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Tech Throwback Thursday: Keeping track of the time

March 03, 2015
By Alexander Lucas

Daylight saving time will shift clocks forward in the United States on March 8, 2015, and in many other Western nations on March 29. On March 9 Apple will have another of their big product announcements, presumably to announce new features to their Apple Watch, due to ship in April 2015. With all this focus on the clock, this Tech Throwback takes a look at a few aspects of the keeping of time. 

Early timekeeping

People have been keeping track of the passage of time for thousands of years, first with sundials, water clocks and candle clocks. Later hourglasses, mechanical tower clocks and pendulum clocks were introduced. 

Personal timepieces would not come about until the 16th century, when clock-watches, pocket watches and wristwatches began to appear. 

egg watch

The first watches were the phablets of their age, being somewhere between clock size and later watch size. They also often were worn around the neck with a chain or pendant, meaning hip hop star Flavor Flav is actually a traditionalist with his time accessories (though his "Viking" hat is not historically accurate). 

Interestingly, one of the earliest dated watches, seen here, is currently in display near TEKsystems Corporate in the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore.

Transition to the wrist

In 1571 the Earl of Leicester gave Queen Elizabeth of England an "arm watch," believed to be the first reference to a watch worn around the wrist or forearm. And while this was early in the evolution of personal watches, it would take another three centuries before it became the dominant way of wearing the watch.

From the 17th century through the 19th century, women wore watches as bracelets but men largely did not. Part of the reason was that watches on the wrist were more likely to be damaged by the elements, but men of these periods also tended to wear their timepieces as pocket watches. Interestingly, the design of the pocket watch developed from the introduction of the waistcoat in 1675.

old watch

So what changed this fashion to a near universal use of wristwatches? Like many innovations, the wristwatch owes its popularity and innovation to war. 

Starting in the late 19th century soldiers needed accurate timepieces to coordinate troop movements. Since checking a pocket watch was less than ideal while riding a horse or while holding weapons, officers began strapping watches to their wrists. In World War I this became even more essential as trench warfare tactics depended heavily on synchronization between artillery and troop movements. As soldiers came home from the war, they kept their watches on their wrists and civilians soon followed.


alexander bain

One of Tech Throwback Thursday’s recurring characters is Alexander Bain, a Scottish inventor who you’ll see again in future articles. Bain is often mentioned as the inventor of the fax machine, as well as an innovator of the telegraph, envisioning a chemical telegraph system. But the profession Bain was brought up in was that of a clockmaker. In this capacity he added another claim to fame: He was the first to invent and patent the electric clock.

To this point all clocks had been purely mechanical in nature, either powered by a weighted or a mainspring system. Bain's design, brought to life by John Barwise, allowed electricity to power a clock. This innovation allowed for other innovations like synchronous clocks across wires (which would spur Bain's fascination with both telegraphy and facsimile).

Power from a stone

pierre curie

In 1880 Jacques and Pierre Curie discovered a remarkable quality, known as piezoelectricity, in certain minerals like quartz and Rochelle salt. When exposed to temperature changes, quartz would generate a specific amount of electricity, which could be mathematically measured.

Quartz had a number of applications, including SONAR, electrical cigarette lighters, and in the case of clocks and watches, regulating an electronic oscillator. This made quartz clocks extremely accurate, much more so than their mechanical contemporaries. From 1930 to 1960, quartz clocks actually kept the U.S. time standard at the National Bureau of Standards.

The accuracy and affordability of quartz watches made them very attractive to consumers, though this caused a huge crisis in the Swiss watchmaking business. Swiss watchmakers had enjoyed a near monopoly on mechanical watchmaking from WWII through the early 1970s but failed to adapt to the new technology and lost control of the industry.

Oh, and if the name Pierre Curie sounds familiar, it is because he and wife Marie won a Nobel Prize in Physics for the discovery and research into radioactivity and elements radium and polonium. The device they initially used to detect radioactivity: a piezoelectric electrometer.

flavor flav

Time flies when you are having fun

There are a lot of interesting things about horology and watchmaking. For more information about the history of the wristwatch I would certainly check out this article on VintageWatchStraps

Remember to set your clocks forward on March 8 in the United States (except Hawaii), and check out my recent articles on the technology behind weather forecasting and on retro tech wearables like the Nintendo Power Glove and calculator watch.

A self-styled storyteller, Alexander Lucas loves to share his vast knowledge of tech, innovation and design trivia. TEKsystems’ resident video designer is also an avid history buff and writes about technology innovation through time.
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