History of the Wristwatch

On July 9, 1916, The New York Times questioned a fashion trend: Europeans were beginning to wear watch bracelets. Time had passed on the human doll and development required some explanation.

“Until recently,” notes the newspaper, “the wristwatch was considered by Americans more or less a joke. Vaudeville entertainers and movie stars used it as an entertainment creator, as a” stupid “fashion. “.”

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But the wristwatch was no longer “stupid fashion.” “Telephone and signal service, which plays an important role in modern warfare, has made it mandatory for soldiers to wear watches,” noted The Times, two years after World War I. “The only practical way they can wear them is on the wrist, where the time can easily be checked, an impossibility with the old-fashioned pocket watch.” Improvements in communication technologies had allowed the military to coordinate more precisely, their maneuvers and coordination required soldiers to discern time at a glance. Searching for a watch in your pocket was not advisable in the chaos of the trenches.

European soldiers equipped the device with unbreakable glass to survive the trenches and the radio to illuminate the screen at night. And civilians, seeing the practical advantages of the wristwatch over the pocket watch, were repeating the behavior.


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This month has brought strange echoes of that story. In China, where the newly launched Apple Watch is fast becoming a controversial and sought-after status symbol, authorities have reportedly banned the device. “The use of portable devices with Internet access, location information and voice calling functions should be considered a violation of national security regulations when used by military personnel,” a Chinese military newspaper said, citing a government agency, in apparent reference to devices like the Apple Watch. A technology conceived in warfare had become technologically too sophisticated for soldiers.

It was a reminder that advances in timekeeping technology are not just about finding a better way to tell time. They often speak of something else as well, even if that other thing affects the perception of time itself. For the last century or so, people have kept time primarily in their pockets, then on their wrists, and now in their pockets. If the Apple Watch and other similar smartwatches are successful, the wrist could see a revival.

Alexis McCrossen, professor of history at Southern Methodist University and author of Marking Modern Times: A History of Clocks, Watches, and Other Timekeepers in American Life, traces the history of the wristwatch to the spread of “portable watches” or large pocket watch sizes, back in the 1700s, when “people want to start taking time with them; they are not content to just look at public watches in whatever village or city they end up in. “These watches have become progressively smaller and better protected with features such as chains or straps, and have often been seen primarily not as a watch but as a Reliable vehicle for investing personal savings “If you look at 19th century American pawn records, between 40 and 50 percent of all pledged items were pocket watches,” McCrossen told me.

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