Horology history in five minutes
When and how were modern watches born?
You can write much more about the history of watchmaking — and I have done it in much more detail in my book, The Watch Manual — but what follows is a 5-minute summary.
The clocks as we conceive them today were born around 1300, and one of the first was an Italian timepiece, the Astrarium, created by Giovanni da Dondi of Padua around 1315.
The Astrarium was an exceptional clock. Not only did it calculate the hours: it also had a hand that counted the minutes (in groups of ten) and a dial that marked calendar holidays.
What you see here is a reconstruction of this clock, made from the diagrams published by de Dondi himself in his treatise describing it.
Unfortunately, the clocks of that time were extremely inaccurate, with such large deviations in the keeping of time that we would have to wait until 1600 to be able to decrease them considerably, thanks to the work of Huygens and Hooke who introduced the hairspring.
The first transportable clock in history dates back more or less to 1515, by a certain Peter Henlein of Nuremberg. These clocks, which were a kind of eggs with a lid that could be closed, were called “Nuremberg Eggs” and were carried in the pocket or hung around the neck with a chain.
Watches began to flatten since then, becoming thinner and thinner, and assuming the typical shape of the pocket watch we all know.
Decisive for this was the contribution of a French watchmaker, Jean-Antoine Lepine, who in 1760 was the first to formulate the technical solution for the movement of the clock as we know it today, with a metal base plate on which were screwed bridges that support and enclose the various elements of the timepiece.
From these pocket watches, which by now had become quite thin, the arrival on the wrist came only much later, namely in 1880.
This was the year Girard Perregaux created the first industrially produced wristwatch. And he did so at the request of the German armed forces (at that time, of the German Empire), with a sturdy watch, designed specifically to meet military needs.
It should be noted that the first wristwatches were considered “tool watches”, or technical watches. No one would have ever worn them on their wrist, because it would have seemed unseemly. An oddity, in short.
The wristwatches were finally cleared through customs in the fashion of the time since 1904, when the Parisian jeweler Louis Cartier created a special model of watch at the request of his friend and wealthy client, Alberto de Santos Dumont, one of the first aviators in history.
The watch Cartier created is still for sale today, and is very similar to the model originally worn by Santos-Dumont: the Santos.
The request was to have a watch that would be convenient to consult without having to search in a pocket — something that would have been very dangerous for Santos-Dumont’s activities when he was piloting his flying machines made in wood and canvas.
So, to get back to the issue, I consider this the first true modern watch created for commercial needs — that is, for a “civilian” customer.
Santos-Dumont found it so ingenious that he continued to wear it in every situation, and this first caused quite a stir in Belle Epoque Paris, and then spread to all the other fashion-victims of the time.
So much so that when Cartier launched the Tank model in 1917, inspired by the tank tracks used in World War I, its production run of six watches sold out in a single afternoon.
From then on, wristwatches supplanted pocket watches, and quickly spread throughout the population.
But in my opinion, the merit of all this lies in a marriage of earth and sky: the one between Cartier and Santos-Dumont, the jeweler and the aviator.