People have been using gadgets since the beginning of history. Of course, those gadgets didn’t have the form factor or complexity of those we use today, but they served the same purpose, that of making people’s lives easier, and, why not, more entertaining.
And since time is considered one of our most valuable assets and has always been one of the most important preoccupations of Man, timekeeping devices have been invented thousands of years ago.Early timekeeping devices
The keeping of time goes all the way back to the beginning of civilization. Both historians and archaeologists believe that stationary and portable sun-dials were probably developed in Egypt or Mesopotamia.
The Ancient Egyptians were the first to divide the day into two 12-hour periods and they used large obelisks to track the movement of the sun. They were also the ones to develop water clocks, later employed by the Ancient Greeks as clepsydrae (later to be known as the hourglass).
Other ancient timekeeping devices included the candle clock (used in China, Japan and Iraq), the timestick (used in India and Tibet, as well as some parts of Europe) and the hourglass, which functioned similarly to a water clock.
However, all of these devices presented severe flaws, which prevented them from accurately indicating the precise time over extended time-spans. This is how the idea of transferring rotational energy into intermittent motion appeared and, with it, the clocks with an escapement.
Modern timekeeping devices
Mechanical clocks employing the verge escapement mechanism were invented in Europe at the turn of the 14th century, and became the standard timekeeping device until the spring-powered clock and pocket watch in the 16th century, followed by the pendulum clock in the 17th century.
In 1524, 15 florins were paid to the German watchmaker Peter Henlein for a gilt musk-apple with a watch. This was the earliest known date of a watch being produced. Although Henlein’s devices slowed down as the mainspring unwound, they were popular among wealthy individuals due to their size and the fact that they could be put on a shelf or table instead of hanging from the wall. They were the first portable timepieces.
However, they only had an hour hand, minute hands did not appear until 1670, and there was no glass protection. Glass over the face of the watch did not come about until the 17th century. Still, Henlein's advances in design were precursors to truly accurate timekeeping. The English and the Swiss products did not appear till about 1575, even though the latter are up to this day considered to epitomize the high quality watch making. Taqi al-Din's watch, however, was the first to measure time in minutes, by having three dials for the hours, degrees and minutes.
This was the moment for the mechanical clock to “shine”, watchmakers all over the world attempting to improve it by developing multiple innovations, miniaturizing it and adapting it for domestic use in the 15th century and personal use in the 16th.
Although Galileo Galilei was the one to discover that the regular swing of the pendulum could be used to regulate a clock, he never actually built a clock based on this principle, his work being in fact finalized by Dutch scientist Christiaan Huygens, who designed and built the first pendulum clock in 1656.
The modern longcase clock (a freestanding, weight-driven, pendulum clock with the pendulum held inside the tower, or waist of the case), also known as the grandfather/granddaughter/ grandmother clock, appeared as a result of the invention of the anchor escapement mechanism, in 1670. Various later improvements led to the quartz clocks and thus, the numerous modern-day time telling devices.Clockmakers
Clockmaking developed from a specialized craft into a mass production industry over many years, starting as an extension of locksmiths and jewelers’ professions. Most people almost instantly associate Swiss mechanisms with quality, but what they don’t know is that the Swiss industry only imposed itself as a standard of quality craftsmanship and design in the 19th century.
It was, however, preceded by the French, who were leaders in case design and ornamental clocks in the 16th century. One of the most renowned was Julien Le Roy, clockmaker of the Versailles, described by his contemporaries as “the most skillful clockmaker in France, possibly in Europe.”
His contribution to the development of time telling devices was represented by the invention of a special repeating mechanism which improved the precision of clocks and watches, as well as a face that could be opened to view the inside clockwork.
The clockmaking industry has afterwards known a powerful development, under the leadership of the Germans, even though only briefly, of the English and, finally, the Swiss, with worthy representatives, such as Antoni Patek and Adrien Philippe.
The 19th century was also known as the “era of complications”, grand complications such as repeaters, moonwork, alarm, striking, musical, automata, jaquemarts, multi-dial, day, date, month and stopwork being favored. A large proportion of the watches with complications were Swiss with lever or cylinder escapements. An English refinement was the “karrusel,”, patented in 1892 by Bonniksen of Coventry.
From the first wristwatch to the first radio clock
Although Patek Philippe was given the credit for the invention of the first wristwatch, in 1868, his creations were intended to be rather jewelry pieces than anything else, having been designed as “lady’s watches”. The first men's wristwatch and the first watch designed for practical use was in fact created by the French watchmaker Louis Cartier, in 1904, for the aviator Alberto Santos-Dumont, hence its name, the Santos wristwatch.
Wristwatches gained popularity during World War I, when officers found them to be more convenient than pocket watches. They were very soon produced en masse for infantry and pilots by the army contractors and they’ve kept their practicality up to this day, when their time telling capabilities are no longer an issue, users going for original and complex designs, rather than for their mechanisms.
Marine chronometers and simple chronometers were also developed out of necessity, at the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th, as well as the quartz crystal oscillators (the Astron, the world’s first quartz wristwatch was produced in 1969, by Seiko), followed by the atomic clocks, the most accurate timekeeping devices known to this date, and radio clocks and Global Positioning System (GPS) clocks.
Now, the world of clocks and watches is open for both traditional and innovative mechanisms and systems, with innovations regarding production and designs appearing frequently. All we have to do now is keep a vigilant eye on the time and wait and see what the future reserves us. Keep track with time and keep track of time!