A Brief History of Watchmaking, from the 14th Century to the Present Day

A journey through the socio-economic and technological events that have influenced the progress of timekeeping in Europe.

The rise of the mechanical clock

There is no evidence of who invented the mechanical clock or exactly when it first appeared. Dante’s Divina Commedia, written between 1308 and 1321, is the earliest literary reference to a mechanical clock. In the Canto X of the Paradise, the great poet describes the gear wheels of a clock and the sound of a bell announcing the passage of time.

In 14th and 15th century Europe, mechanical clocks became ubiquitous in towers, in churches, royal palaces or governmental buildings. They set their time against sundials connected to bells that struck the hours.

In 1337, Galvano Fiamma (1283–1344), an Italian Dominican chronicler of Milan, tells us that the San Gottardo in Corte church housed the first mechanical clock of the city of Milan, which was believed to be the first one in Italy as well.

The clocks of this period, such as the one in the San Gottardo in Corte, were weight-driven (i.e., powered by falling weights) and were wound up periodically, once a day or once a week. They were the result of improved skills in metal working by locksmiths and clockmakers, and of improved ability in making metal components, which were stronger, more flexible, and of more sophisticated shapes. Such clocks were made of iron.

Later in the 17th century, clockmakers began using brass because, unlike iron, it did not rust and it was easier to work with.

The Three Magi led by an angel automate that emerge only twice a year on the tower clock in the Piazza San Marco, Venice (photo courtesy Aw58/Wikipedia)

In the early 15th century, dials began to appear on clock towers. The dials displayed the hours with an hour hand and often also included information on the positions of stars, planets and moon phases. At times, the towers were adorned with automata representing the act of sounding the bells. A very good example of these is the clock tower of San Marco in Venice.

The Salisbury Cathedral Clock is the oldest surviving working mechanical clock (1386) (photo courtesy Rwendland/Wikipedia)



From clocks to pocket watches

Historians credit the German clockmaker Peter Henlein (1485–1542) as being the inventor of the portable watch in the early 1500s. The first portable watches were small ornamental timepieces, which could be worn as neck pendants, encased in rings, hanging from belts, or kept in pockets. The shapes of the cases were often octagonal, oval, round, or drum-shaped, and had beautiful high-quality decorations and finishing.

Portable “Onion” watch from the late 17th century (photo courtesy Musée International d’Horlogerie)

In 16th and 17th century Europe, the clergy, the nobles, the ruling classes, and the royal entourages wore these portable watches as a display of status quo. By the 17th century, the style was mostly for men to wear these portable watches in their pockets.

In the field of astronomy, Jost Burgi (1552–1632) was the first to measure the second as a unit of time, enabling more precision in the observation of celestial bodies. Not only a clockmaker, but also a polymath, in 1585 he developed a clock movement that displayed the hours, minutes, and seconds on three separate dials, which considerably reduced the daily error in the measurement of time.

Following Burgi’s innovation, Galileo Galilei (1564–1642) conceived a clock movement that used a pendulum, which Christian Huygens further refined in 1657, improving accuracy from a daily error of ca 15 minutes to 15 seconds.

And in 1675, Christian Huygens introduced the balance spring¹, an innovation that significantly changed the path of horology, making it possible to further miniaturize timepieces and considerably improve their accuracy.

Eventually, in the late 17th century, English clockmaker Daniel Quare (1648–1724) developed a dial with concentric hour and minute hands giving timekeeping the face that we are mostly familiar with today.



Horology during the Age of Enlightenment

In Europe, the 18th century was a period of intellectual, social, and political ferment. The 18th century is often referred to as the Age of Enlightenment, for it was in the 18th century that the ideas of the previous 100 years were implemented on a broad scale. This is also true for the field of horology. Improvements in the quality of steel enabled further accuracy and miniaturization of clocks.

The development of the maritime chronometer is considered the most representative contribution to horology during this period.

After the great discoveries and explorations of the 15th and 16th centuries, European states were eager to control the maritime routes and bring back the colossal wealth of the new colonies. However empirical and imprecise methods in measuring time and distance traveled at sea led to errors that repeatedly resulted in dramatic shipwrecks. A clock that was a few seconds too fast or too slow could result in the ship ending up several kilometers off course.

The case of the four British warships that ran aground on the Isles of Scilly off the coast of Cornwall in 1707, when nearly two thousand marines lost their lives, marked the need for clocks that could tell the right time at sea. This led to the Longitude Act in 1714, when the English parliament awarded a prize in money to whoever would find a precise method for the exact determination of a point at sea.

John Harrison H4 marine chronometer

John Harrison H4 marine chronometer

After much experimentation, in 1761 John Harrison (1693–1776) was the first to develop a chronometer, the H4, a large pocket watch, which during a navigation between Plymouth and the island of Barbados measured the longitude with a distance error of only 16 km/9.8 miles. This was the birth of the maritime chronometer, which solved the longitude problem and allowed, after a long hard fought process, John Harrison to win the Longitude Act prize.

Derek Pratt’s reconstruction of the movement of John Harrison’s H4, which was finished by Frodshams (image courtesy British Horological Journal)



The industrialization of watchmaking: the 19th century

In 1769, James Watt (1736–1819) unveiled to the world the steam engine. It was the prelude to the Industrial Revolution. This invention transformed human society from an agrarian/religious economy, where work was regulated by the sun, the moon, and the seasons, to one where work was regulated by accurate timekeeping.

The steam engine and the steam locomotive kick started a new era in transportation and travel. With railroads linking together entire continents, nations were replacing hundreds (or even thousands) of diverging local times with a system of hour-wide time zones.

