A pocket watch (or pocketwatch) is a watch that is made to be carried in a pocket, as opposed to a wristwatch, which is strapped to the wrist. They were the most common type of watch from their development in the 16th century until wristwatches became popular after World War 1. Pocket watches generally have an attached chain to allow them to be secured to a waistcoat, lapel, or belt loop, and to prevent them from being dropped. The chain or ornaments on it is known as a fob. They often have a hinged metal cover to protect the face of the watch; pocketwatches with a fob and cover are often called "fob watches". Also common are fasteners designed to be put through a buttonhole and worn in a jacket or waistcoat, this sort being frequently associated with and named after train conductors.
An early reference to the pocket watch is in a letter in November 1462 from the Italian clockmaker Bartholomew Manfredi to the Marchese di Manta, where he offers him a 'pocket clock' better than that belonging to the Duke of Modena. By the end of the 15th Century, spring-driven clocks appeared in Italy, and in Germany. Peter Henlein, a master locksmith of Nuremberg, was regularly manufacturing pocket watches in England by 1524. Thereafter, pocket watch manufacture spread throughout the rest of Europe as the 16th century progressed. Another early example of a pocket watch measured in minutes was created by the Ottoman watchmaker Meshur Sheyh Dede in 1702.
Early pocket watches
The watch was first created in the 16th century when the spring driven clock was invented. These watches were at first quite big and boxy and were worn around the neck. It was not for another century that it became common to wear a watch in a pocket.
Use in railroading in the United States
The rise of railroading during the last half of the 19th century led to the widespread use of pocket watches. Because of the likelihood of train wrecks and other accidents if all railroad workers did not accurately know the current time, pocket watches became required equipment for all railroad workers.
The first steps toward codified standards for railroad-grade watches were taken in 1887 when the American Railway Association held a meeting to define basic standards for watches. However, it took a disaster to bring about widespread acceptance of stringent standards. A famous train wreck on the Lake Shore and Michigan Southern Railway in Kipton, Ohio on April 19, 1891 occurred because one of the engineers' watches had stopped for 4 minutes. The railroad officials commissioned Webb C. Ball as their Chief Time Inspector, in order to establish precision standards and a reliable timepiece inspection system for Railroad chronometers. This led to the adoption in 1893 of stringent standards for pocket watches used in railroading. These railroad-grade pocket watches, as they became colloquially known, had to meet the General Railroad Timepiece Standards adopted in 1893 by almost all railroads. These standards read, in part:
- "...open faced, size 16 or 18, have a minimum of 17 jewels, adjusted to at least five positions, keep time accurately to within 30 seconds a week, adjusted to temps of 34 to . have a double roller, steel escape wheel, lever set, regulator, winding stem at 12 o'clock, and have bold black Arabic numerals on a white dial, with black hands."
Railroad employees to this day are required to keep their watches on time, and are subject to spot checks by their superiors at any time. Failure to keep their watches on time can lead to disciplinary action, due to the gravely serious safety issues involved.
Additional requirements were adopted in later years in response to additional needs; for example, the adoption of the diesel-electric locomotive led to new standards from the 1940s on specifying that timekeeping accuracy could not be affected by electromagnetic fields.
Decline in popularity
Pocket watches are not common in modern times, having been superseded by wristwatches. Up until about the turn of the 20th century, though, the pocket watch was predominant and the wristwatch was considered feminine and unmanly. In men's fashions, pocket watches began to be superseded by wristwatches around the time of World War I, when officers in the field began to appreciate that a watch worn on the wrist was more easily accessed than one kept in a pocket. However, pocket watches continued to be widely used in railroading even as their popularity declined elsewhere.
For a few years in the late 1970s and 1980s three-piece suits for men returned to fashion, and this led to small resurgence in pocketwatches, as some men actually began using the vest pocket for its original purpose. Since then, a few watch companies make pocketwatches, and they have their firm adherents. However, in the U.S.A. for most men, most of the time, a pocket watch must be carried in a hip pocket, and the more recent advent of mobile phones and other gadgets that must be worn on the waist has made the prospect of carrying an additional item in that area less appealing, especially since all cell phones and similar devices tell the time.
This said, mobile phones, personal digital assistants, digital music players, digital audio players, pagers and other electronic gadgets that a user may place in a pocket or holster usually have timekeeping functionality as well, and serve commonly today as a pocket watch would have in the past.
In some countries a gift of a gold-cased pocket watch is traditionally awarded to an employee upon his or her retirement. In that capacity, a "gold watch" has become a cultural symbol alluding to retirement, obsolescence, and old age.
Pocket watches in fiction
- In "For Richer For Poorer", Tim Allen's character, Brad Sexton, carries a "turn of the century Swiss repeater" which he trades for a horse and some corn with Jay O Sanders character, Samuel Yoder, warning him not to open the back.
