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).
RISE IN POPULARITY
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.