In 1884, the International Meridian Conference in Washington D.C. selected the meridian passing through Greenwich (0 degrees longitude), as the world standard prime meridian and the basis for the global system of time zones.

The Industrial Revolution (1760 to about 1820–1840) led to the development of mass production of clocks and portable watches in the United States first, and then in Europe, in Germany, France, and England. The American watchmaking industry was soon able to produce much higher quantities of reliable movements and significantly  cheaper timepieces than its European counterparties.

Towards the end of the 19th century however, manufacturing centers in Europe (especially the Swiss) began applying the American principles of industrial production in their factories, and raised the competitiveness of their own watch manufacturing.

The socio-economic and scientific progress that came with the Industrial Revolution pushed the need for accurate timekeeping to fractions of a second. Several horological innovations addressed the need for more accuracy in a society now much more dependent on activities regulated by time keeping. One such innovation was the invention of the chronograph by Louis Moinet (1768–1853), in 1816.

The Louis Moinet Compteur de Tierces has four displays: a long central hand rotating once per second, and three sub dials indicating elapsed seconds, minutes, and hours

The Louis Moinet Compteur de Tierces has four displays: a long central hand rotating once per second, and three sub-dials indicating elapsed seconds, minutes, and hours

In 1821, Nicolas Mathieu Rieussec (1781–1866) created an improved chronograph for King Louis XVIII, to measure elapsed times at horse races, a favorite pastime of the King.

Progress made in metalworking and research in precision horology led to the invention of Invar² (1896) and Elinvar³ (1913) by Swiss physicist Charles Edouard Guillaume (1861–1938). These alloys had a very low coefficient of thermal expansion, and when used in balance springs, they significantly increased the accuracy of mechanical watches and chronometers.



The quartz crisis and the rebirth of traditional watchmaking

The 20th century saw the rise in popularity of the wristwatch over the pocket watch. By the 1930s, the wristwatch had taken over 50% of the pocket watch market. In this decade, the export of Swiss made watches comprised 65% of wristwatches and 35% pocket watches.

In the 1940s and 1950s, the chronograph wristwatch came back to popularity, as a result of its practical use in WWII, as well as self-winding wristwatches with a power reserve indication, complications such as the calendar, moon phases, and the perpetual calendar. In the late 1950s and in the 1960s, space exploration brought wristwatches that could endure space conditions. Astronauts wore watches by Omega, Breitling, Bulova, and the Russian Sturmanskie during their space walks or on the moon.

And then came the quartz revolution. In 1969, Seiko launched the Astron 35SQ, the first quartz wristwatch in the world. It marked the beginning of the quartz crisis. The Seiko Astron was the result of scientific and technological progress that had its roots in the US, since the 1920s. Its technology was 100 times more accurate and much cheaper than mechanical watches, and it brought accurate timekeeping within reach of all consumers.

By 1978, quartz wristwatches had overtaken mechanical wristwatches in popularity and had plunged the Swiss watch industry into a deep crisis. Before the 1970s, the Swiss watch industry had prospered in the absence of any real competition and held 50% of the world watch market. However, between 1970 and late 1980s, about 1,000 Swiss watchmakers did not survive the crisis and went out of business, and Swiss watch production fell from 90’000 to 28’000 units.

Seiko Quartz Astron 35SQ. When launched late 1969, Seiko advertised: “Someday all watches will be made this way”

The quartz revolution drove several Swiss manufacturers to seek refuge at the higher end of the market. To survive, brands like Patek Philippe, Vacheron Constantin, Audemars Piguet, and Rolex shifted focus from precision to technical creativity and luxury. Mechanical wristwatches gradually became luxury goods, appreciated for their elaborate craftsmanship, aesthetic appeal, and glamorous design, and often associated with the social status of their owners.

In the late 20th century, new materials found their place in the creation of luxury wristwatches. Taking inspiration from other high-performance industries (e.g., aeronautics; F1 Racing), watch brands experimented with new materials, in a constant search for lightness (e.g., carbon and titanium), corrosion resistance (tantalum and ceramic), strength and hardness (titanium and ceramic), and reducing the need for lubrication (silicon and synthetic diamonds). A trend that is still ongoing today.

MB&F HM11 Architect

The rise of independent watchmakers brought a new energy to the watchmaking industry, in the early decades of the 21st century. From the mid-90s through to today, watchmakers like Max Busser, Philippe Dufour, F.P. Journe, and Richard Mille, to name just a few, established themselves as artisanal watchmakers, introducing a creative approach to the development of watchmaking.

Richard Mille RM 65-01 Split Seconds Automatic Chronograph (photo courtesy Richard Mille/N. Boon)

They opened new avenues for mechanical watchmaking, with their experimentation of new materials, with their technical inventions and innovations, and with their original and visionary design choices. They pushed the boundaries of precision and emphasized the beauty of hand-finishing, exceptional craftsmanship. Often limiting their production to a few timepieces a year, their creations are sought after and purchased by collectors and enthusiasts around the world.

* This article was first published in “La Rivista” in March 2023.

You might also enjoy:

Discovery, Firsts, And The Louis Moinet Compteur De Tierces: the World’s First Chronograph

Reconstruction Of The John Harrison H4, The World’s First Precision Marine Chronometer, By Derek Pratt And Roger Stevenson/Frodsham

Quartz Watches: Past, Present, But No Future?

Larcum Kendall and K1: The Greatest Watchmaker and Watch You have (Probably) Never Heard Of

1 reply

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *