Portable timepieces -- as opposed to clock towers and brass monstrosities that sat on marble mantels -- have been around since the mid-1500s, but the wristwatch as we know it has only been around for a little more than a century. Watches have benefited humankind in a variety of ways, including, arguably, the winning of wars and the march of industry. They have also given us something to look at when we realize we're walking the wrong way so that we can turn around without looking like fools or weirdos. And of course they have given Jay-Z words with which he can pad his lyrics.
But watches didn't spring forth from their creator's head like some kind of gear-filled Athena from Zeus's noggin. Actually, watches did sort of spring forth fully formed, but they've evolved a lot since, and that's what we're here to talk about.
After a couple hundred years of watches dangling from waistcoats, a watchmaker named Breguet created a timepiece to be worn on the wrist for the Queen of Naples in 1812. Patek Phillipe got in the game with the first commercially available women's "wristlet," as these timepieces were called, in 1868. Wristlets were thus doomed to the realm of frivolous ladies and not worth a serious gentleman's time. Well, that, and the fact that wristlets were too small to be accurate, and they didn't even bother with a minute hand because it wouldn't have told you the correct minutes. What woman needs to worry her pretty little head about the time, anyway?
In 1904, Brazilian aviator Alberto Santos-Dumont needed a hands-free way to time his daring performances, so he asked Cartier to come up with something suitable for a pioneering flyboy like himself. Cartier not only created the first proper wristwatch -- it became the basic blueprint for wristwatches ever after. It was designed for the left wrist, with "horns" to hold the strap to the case, a winding stem on the right of the case, and a clasp to hold it on rather than being a slip-on bracelet style like those girly wristlets. Oh, and it had a minute hand. This model was naturally called the Santos, and it went on sale for normal, earth-bound humans in 1904.
Hands-free, accurate timepieces became crucial for the more-mobile soldiers of the 20th century. At first, guys would improvise with leather straps that were cupped to fit their pocket watches, but if you've ever seen a pocket watch, you can imagine how big a guy's wrist would have to be to call that even remotely useful. Watchmakers like Girard-Perregeaux started equipping soldiers and sailors around the turn of the century, which meant attacks and troop movement could now be coordinated. Pierced metal shrapnel guards were fitted over the crystal faces, and eventually radium was painted onto the hands so soldiers could tell time in the dark and make up phrases like "oh-dark-thirty."
When soldiers returned from World War I postings with watches on their wrists, suddenly everybody had to have one. Pocket watches went the way of Newtonian physics in the 1920s -- after all, who even owned a waistcoat anymore, let alone a fob? As watches got more popular, they also got tougher. Rolex came out with the first water-resistant watch, the Oyster, in 1926. The delicate crystal that protected the watch was replaced by cheaper, easier, lighter, harder to scratch or break plastic. The problem was that the plastic would turn yellow over time (pun intended), but watches were suddenly getting as cheap and disposable as everything else. So what's the big deal, Pops?
Watches were getting so cheap and so durable that they were even deemed fit for children -- those nasty little destroyers of all the nice things. In 1933, the Mickey Mouse watch by Ingersoll-Waterbury debuted, the first timepiece ever made for kids. It was only five years after the mouse himself debuted, but more than 11,000 watches were sold at Macy's in New York on its very first day. It was only $3, but that's equivalent to about $54 in 2014. Ingersoll-Waterbury also made a Mickey Mouse pocket watch that sold for half the price; however, there weren't enough waistcoat-wearing kids, even in 1933, to make that item popular.
Up to this point, if you had a watch and you wanted it to do something useful instead of being a glorified, leather-strapped wristlet, you had to wind it twice a day. Forget, and the gears would eventually slow to a stop, and you'd be late for work. "I forgot to wind my watch" was the "I forgot to plug in my phone" of its day. But in 1957, the Hamilton Watch Company introduced the electric watch to the world, the Hamilton 500. It was $89.50, or about $745 in 2014. It had a tiny, battery-powered tuning fork inside, and the vibrations of the tuning fork replaced the need for winding. The problem was, as always, the battery. Hamilton worked for years to get it right, but production of the electric watch ended in 1969.
The electric watch didn't die entirely on its own. Quartz movement also had a hand in its death (another pun intended). On Christmas Day in 1969 (did no one teach these people about seasonal marketing?), the Seiko 35SQ Astron was introduced in Japan. The quartz watch had no moving parts, and therefore needed no winding, no cleaning and no tiny tuning fork. It was even more shock resistant than previous watches because there simply wasn't much to shock when you accidentally whacked it against your desk.
The Hamilton Watch Company may have been down after its electric watch died, but it was definitely not out. It was working all along on the next new thing. Something which would take the watch world by storm: the digital watch. When the Hamilton Pulsar debuted in 1972, it cost $2,100, which would be nearly $12,000 in 2014, putting it in Jay-Z timepiece territory. But look at what you got for your money! An 18k gold watch with a ruby crystal, which made the little LED readout red. The 25-chip circuit inside the watch sucked up so much power that it couldn't display the time continuously -- you had to push a button to get the time to show up on the screen.
When Swatch debuted its inexpensive, brightly colored watches in 1983, it was nodding to the history of the watch more than it knew. Not with neon and rubber face protectors, mind you, but with the idea of watches as pure fashion, as those first wristlets were. Swatches were not meant to be your only watch, passed down with solemn ceremony from father to son, a la Christopher Walken in "Pulp Fiction." Swatch wanted you to buy a bunch of its cheap, plastic watches and change them up every day. Or wear a stack as if they were bracelets or -- dare we say it -- wristlets. According to the company, its mission is right in the name: It's a portmanteau (the fancy term for "smashed together words") of "second watch."
For decades, in movies and comic books from pulp to sci-fi, characters have lifted their wrists to their mouths and talked to someone. It's a human dream, like flight or delivery pizza, and it too has finally been achieved. Sony's Android-based SmartWatch can handle email, text and social media updates, which are all 21st century equivalents of actually speaking to someone, which we no longer do. Except that it turns out the dream may be a lie. Now that we have the possibility of communicating via wristwatch, it seems few people actually want to. Not because we don't want to talk to our fellow humans -- goodness no. It's that our phones do everything those watches do and more. Lots of people ditched their watches for their time-telling pocket computers long ago. Wristwatches now seem old-fashioned, no matter what technical feats they may be able to accomplish.
The Puls Wearable is a smart watch-smartphone combination that looks like a chunky bracelet. Learn more about the Puls Wearable.
Author's Note: 10 Ways Watches Have Evolved
I do love watches, though I'm a writer, so the likes of Breguet, Girard-Perregaux, Cartier, and all the rest of Jay-Z's wearable friends are beyond my bank account. I've got two watches right now. The one I wear most often is digital, with a lot of plastic buttons on the side. It's white and blocky and looks like it was made for Stormtroopers from "Star Wars." It's also solar-powered, and it automatically syncs with the atomic clock in Colorado, so it's always right. The other is a pseudo diver's watch; it can get wet, but I wouldn't count on it to keep me from getting the bends. I got it as a present for my thirteenth birthday, and I am far beyond thirteen. Its battery dies every so often, and I try replacing it with another watch, but I keep coming back to this oversized metal monster of a watch. A new battery brings it back to life every time.
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