Today, we think of pocket watches as quaint antiques or family heirlooms, but until World War I, they were the only portable source of timekeeping available. Like many other technological gadgets, clocks became smaller, lighter, and more portable over time, until they became small enough to fit on our wrists.
Invention of the Watch
According to Milton Stevens' article, "Watch History," a German locksmith named Peter Henlein invented the first watch in the early 1500s. Until then, clocks were powered by falling weights, which made it necessary for them to be stationary and upright to operate. Henlein created the mainspring, which enabled clocks to be portable so we could carry them around. In the late 1650s, English physicist Robert Hooke designed a watch with a balance spring, which controlled the oscillations of the wheel that more efficiently controlled the watch's operation. Using the mainspring, clockmakers could produce portable, small clocks that could be carried or worn on a chain. Most of the world's early watches came from Germany or France.
Stevens writes that early watches, made of iron, were suspended from a chain or cord and worn around the neck or hanging from a belt because they were so heavy. They were also usually inaccurate and only had an hour hand until the minute hand was developed in the late 17th century. The second hand did not come along until the 20th century. Early watches were enclosed in cases shaped like spheres or cylinders, but more unusual-shaped cases, like skulls or crosses, became stylish in the mid-1600s.
In the late 16th century, watchmakers began using brass instead of iron, and watches became smaller and light enough to fit into the pocket of a jacket or vest. According to Stevens, the pocket watch was the most popular style of watch for more than two centuries. Until the 19th century, pocket watches were handmade and fairly expensive, so they were considered luxury items and mostly worn by the upper class and merchants.
Mass-Produced Pocket Watches
One of the pioneers in the pocket watch industry was Aaron Lufkin Dennison. According to an article by Jonathan Betts, Dennison was the first to adapt the concept of interchangeable parts to the production of pocket watches so they could be mass-produced. He was inspired by the mass-production techniques he learned while working for a firearms company, and formed a watch company in 1849. He and his partner, Edward Howard, figured out how to create machines to produce parts small enough for watches, and began marketing the first inexpensive factory-made watches in the 1850s. His enterprise, which became the Waltham Watch Co., was one of the most popular pocket watch makers until the 1950s.
Stevens writes that wristwatches appeared in the late 19th century, but they were only designed for women. During World War I, soldiers began wearing wristwatches because they were more convenient than pocket watches. Soon, wristwatches became popular as accessories for men as well, and the pocket watch slid into obscurity. Today, pocket watches are often passed down as family heirlooms and some are sold as valuable antiques, but very few people still use them.