Saturday, 14 February 2009

Wristwatches: History & Evolution (part 2)

"The idiotic fashion of carrying one's clock on the most restless part of the body, exposed to the most extreme temperature variations, on a bracelet, will, one hopes, soon disappear," Professor H. Bock of Hamburg wrote in 1917, expressing the opinion of almost everyone in the business. However, this hope has not been fulfilled.

Two questions arise: why could the wristwatch prevail after all and why only in the twentieth century and not before? The watchmakers' answer appears plausible at first glance. The technology of the small watch was oriented to the nature of the pocket watch, not that of the wristwatch. The movements were not constructed to meet the particular pressures that necessarily result from being worn on the wrist.

The developmental stages of the mechanical wristwatch seem to defend this assertion: the gradual compacting of the movement by the Swiss anchor escapement, the shock-absorbing wristwatch, the automatic watches, the ever-smaller and flatter calibers. But one who knows the history of watches could become obdurate at this point, for many conceptions that were improved or even perfected in the wristwatch era were known long before. Perrelet (from 1770) and Breguet (1787) achieved significant preparations for the automatic watch.

Breguet conceptualised a shock-absorbing "parachute system" for automatic watches that he often improved and later built into other pocket watches. The problem of setting the hands by means of the winding stem was solved by Adrien Philippe between 1840 and 1860.

Miniature clocks already appeared in the Renaissance and became a successful trade article, available in a multitude of variations after 1880.

In the first half of the nineteenth century, when tight-fitting men's trousers were in vogue, thin, unobtrusive pocket watches came into the market.

Why were these many tendencies not taken up earlier? In terms of technology, the wristwatch could have become reality in the nineteenth century. The transition from the pocket watch to the wristwatch obviously was retarded, remaining behind the technical and economic possibilities. In the latter half of the nineteenth century, the tendency grew to have one's clock in one's vest pocket all day and now it has "become part of us".

The wristwatch can be regarded, apart from the specialised medical use of the pacemaker, as the last stage of this development, at least for the time being. It is as near as our skin and always in sight, even at night. But the wristwatch could only come to dominance when a specific need for it existed. This need is rooted in the requirements of modern-day commercial and social life, where in many situations it is necessary to read the time quickly, at one glance.

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