Why do we wear wristwatches?

It's About Time

Time is of the essence. We're stressed for time. We're worried about being late. Time is money.

You hear these words every day. Time is so central to our lives that it's hard to understand that until the 18th century, most people didn't think much about time. For much of human history, we marked time by the changing seasons and the position of the sun in the sky. People used natural signs to keep track of what they needed to know and do. When groups of people needed to gather at certain times for various reasons -- religious services, for example -- they had public clocks, perhaps with hand-rung bells, to alert them. There was little sense that most individuals needed to keep close track of time, or at least by minutes and seconds, as we do today.

Things began to change as society advanced through the Renaissance, the Age of Enlightenment and eventually the Industrial Revolution. As more people found work away from the home and farm, they needed to be at work on time. What's more, the rise of public transportation meant schedules and timetables that had to be kept.

Time became more important to individuals, but it took developments in science and technology to make time available to average people.

The earliest timekeepers were sundials, water clocks, hourglasses and cumbersome mechanical clocks with weights, springs, levers and bells. Pendulum clocks, developed in the 17th century, were more accurate, but their bulkiness didn't exactly tempt people to wear timepieces.

The development of coiled springs to move the hand (early watches had only hour hands) made it possible to make clocks smaller. Those that were made small enough to carry around were called watches. It's generally agreed that the earliest watches, made in the 1500s, were cumbersome and heavy. Some were worn on a belt around the waist and, later, as pendants. Eventually, pocket watches became popular.

The Industrial Revolution made interchangeable parts and mass production of relatively inexpensive clocks -- and, later, watches -- possible. Personal timepieces became more widely available to ordinary people, who needed them more as society changed. At the same time, the great houses that made expensive, finely crafted watches gained prominence.

Keep reading to learn how the watch migrated to the wrist.