See C. Clutton and G. Daniels, Watches: A Complete History (3d ed. 1979); J. Zagoory and H. Chan, A Time to Watch: The Wrist Watch as Art (1985); E. Bruton, History of Clocks and Watches (1989).
Portable timepiece designed to be worn on the wrist or carried in the pocket. The first watches appeared shortly after 1500, when the mainspring (see spring) was invented as a replacement for weights in driving clocks. The progressive miniaturization of electronic components in recent decades has made possible the development of all-electronic watches, in which the necessary transistors, resistors, capacitors, and other elements are all on one or several miniature integrated circuits, or chips. Such circuitry enables them to perform several timekeeping functions and also makes possible digital readouts of the time.
Learn more about watch with a free trial on Britannica.com.
A watch is a timepiece that is made to be worn on a person. The term now usually refers to a wristwatch, which is worn on the wrist with a strap or bracelet. In addition to the time, modern watches often display the day, date, month and year, and electronic watches may have many other functions.
Most inexpensive and medium-priced watches used mainly for timekeeping are electronic watches with quartz movements. Expensive, collectible watches valued more for their workmanship and aesthetic appeal than for simple timekeeping, often have purely mechanical movements and are powered by springs, even though mechanical movements are less accurate than more affordable quartz movements.
Before the inexpensive miniaturization that became possible in the 20th century, most watches were pocket watches, which had covers and were carried in a pocket and attached to a watch chain or watch fob. Watches evolved in the 1600s from spring powered clocks, which appeared in the 1400s.
A movement in watchmaking is the mechanism that measures the passage of time and displays the current time (and possibly other information including date, month and day). Movements may be entirely mechanical, entirely electronic (potentially with no moving parts), or a blend of the two. Most watches intended mainly for timekeeping today have electronic movements, with mechanical hands on the face of the watch indicating the time.
Mechanical movements use an escapement mechanism to control and limit the unwinding of the watch, converting what would otherwise be a simple unwinding, into a controlled and periodic energy release. Mechanical movements also use a balance wheel together with the balance spring (also known as Hairspring) to control motion of the gear system of the watch in a manner analogous to the pendulum of a pendulum clock. The tourbillon, an optional part for mechanical movements, is a rotating frame for the escapement which is intended to cancel out or reduce the effects of bias to the timekeeping of gravitational origin. Due to the complexity designing a tourbillon, they are very expensive, and only found in "prestige" watches. The pin-lever (also called Roskopf movement after its inventor, Georges Frederic Roskopf), is a cheaper version of the fully levered movement which was manufactured in huge quantities by many Swiss manufacturers as well as Timex, until it was replaced by quartz movements. Tuning fork watches use a type of electromechanical movements. Introduced by Bulova in 1960, they use a tuning fork at a precise frequency (most often 360 hertz) to drive a mechanical watch. The task of converting electronically pulsed fork vibration into rotary movement is done via two tiny jeweled fingers, called pawls. Tuning fork watches were rendered obsolete when electronic quartz watches were developed, because quartz watches were cheaper to produce and even more accurate.
Electronic movements have few or no moving parts, as they use the piezoelectric effect in a tiny quartz crystal to provide a stable time base for a mostly electronic movement. The crystal forms a quartz oscillator which resonates at a specific and highly stable frequency, and which can be used to accurately pace a timekeeping mechanism. For this reason, electronic watches are often called quartz watches. Most quartz movements are primarily electronic but are geared to drive mechanical hands on the face of the watch in order to provide a traditional analog display of the time, which is still preferred by most consumers.
The first prototypes of electronic quartz watches were made by the CEH research laboratory in Switzerland in 1962. The first quartz watch to enter production was the Seiko 35 SQ Astron, which appeared in 1969. Modern quartz movements are produced in very large quantities, and even the cheapest wristwatches typically have quartz movements. Whereas mechanical movements can typically be off by several seconds a day, an inexpensive quartz movement in a child's wristwatch may still be accurate to within 500 milliseconds per day—ten times better than a mechanical movement.Some watchmakers combine the quartz and mechanical movements, such as the Seiko Spring Drive, introduced in 2005.
Radio time signal watches are a type of electronic quartz watches which synchronizes (time transfer) its time with an external time source such as an atomic clocks, time signals from GPS navigation satellites, the German DCF77 signal in Europe, WWVB in the US, and others. Movements of this type synchronize not only the time of day but also the date, the leap-year status of the current year, and the current state of daylight saving time (on or off).
