspring. Unlike a conventional hand-winding movement, an automatic movement is able to wind itself through the passive actions of the wearer. To accomplish this, early experimental designs relied on attaching extra components to the movement that would rotate or bounce, creating a force that could be transmitted through a gear train to automatically wind the mainspring. In order to effectively accomplish this, however, the watch would first need to migrate from a man’s pocket to his wrist.
A typical early 1900s mechanical pocket watch movement by Elgin.
Towards the end of the 1800s, men universally used pocket watches, while watches worn as jewelry - either around the neck or on the wrist - were viewed as feminine fashion. This perception would slowly begin to change as a result of warfare and the practical needs of soldiers on the battlefield. Beginning with the Boer War, watches designed to be worn by men on the wrist started to gain in popularity. Some of the earliest photos we have of men wearing wristwatches are from soldiers serving during this South Africa conflict.
Boer War soldiers with one wearing a portable wristwatch.
By World War I, wristwatches - or wristlets as they were often called - were becoming increasingly common for men. Unlike a pocket watch, having a timepiece on the wrist could give military personnel immediate access to the time, which was critical for implementing coordinated maneuvers without signalling intentions to enemy forces.
It was during his time as a British soldier in World War I, that John Harwood would conceive of the idea for his automatic watch. As the son of a watchmaker, Harwood was quickly able to identify the limitations that the traditional manual-wind watch experienced when faced with the rigors of battlefield conditions, especially those brought about by the realities of trench warfare. The standard watch of the World War I soldier was often a hand wound pocket watch which had been converted to be worn on the wrist, often referred to as a trench watch.
Two German World War I soldiers with one wearing a converted pocket watch on the wrist.
These watches were often susceptible to water and dirt penetrating the case, causing the movement to stop functioning. Failure to keep accurate time could also be caused from a soldier simply forgetting to wind his timepiece. Harwood envisioned a movement with a rotor attached that would oscillate back and forth with each movement of the wearer’s arm, whereby winding the watch automatically. Soon after the war, Harwood began to refine his ideas and by 1923 he was issued a patent for the first automatic watch to enter serial production.
As returning soldiers brought with them their war-time habit of wearing a timepieces on the arm instead of in a pocket, the trend among the general population began to shift towards wristwatches. This fashion shift allowed the for the growth of automatic watches to increase throughout the post-war decades; assisted by the development of innovative materials and designs which made the automatic movement more efficient.
Watch movements would remain relatively unchanged for decades until the 1950s. During these post World War II years, the watch industry would not be isolated from the effects of the electronics age and the effort to make every product cheaper and more reliable. Soon engineers were discovering ways to replace the medieval watch parts like mainsprings and balance assemblies with batteries, reisters and electromagnetic coils.
Following the introduction of certain transitional technologies such as transistor-controlled electronic and tuning fork movements; engineers finally were able to perfect quartz timekeeping in the mid 1960s. Researches were able to harness the stable resonance properties of the quartz crystal when an electrical current is applied, to regulate the timekeeping of a movement to a very accurate degree. Although the first quartz clocks were invented in 1927 at Bell Labs, it would take the introduction of solid-state electronics to allow for the technology to be highly miniaturized to be feasible for a wristwatch.
Despite having been developed primarily among Swiss firms, e.g. Girard-Perregaux who established the resonance frequency at 32,768 hertz, it was primarily Asian firms that would come to dominate quartz movement production and the watch market. This led to a large number of venerable and historic Swiss watch houses to stop production of their mechanical watches and many ceased operations all together, leading to what is often referred to within the horological community as the Quartz crisis.
By the 1970s it began to look as though the mechanical movement would finally be relegated to the trash bin of history; unceremoniously joining a long list of other obsolete technologies like the 8-track player and VCR. It is not surprising that the public embraced quartz technology so quickly and readily. No matter how well made mechanical watch is, no matter how many jewels or how well it is decorated; it will never be as accurate as a quartz watch. The simple truth is that a Patek Philippe that may cost over 100,000 Euros will not keep time better that a Casio quartz watch costing 20 Euros.
There are very few obsolete technologies that manage to persevere for very long after a newer technology is introduced that is superior in so many ways. For some reason, however, mechanical watches have not only managed to survive into our modern world of digital downloads and a mobile phone in every pocket, but in many instances they continue to thrive. Those who appreciate quartz watches, rightfully praise them for their amazing accuracy which oftentimes can be within seconds a year. They also praise them for there very low cost to own, as most quartz watches only require a five-Euro battery change once every three years. Also, quartz fans are quick to point out that the purchase price of a quartz watch is far lower than that of a mechanical watch. They are also more impervious to magnetism and changes in temperature, and a long list of other very valid points which speaks to the superiority of quartz technology.
Basic quartz watch movement.
So, the question for many remains: why? Why are there millions of devotees around the world who remain so fanatically enamored by a technology that existed at a time when we were still burning witches at the stake. Mechanical timepieces are undeniable based on a technology that is more expensive and less reliable than the space-aged computerized miracles of engineering that quartz watches embody. It is difficult for many to understand why those springs and gears and tiny jewels weren't buried decades ago in a shallow unmarked grave along with cod pieces and powdered wigs.
But watch aficionados have never been a rational group of people. A mechanical watch, made up of hundreds of different pieces: bridges, screws, hairsprings, synthetic rubies, collets and levers are quirky little machines. While impressive, that jumble of tiny metal parts with funny names, will never keep time to within one second a year. They will act odd around magnets, their performance will suffer during temperature swings, in short, they will never be perfect like their quartz cousins. And yet, there is something about them that millions of people around the world find so captivating.
Front and reverse view of skeletonized mechanical movement from Claude Meylan.
Maybe it’s the history, or the craftsmanship, the tradition or the lore that captivate us. There are those who speak of a mechanical watch as having a soul, and they often find it difficult to articulate what that ephemeral quality means to them. Perhaps they have witnessed the delicate beauty of a mechanical movement in operation and have seen the perfectly choreographed interplay of all the parts, coming together to form an extraordinary dance that transcends the centuries to deliver to us now, the time of our present.
No one would argue that quartz watches don’t have their place. In fact, the great majority of watches produced today are quartz. They are the preferred choice of millions because they don’t ask much of us. Much like a Toyota, a quartz watch is dependable, inexpensive to own and when you need it, you can be sure it’s ready to go.
But the mechanical watch, with all of its idiosyncrasies, inexplicably lives on despite its imperfections and neediness; despite the fact that we have to wind it or shake it to wake it up, or that it requires attention more often and needs to be serviced. Maybe though, it is these flaws that are the very things that endear them to us. They are imperfect, like us and our loved ones. They do require attention and care. But most importantly, they are not disposable. A properly cared for mechanical watch can be handed down through a family and continue to perform its duty as a faithful timekeeper for generations. Perhaps it is this understanding that unites mechanical aficionados into a common thread, that reaches not only far into the depths of history, but allows us to hand a bit of ourselves into the future.
Portable Clock - Rauantiques, CC-BY-SA-4.0 Nuremberg Egg - Peter R. Suter Boer War Soldiers - Public Domain World War I Soldiers - From the Collection of Sam Wouters Elgin Pocket Watch Movement - Eric Gregoire Quartz Wristwatch Movement - Eric Gregoire Claude Meylan Skeleton - Eric Gregoire
Special thanks to Eric Gregoire