The wristwatch: history of a sense of time

How the invention of wristwatches changed our perception of time

Today, the mechanical wristwatch stands for the joy of high-precision engineering. When it was invented, it stood for something completely different: a new, more precise understanding of time, which catapulted people into a new age - even though the history of development lasted several decades.

Against the pocket watch: Wristwatches for women as a piece of jewelry

When the English jeweler John Webber made the first ladies' wristwatches around 1800, the watch mechanics were so far advanced that even these early wristwatches already had a minute hand. This was by no means a matter of course - the older pocket watches had no minute hands for many centuries. Wristwatches were therefore in principle always two-hand watches – in contrast to church tower clocks and other large clocks, which for many centuries were one-hand watches, i.e. only had the hour hand.

As valuable pieces of jewelry, wristwatches soon became popular with the ladies. Researchers suspect that there could be a very simple reason for this: Ladies' pocket watches were usually worn on long chains around the neck. When a woman bent over the cooking pot, the watch struck lightly against the metal cooking pot. With the ladies' watch, this problem was elegantly avoided.

However, the ladies' wristwatch did not change public life or society's perception of time, as it only played a secondary role in this environment.

For the men's world, wearing a wristwatch was out of the question for many decades, because there was too much concern that one would then be considered "feminine".

Wristwatches for men and military precision

In the rather conservative world of men's fashion, wristwatches were clearly a woman's business - until the military discovered the usefulness of the wristwatch. In 1880, Constantin Girard developed the first serially produced wristwatches for men for German naval officers, but outside the military, the wristwatch initially failed to gain acceptance.

It was only through its use in aviation that the wristwatch became increasingly popular as a "pilot's watch" and thus also wearable by men. Until the outbreak of the First World War, the men's wristwatch became the symbol of adventure and the entry into a modern and mechanized age. The First World War initially slowed down the civilian use of the wristwatch somewhat - but nevertheless made it increasingly popular. In the trenches, it was life-threatening and cumbersome to grope for the pocket watch, while with the wristwatch a single glance at the wrist was enough. At the same time, the watch enabled precise attack plans and times.

Back in civilian life, the former soldiers no longer wanted to do without their wristwatch: The quick glance at the practical timepiece had finally replaced the leisurely pulling out of the pocket watch. At the same time, a new understanding of time determined the rhythm of work in everyday life.

Digital wristwatch: From expensive luxury object to mass production

The great demand for wristwatches drove further technical innovations and so in 1923 the first automatic watch was produced by John Harwood, which no longer had to be wound by hand. Punctuality to the minute was expected from the 1920s onwards in the working world and increasingly in private life as well.

A real revolution in the watchmaking world was the introduction of digital wristwatches in the 1970s. Thanks to quartz technology, they were not only much more accurate, but also corresponded more to the attitude to life of a society that was technology-oriented and believed in progress. Industrial production caused the price of a digital wristwatch to drop rapidly. In the beginning, one had to pay around 8000 marks for such a watch, but only a few years later models were available for less than 100 marks.

Since the invention of the watch, it has become increasingly accurate thanks to new technologies. The currently most accurate clock in the world, an atomic clock, deviates by only one second in 140 billion years. As useful as ever more accurate watches are for science and technology, it has become increasingly clear in recent decades that the increasing precision of measurement and display can also lead to an increase in time pressure in everyday life.


BOTTA: One-hand watch against time pressure

Being on time, even under difficult circumstances, became more and more a matter of course, especially in Central Europe. The associated idea of efficiency spread rapidly, especially in the last decades, and has since then increasingly influenced our leisure time.

In technology, maximum accuracy and ever smaller time units are of fundamental importance for complex technical constructions such as particle accelerators or GPS systems.

In the private sphere, on the other hand, we may ask ourselves whether the new technologies have not already been developed far beyond what is humanly possible.

Whether perhaps "less" (in terms of exaggerated precision and complexity) would not mean "more" in terms of appropriate time recording and thus quality of life.

It was precisely this thought that drove the designer and natural scientist Klaus Botta in 1986, when he designed and developed a radically simplified model in the midst of increasingly complex wristwatches: the UNO one-hand wristwatch.

A watch with only one hand was absolutely new and was considered very unusual, because at that time all wristwatches and other watches had at least two hands - some even had six or more.

Klaus Botta then asked the question whether it was possible to find the time at all with such overloaded wristwatches "because of all the hands and scales.

As a revolutionary counter-concept, he then developed the UNO one-handed watch, which exhibits such stringent logic that it has expanded the current watch market to include the new "one-handed watches" segment. Even after 30 successful years, UNO has lost none of its former charm and original topicality. Probably even more so today than it was then, it is a resolute statement against a further increase in complexity of everyday life.

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