His­tory of watches

Let’s take a look at the in­ven­tion that makes the modern world tick


HU­MANS have been try­ing to keep track of time for thou­sands of years. To­day we sim­ply look at the watch on our wrist or glance at our cell­phones to check the time, but it took many years to de­velop these de­vices.

The An­cient Egyp­tians were the first to cre­ate portable time­keep­ing de­vices – in around 1500 BC they had sun­di­als they could carry around with them!

But it was only thou­sands of years later af­ter the de­vel­op­ment of the me­chan­i­cal clock in Me­di­ae­val Europe that portable time­keep­ing de­vices – or watches – be­came wide­spread (see box on the left).


One of the biggest ad­vances in the pop­u­lar­ity of wrist­watches oc­curred dur­ing the Sec­ond An­glo-Boer War (1899-1902). The Bri­tish sol­diers strug­gled to out­wit the Boer forces and needed to syn­chro­nise their at­tacks bet­ter.

To do that, sol­diers needed to keep an eye on the time. Back then, men car­ried pocket watches. But dur­ing war time, in trenches or on horse­back, it wasn’t prac­ti­cal to keep check­ing the time on a watch you had to take out of your pocket each time. The solution – wrist­watches.

In the 19th cen­tury wrist­watches were con­sid­ered women’s jew­ellery. But af­ter the Sec­ond An­glo-Boer War Bri­tish sol­diers started wear­ing pocket watches on leather straps around their wrists. These were the pre­de­ces­sors of wrist­watches as we know them to­day. Dur­ing the trench war­fare of World War 1 the need for quick, ac­cu­rate ac­cess to the time re­sulted in wrist­watches be­com­ing part of sol­diers’ uni­forms. Wrist­watches were also prac­ti­cal for tank per­son­nel and fighter pi­lots. This way wrist­watches be­came associated with man­li­ness and hero­ism, which made them popular with civil­ians too.

In the ’60s Ja­panese and Swiss watch man­u­fac­tur­ers de­vel­oped elec­tronic watches that used the vi­bra­tions of a quartz crys­tal to keep time, which made their batteries last much longer. Soon the Ja­panese were mass-pro­duc­ing ac­cu­rate and in­ex­pen­sive watches.

By the ’80s Swiss watch­mak­ing was in a slump and it looked like the end of me­chan­i­cal watches was draw­ing near. But as wealthy busi­ness­men sought items to show off their sta­tus, col­lect­ing

wrist­watches be­came fash­ion­able. Own­ing an ex­pen­sive lim­ited edi­tion watch by big brand names such as Cartier be­came a sta­tus sym­bol and re­vived the mar­ket.


In the modern dig­i­tal age with all its gad­gets, such as smart­phones and tablets, the de­mand for wrist­watches has de­clined again (though ex­pen­sive lux­ury watches are still in de­mand as jew­ellery items).

Many younger peo­ple don’t wear wrist­watches as they can see the time on their phones. The in­tro­duc­tion of smartwatch­es was an at­tempt to pop­u­larise wrist­watches for a new gen­er­a­tion. Syn­chro­nised data plays an im­por­tant role in mak­ing smartwatch­es from com­pa­nies such as Ap­ple and Sam­sung popular. These watches are much more than time­keep­ers – they’re like a tiny com­puter on your wrist.


It’s es­sen­tial that coun­tries around the world follow a stan­dard time. In­ter­na­tional flights, multi­na­tional cor­po­ra­tions that trade 24 hours a day and sport­ing events that are broad­cast world­wide make a stan­dard time es­sen­tial to avoid chaos.

An imag­i­nary north-south line passes through Green­wich in England, which is where Bri­tain’s Royal Ob­ser­va­tory is lo­cated. This line is known as the Green­wich merid­ian or prime merid­ian (0⁰ lat­i­tude). It di­vides the globe into time zones to the east and west of it. For ev­ery 15⁰ from the prime merid­ian, an hour is added or sub­tracted. The world stan­dard time is called Green­wich time or Green­wich Mean Time (GMT) and in South Africa we add two hours to GMT to es­tab­lish lo­cal time (so GMT +2).

In Oc­to­ber 1884 the US govern­ment held a meet­ing with rep­re­sen­ta­tives from all over the world to de­cide what stan­dard time to use. Be­fore this al­most ev­ery town kept its own time. Bri­tain had the world’s lead­ing navy and many other coun­tries fol­lowed their nav­i­ga­tion charts, which used Green­wich as the prime merid­ian to nav­i­gate. This is why Green­wich was cho­sen as the cen­tral point on earth from which all time would be calculated.

An Amer­i­can sol­dier wears a watch dur­ing World War I. This Bri­tish of­fi­cer’s trench wrist­watch was first man­u­fac­tured in 1916. Wrist­watches gained pop­u­lar­ity in World War 1 when Bri­tish sol­diers and of­fi­cers started con­sid­er­ing it a prac­ti­cal and es­sen­tial part of their uni­form.

The Shep­herd Gate Clock in London, England, shows Green­wich Mean Time (GMT). This is the stan­dard time by which the whole world works. Coun­tries have dif­fer­ent time zones ac­cord­ing to how far they’re sit­u­ated east or west of the Green­wich Line (RIGHT).

For po­lit­i­cal rea­sons and con­ve­nience, time zone bound­aries aren’t straight ver­ti­cal lines.

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