- In the book and TV Series of Bernard's Watch, where Bernard can press a button at the top of the watch and time magically pauses.
- A pocket watch, and a chain for it, play a crucial role in the classic O. Henry short story "The Gift of the Magi."
- Frequently, pocket watches in fiction are used to indicate time ticking away, or to disguise far more advanced machinery. Many of these function in a time travel context, sometimes as a time machine (rather than a machine that measures time):
- In the TV series Doctor Who, the Doctor has been seen with a pocket watch. In the episode Silver Nemesis his pocket watch (which contains electronic components) has an alarm indicating a planetary disaster; however, the Doctor travels in time using a TARDIS. In the latest series, the Doctor used a pocket watch to hide his Time Lord self when he turned himself into a human to escape a group of aliens known as the Family of Blood ("Human Nature"/"The Family of Blood"). One of his enemies from the old series, the Master, also apparently used a similar watch, leading into his re-emergence to the show ("Utopia").
- In the American Sci-Fi TV series Voyagers!, the time travel device known as an Omni looks like a pocket watch to disguise it.
- In the manga Fullmetal Alchemist, certified state alchemists are given a pocket watch with a military symbol on it. Real-life equivalents of this (modeled after the watch worn by the character Edward Elric with the inscription "Don't Forget, 3. Oct. 11" engraved on the inside of the cover) are available from various retailers (some of these have the date as "3 Oct. 10" instead, due to being modeled after the anime).
- A pocket watch with a musical tone is an essential plot device in the film Life.
- In Lewis Carroll's novel Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Alice follows the White Rabbit after seeing it take a pocket watch out of its waistcoat pocket.
- In Robert Bloch's short story "That Hell-Bound Train", a pocketwatch is an important symbol and plot point.
- In most fiction involving hypnosis, a trance is induced by having the victim follow a pocket watch swinging back and forth in front of their eyes. Sometimes a wristwatch is substituted, which the "hypnotist" has to "swing" by swivelling the wrist; this is presumably done for ironic or humorous effect.
- In the Japanese tokusatsu program Kamen Rider Den-O, a pocket watch plays an important role in the story. It is engraved with the words "The past should give us hope."
- In Gankutsuou, the retro-futuristic anime adaptation of The Count of Monte Cristo, Albert de Morcef is given a pocket watch by the Count which is inscribed with the saying "Death is certain, its hour uncertain" in Latin.
- In the Clint Eastwood film A Few Dollars More, the villain, "El Indio", played by Gian Maria Volonté, used the chimes in a pocketwatch he had stolen from one of his victims in duels. He would play the musical chimes in the watch and kill his opponent when the music stopped, until the very end of the film when one of his opponents, the brother of the victim he stole the watch from, recognized the music. The song is in the key of D minor, but the sixth degree of the musical scale is noticeably absent, rendering it ambiguous as to natural minor versus Dorian mode. The watch has a "hunter-style" case, with the wind-up at the 3 o'clock position, perhaps appropriate given that the victim's brother, who also had one, was a bounty hunter. (excerpts showing pocketwatch)
- In the early installments of the Harry Potter series, Professor Albus Dumbledore is often referred to when carrying around his mysterious twelve-handed pocket watch.
- In the manga Chrono Crusade, a pocket watch is an item the character Rosette Christopher wears to symbolize her contract with her partner, Chrono (Chrono Crusade)
- In the Don Bluth animated film All Dogs Go to Heaven, the murdered protogonist Charlie enters Heaven and finds that every dog has a "life watch" which designates their state of being alive or dead; if the "life watch" should stop ticking, the associated life will end. Upon this discovery, Charlie steals his 'life watch', a pocket watch, by swindling the heavenly gatekeeper. Charlie then winds the pocket watch and returns to life, unable to die unless his watch stops ticking.
- In New Amsterdam (TV series) the main character, John Armsterdam, is constantly seen checking the time on his pocket watch.
- In the TV series Earth: Final Conflict the character Agent Ronald Sandoval uses a pocket watch.
- A pocket watch that is able to stop time appears in The Girl, the Gold Watch & Everything.
- In the modern revival of the TV series The Outer Limits in an episode called Tribunal a pocket watch with a hunter case conceals a time travel device.
- In James Cameron's Titanic (1997 film), a pocket watch is one of the items on the table aside from money during the poker game. Incidentally, two tickets to board 'Titanic' have also been bet.
- In Sergio Leone's 1984 film Once Upon A Time In America, a pocket watch becomes an important item, symbolising time and the passage of time, one of the film's main themes.
- On The Dukes of Hazzard, Boss Hogg and Uncle Jesse always carry pocket watches.
- The most recent appearance on a television drama was on C.S.I. Miami in the sixth season Permanent Vacation. a pocket watch was owned by a teenage murder victim.
- The soap series One Life to Live a pocket watch was used by the character Fina.
See separate article: List of watch manufacturers