Welcome to my article on the history of the pocket watch. My intention here is not to bore you with a long article on the full history of how time has been measured as it would take a rather large book to do that. The purpose of this article is to have a look back in history and discover how we progressed from the creation of the clock and how we as human beings developed that into a pocket watch.
Brief History of the Clock
Clocks came before watches and these early clocks were made using the principle of repetitive motion. In simple terms a centrally pivoted horizontal bar was pushed back and forwards by the teeth of an escape wheel. Essentially this allowed a wheel to turn at a fairly constant average speed. The power to move this wheel came from a hanging weight held by a cord which was wrapped around a drum. It was in truth a fairly simple process. These early clocks started to be made around 1300.
At this time there would not have been hands on the clock to tell the actual time but they would have had bells attached to ring at important intervals. In fact the word clock comes from the Latin for bell which is “cloca.” Initially these clocks were quite large at around 6 x 3 x 3 feet in dimension and they became smaller as time progressed.
Dials and hands were added for domestic clocks but the major issue with these was that none of them could be moved without actually stopping the clock. Believe it or not a clock that does not have bells should actually be called a timepiece and not a clock if using the original meaning of the word clock. Not a lot of people know that.
Coiled Spring Clocks
Only when coiled springs were introduced was it possible to move a clock without it stopping. It also meant that smaller size clocks could be made and the first coiled spring clocks were made around 1525. There was one big disadvantage with these in that as the spring became wound down then time keeping suffered. However because the size could be reduced and they were also now portable this was judged a sacrifice worth making.
Brief History of the Watch
There is debate among historians as to who made the first watch. Many say it was Peter Henlein and others suggest they originated in Italy. The reality is we will never know for certain. One of the first pocket watches ever made was by Peter Henlein in and around 1510 and was called the Nuremberg Egg.
Whoever invented them the features of watches were set in place and this was to be a brass movement using a fusee which was fitted inside a drum shaped case. Believe it or not the fusee has been seen in drawings by Leonardo DaVinci. The earliest designs which spread through Europe in the 1600s were made to be worn around the neck and were called neck watches, a sign of rich and wealth at the time.
All of the basics of the insides of a watch were now in place including the mainspring, the shaft, the escapement wheel, a system of gears known as a wheel train, the hands and a dial. The spring is wound up by rotating the fusee with a key and over time the spring inside the barrel moves slowly and moves the escapement wheel and through the gears turns the hands.
These moving parts are typically held between two plates, separated by pillars which are fixed into the plate closes to the dial. The other plate or bottom plate is secured by locking pins and so we ave the movement held by two plates and supported by two fixed pillars. In these days the parts were made of brass and steel was used for the smaller pinions and shafts.
To protect all of this the movement was housed in a case which at that time was on a hinge. Glass faces would not be used until 1650 onwards. In those early days these clocks would have been made by blacksmiths as they would have been the metal workers of the day.
However as they started to get smaller then this type of work started to be the domain of locksmiths. eventually it would all move to clock workers and jewellers. The watches these men produced and the first watches made were called Verge watches.
These type of watches were made from around 1500 until that late nineteenth Century. From 1700 onwards the watch came on leaps and bounds and became an attractive, solid watch with excellent time keeping. They began as we mentioned earlier as neck watches and then glass and screws were added to them around 1630.
In 1640 the first pocket watches in this style were made and balance springs were introduced around 1675. The verge watch started to disappear from manufacture around 1825-1850 though many still exist today. It s always worth having these checked out as they could be valuable if in any type of decent condition.
The Lever watch started to replace the Verge watch and good quality watches will always have a Swiss lever escapement. This made better use of the escapement wheel. The best known is called the Mudge Lever Watch and was made in England and in truth is best designed as a cramped design.
A better design known as the Emery Lever made this lighter and improved the shape of the original lever design. This was the start of these type of lever designs and many followed including Leroux in 1744, Pendleton in 1808, Margetts in 1748, Litherland in 1756, Massey in 1772 and Savage around 1835.
All of these were used in pocket watches but their popularity started to fade in the 1920s with people starting to favour the wrist watch.
In the late nineteenth Century most watches made in the USA and England used a lever escapement, whereas watches made in Europe used a cylinder escapement. The Swiss watches believe it or not remained the cheapest in these times.
There was also a huge change in society in these days and a huge advancement in Industry. Factories were being built, the railways were growing, travel was increasing and the market was opening up for someone to produce cheap watches. Ordinary people needed these more and more everyday and industry such as the railways were dependent on them.
Watches To The Masses
To achieve this mass production was required with standard parts and simple assembly. Brass would be replaced with nickel plate, a pin lever escapement was created and these watches could be made for a very low cost and many factories did just that with only a few maintaining the previous high standards.
The first watch made like this was called the Roskopf and was shown at an exhibition in Paris. This was however still a high quality watch and people needed something more affordable. There were some more changes but it was Robert and Charles Ingersoll in the USA who brought sales to watches.
Their “Ingersoll Universal” watch was made for them by the Waterbury Clock Company and was sold through a mail order catalogue. In 1896 they the Ingersoll Columbus watch was renamed to “The Yankee” and sold for $1. Watches had now come to the masses through sales and marketing.
From 1900 onwards the two brothers sold thousands of these factory machine made watches with conventional winding and they were eventually bought out by The Waterbury Clock Company in 1922. These type of watches were also made by the John Bull Company in England, and Thiel in Germany.