A self-winding or automatic mechanism is one that rewinds the mainspring of a mechanical movement by the natural motions of the wearer's body. The first self-winding mechanism, for pocketwatches, was invented in 1770 by Abraham-Louis Breguet; but the first "self-winding," or "automatic," wristwatch was the invention of a British watch repairer named John Harwood in 1923. This type of watch allows for a constant winding without special action from the wearer: it works by an eccentric weight, called a winding rotor, which rotates with the movement of the wearer's wrist. The back-and-forth motion of the winding rotor couples to a ratchet to automatically wind the mainspring. Self winding watches usually can also be wound manually so they can be kept running when not worn, or if the wearer's wrist motions don't keep the watch wound.
Some electronic watches are also powered by the movement of the wearer of the watch. Kinetic powered quartz watches make use of the motion of the wearer's arm turning a rotating weight, which turns a generator to supply power to charge a rechargeable battery that runs the watch. The concept is similar to that of self-winding spring movements, except that electrical power is generated instead of mechanical spring tension.
Electronic watches require electricity as a power source. Some mechanical movements and hybrid electronic-mechanical movements also require electricity. Usually the electricity is provided by a replaceable battery. The first use of electrical power in watches was as substitute for the mainspring, in order to remove the need for winding. The first electrically-powered watch, the Hamilton Electric 500, was released in 1957 by the Hamilton Watch Company of Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
Watch batteries (strictly speaking cells) are specially designed for their purpose. They are very small and provide tiny amounts of power continuously for very long periods (several years or more). In most cases, replacing the battery requires a trip to a watch-repair shop or watch dealer; this is especially true for watches that are designed to be water-resistant, as special tools and procedures are required to ensure that the watch remains water-resistant after battery replacement. Silver-oxide and lithium batteries are popular today; mercury batteries, formerly quite common, are no longer used, for environmental reasons. Cheap batteries may be alkaline, of the same size as silver-oxide but providing shorter life. Rechargeable batteries are used in some solar powered watches.
Solar powered watches are powered by light. A photovoltaic cell on the face (dial) of the watch converts light to electricity, which in turn is used to charge a rechargeable battery or capacitor. The movement of the watch draws its power from the rechargeable battery or capacitor. As long as the watch is regularly exposed to fairly strong light (such as sunlight), it never needs battery replacement, and some models need only a few minutes of sunlight to provide weeks of energy (as in the Citizen Eco-Drive).
Some of the early solar watches of the 1970s had innovative and unique designs to accommodate the array of solar cells needed to power them (Synchronar, Nepro, Sicura and some models by Cristalonic, Alba, Seiko and Citizen). As the decades progressed and the efficiency of the solar cells increased while the power requirements of the movement and display decreased, solar watches began to be designed to look like other conventional watches. A rarely used power source is the temperature difference between the wearer's arm and the surrounding environment (as applied in the Citizen Eco-Drive Thermo).
Analog display of the time is nearly universal in watches sold as jewelry or collectibles, and in these watches, the range of different styles of hands, numbers, and other aspects of the analog dial is very broad. In watches sold for timekeeping, analog display remains very popular, as many people find it easier to read than digital display; but in timekeeping watches the emphasis is on clarity and accurate reading of the time under all conditions (clearly marked digits, easily visible hands, large watch faces, etc.). They are specifically designed for the left wrist with the stem (the knob used for changing the time) on the right side of the watch; this makes it easy to change the time without removing the watch from the hand. This is the case if one is right-handed and the watch is worn on the left wrist (as is traditionally done). If one is left-handed and wears the watch on the right wrist, one has to remove the watch from the wrist to reset the time or to wind the watch.
Analog watches as well as clocks are often marketed showing a display time of approximately 10:09. This creates a visually pleasing smile-like face on upper half of the watch. Digital displays often show a time of 12:38, where the increases in the numbers from left to right culminating in the fully-lit numerical display of the 8 also gives a positive feeling.
Since the advent of electronic watches that incorporate small computers, digital displays have also been available. A digital display simply shows the time as a number, e.g., 12:40 AM instead of a short hand pointing towards the number 12 and a long hand pointing towards the number 8 on a dial. Some watches, such as the Timex Datalink USB, feature dot matrix displays.
The first digital watch, a Pulsar prototype in 1970, was developed jointly by Hamilton Watch Company and Electro-Data. John Bergey, the head of Hamilton's Pulsar division, said that he was inspired to make a digital timepiece by the then-futuristic digital clock that Hamilton themselves made for the 1968 science fiction film 2001: A Space Odyssey. On April 4, 1972 the Pulsar was finally ready, made in 18-carat gold and sold for $2,100 at retail. It had a red light-emitting diode (LED) display. Another early digital watch innovator, Roger Riehl's Synchronar Mark 1, provided an LED display and used solar cells to power the internal nicad batteries.
Most watches with LED displays required that the user press a button to see the time displayed for a few seconds, because LEDs used so much power that they could not be kept operating continuously. Watches with LED displays were popular for a few years, but soon the LED displays were superseded by liquid crystal displays (LCDs), which used less battery power and were much more convenient in use, with the display always visible and no need to push a button before seeing the time. The first LCD watch with a six-digit LCD was the 1973 Seiko 06LC, although various forms of early LCD watches with a four-digit display were marketed as early as 1972 including the 1972 Gruen Teletime LCD Watch, and the Cox Electronic Systems Quarza.
Digital watches were very expensive and out of reach to the common consumer until 1975, when Texas Instruments started to mass produce LED watches inside a plastic case. These watches, which first retailed for only $20, reduced to $10 in 1976, saw Pulsar lose $6 million and the brand sold to competitors twice in only a year, eventually becoming a subsidiary of Seiko and going back to making only analogue quartz watches.
From the 1980s onward, digital watch technology vastly improved. In 1982 Seiko produced a watch with a small television screen built in, and Casio produced a digital watch with a thermometer as well as another that could translate 1,500 Japanese words into English. In 1985, Casio produced the CFX-400 scientific calculator watch. In 1987 Casio produced a watch that could dial your telephone number and Citizen revealed one that would react to your voice. In 1995 Timex release a watch which allowed the wearer to download and store data from a computer to their wrist. Since their apex during the late 1980s to mid 1990s high technology fad, digital watches have mostly devolved into a simpler, less expensive basic time piece with little variety between models.
Despite these many advances, almost all watches with digital displays are used as timekeeping watches. Expensive watches for collectors rarely have digital displays since there is little demand for them. Less craftsmanship is required to make a digital watch face and most collectors find that analog dials (especially with complications) vary in quality more than digital dials due to the details and finishing of the parts that make up the dial (thus making the differences between a cheap and expensive watch more evident).
All watches provide the time of day, giving at least the hour and minute, and usually the second. Most also provide the current date, and often the day of the week as well. However, many watches also provide a great deal of information beyond the basics of time and date. Some watches include alarms. Other elaborate and more expensive watches, both pocket and wrist models, also incorporate striking mechanisms or repeater functions, so that the wearer could learn the time by the sound emanating from the watch. This announcement or striking feature is an essential characteristic of true clocks and distinguishes such watches from ordinary timepieces. This feature is available on most digital watches.
A complicated watch has one or more functions beyond the basic function of displaying the time and the date; such a functionality is called a complication. Two popular complications are the chronograph complication, which is the ability of the watch movement to function as a stopwatch, and the moonphase complication, which is a display of the lunar phase. Other more expensive complications include, Tourbillion, Perpetual calendar, Minute repeater and Equation of time. A truly complicated watch has many of these complications at once (see Calibre 89 from Patek Philippe for instance). Among watch enthusiasts, complicated watches are especially collectible. Some watches include a second 12-hour display for UTC (as Pontos Grand Guichet GMT).
The similar-sounding terms chronograph and chronometer are often confused, although they mean altogether different things. A chronograph is a type of complication, as explained above. A chronometer watch is an all-mechanical watch or clock whose movement has been tested and certified to operate within a certain standard of accuracy by the COSC (Contrôle Officiel Suisse des Chronomètres). The concepts are different but not mutually exclusive; a watch can be a chronograph, a chronometer, both, or neither.
Wristwatches are often treated as jewelry or as collectible works of art rather than as timepieces. This has created several different markets for wristwatches, ranging from very inexpensive but accurate watches intended for no other purpose than telling the correct time, to extremely expensive watches that serve mainly as personal adornment or as examples of high achievement in miniaturization and precision mechanical engineering. Still another market is that of “geek watches”—watches that not only tell the time, but incorporate computers, satellite navigation, complications of various orders, and many other features that may be quite removed from the basic concept of timekeeping. A dual time watch is designed for travelers, allowing them to see what time it is at home when they are elsewhere.
Most companies that produce watches specialize in one of these markets. Companies such as Breitling, Patek Phillipe, Jaeger-LeCoultre, Omega, Blancpain, Longines, Ebel, and Rolex specialize in watches as jewelry or fine mechanical devices, while companies such as Casio and Timex specialize in watches as timepieces or multifunctional computers. In the 1980s, the Swiss Swatch company hired graphic designers to redesign a new annual collection of non-repairable watches.
Zero gravity environment and other extreme conditions encountered by astronauts in space requires the use of specially tested watches. On April 12, 1961, Yuri Gagarin wore a Shturmanskie (a transliteration of Штурманские which actually means "navigators") wristwatch during his historic first flight into space. The Shturmanskie was manufactured at the First Moscow Factory.
Since 1964, the watches of the First Moscow Factory have been marked by a trademark "ПОЛЕТ" and "POLJOT", which means "flight" in Russian and is a tribute to the number of many space trips its watches have accomplished. In the late 1970s, Poljot launched a new chrono movement, the 3133. With a 23 jewel movement and manual winding (43 hours), it was a modified Russian version of the Swiss Valjoux 7734 of the early 1970s. Poljot 3133 were taken into space by astronauts from Russia, France, Germany and Ukraine. On the arm of Valeriy Polyakov, a Poljot 3133 chronograph movement-based watch set a space record for the longest space flight in history.
During the 1960s, a large range of watches were tested for durability and precision under extreme temperature changes and vibrations. The Omega Speedmaster Professional was selected by U.S. space agencies. (For a list of NASA-certified watches, see this footnote).
TAG Heuer became the first Swiss watch in space thanks to an Heuer Stopwatch, worn by John Glenn in 1962 when he piloted the Friendship 7 on the first manned U.S. orbital mission. (The company was called "Heuer". TAG had not even been formed in 1962.)
The Breitling Navitimer Cosmonaute was designed with a 24-hour analog dial to avoid confusion between AM and PM, which are meaningless in space. It was first worn in space by U.S. astronaut Scott Carpenter on May 24, 1962 in the Aurora 7 mercury capsule.
Watches may be crafted to become water resistant. These watches are sometimes called diving watches when they are suitable for scuba diving or saturation diving. The International Organization for Standardization issued a standard for water resistant watches which also prohibits the term "waterproof" to be used with watches, which many countries have adopted. Water resistance is achieved by the gaskets which form a watertight seal, used in conjunction with a sealant applied on the case to help keep water out. The material of the case must also be tested in order to pass as water resistant.
The watches are tested in theoretical depths, thus a watch with a 50 meter rating will be water resistant if it is stationary and under 50 meters of still water for a set amount of time. The most commonly used method for testing the water resistance is by depressurizing a small chamber containing the watch. A sensor measures the movement of the case and crystal to gauge how much pressure the watch is losing and how fast. The watch never touches water in this type of machine. Another type of machine is used for very deep measure tests, where the watch is immersed in a small container filled with water, this chamber is then submitted to the pressure the watch is supposed to withstand. In neither case is there any variation in the pressure, or is the watch submitted to that pressure for an extended period of time(normally only a couple of minutes). These are the only logical ways to test the water resistance of a watch, since if adding variations added by time spent underwater or the movement of the wearers hands would simply make this a very intricate and difficult measurement. Although confusing this is the best way of telling the customer what to expect. For normal use, the ratings must therefore be translated from the pressure the watch can withstand to take into account the extra pressure generated by motion and time spent underwater.
Watches are classified by their degree of water resistance, which roughly translates to the following (1 meter = 3.2808398950131 feet):
|Water resistance rating||Suitability||Remarks|
|Water Resistant 30 m or 50 m||Suitable for water related work and fishing.||NOT suitable for swimming or diving.|
|Water Resistant 100 m||Suitable for recreational surfing, swimming, snorkeling, sailing and water sports.||NOT suitable for diving.|
|Water Resistant 200 m||Suitable for professional marine activity and serious surface water sports.||NOT suitable for diving.|
|Diver's 100 m||Minimum ISO standard (ISO 6425) for scuba diving at depths NOT requiring helium gas.||Diver's 100 m and 150 m watches are generally old(er) watches.|
|Diver's 200 m or 300 m||Suitable for scuba diving at depths NOT requiring helium gas.||Typical ratings for contemporary diver's watches.|
|Diver's 300+ m helium safe||Suitable for saturation diving (helium enriched environment).||Watches designed for helium mixed-gas diving will have additional markings to point this out.|
Some watches use bar instead of meters, which may then be multiplied by 10 to be approximately equal to the rating based on meters. Therefore, a 10 bar watch is equivalent to a 100 meter watch. Some watches are rated in atmospheres (atm), which are roughly equivalent to bar.
The first reasonably accurate mechanical clocks measured time with simple weighted pendulums, which are unworkable when irregular movement of the fulcrum occur whether at sea or in watches. The invention of a spring mechanism was crucial for portable clocks. In Tudor England, the development of "pocket-clockes" was enabled by the development of reliable springs and escapement mechanisms, which allowed clockmakers to compress a timekeeping device into a small, portable compartment.
In 1524, Peter Henlein created the first pocket watch. Early watches only had an hour hand—a minute hand would have been useless because of the inaccuracy of the watch mechanism. Eventually, miniaturization of these spring-based designs allowed for accurate portable timepieces (marine chronometers) which worked well even at sea. In 1556, Taqi al-Din created a spring-powered pocket watch, which was able to measure the time in minutes by having three dials for the hours, degrees and minutes. Another early example of a watch which measured time in minutes was created by another Ottoman watchmaker, Meshur Sheyh Dede, in 1702.
In 1850, Aaron Lufkin Dennison founded Waltham Watch Company, which was the pioneer of the industrial manufacturing of pocket watches with interchangeable parts, the American System of Watch Manufacturing. Breguet developed the first self-winding watch known as the perpetual in 1780.