How watches evolved in the last 500 years

Although the first watches were created in Germany in the early 16th century, it was the British folk that have managed to create a trend in having a watch on your disposal all day long. Starting with pocket watches in the late 17th century, going ahead and and developing them into the watches we know today.

However, the real explosion on of wrist watches came only in the early 20th century, when the watches become cheap enough for the large population to buy. Most of them were watches for men, initially, but in the 18th century watchmakers also started to make simple, slim and more elegant types of watches for women. Don’t get it wrong, it was pretty expensive to get a time back then, but still something that people would want. Maybe that’s why a nice wristwatch today is considered a good gift or a status sign.

In time, technology evolved enough and the watch industry had adopted a lot of the latest technological inovation.

First, they’ve been mounted in planes during the First World War for accurately tracking the time it took to get to a certain place (in an era without GPS, it was vital to know where you are, and knowing the time and speed would get you the distance).

During the interwar period, there weren’t a lot of inovation, but getting in the 50’s, we’ll get the first electric watch, then the quartz, radio controlled and atomic wristwatches, getting to the last part (for the moment) in the evolution of watches: the smartwatch.

Let’s get them one by one.

Electric watches

The first generation of electric watches came into America in the early 1950’s. They kept the time in balance using a balance wheel powered with a solenoid, by a steel tuning fork vibrating at 360 Hz or by a transistor oscillator circuit (or T.O.C.). In this era, mechanical watches had self winding mechanism, shockproof balance pivots and break resistant mainspring as standard.

Quartz watches

Quartz watches were developed in 1959 by Seiko, a large Japanese manufacturer, but the first official version came out in 1964, during the Tokyo Olympic Games, when their prototype was used to measure the time during the event.

Shortly after that, quartz watches were going out on the market, the First one being Seiko 35 SQ Astron. After that, the quartz watches were becoming more and more popular, with the majority of watches today being quartz watches

Radio controlled wristwatch

These types of watches were more of a test than a large market enterprise. In 1990, Junghans, a German watch company, offered the first radio-controlled wrist watch, named MEGA 1. How did it work, do you ask ?

Well, the quartz oscillator was set to the correct time daily by a coded radio time signal broadcast by the signal stations like JJY, MSF, RBU, DCF77 and WWWVB. The watch got the correct time everyday by receiving this coded signal, allowing a long-term accuracy, similar to the atomic clock.

This type of watch didn’t disappear out of the market, but it’s quite rare. On the other hand, the atomic wristwatch…

Atomic watches

If you want to have absolute precision, you might want an atomic watch. On the market since 2013, Bathys Hawaii introduced a Cesium 133 Atomic Watch, a watch that had an internal atomic clock.

Based on the latest reports, this type of clock can keep the time quite accurate, with only one second delay over 1000 years. However, since it does have quite a large chip, it must be recharged almost every day, which is a bit impractical. More like the smartwatch, which has some other functions…


A lot of smartwatches came on the market in the recent year, but the evolution began in 2012-2013, once companies like Samsung and Motorola decided to go out and create watches that have similar screens with smartphones and that can help you do a lot of functions, if you pair them with your phone. Apple got in the game as well, but the smartwatch market isn’t as high as they expected to be.

A lot of people still prefer the beauty of a classical watch against a watch that can help you read your messages, help you navigate, help you calculate something fast or see the schedule for all your day. However, a good portion of the people to appreciate the utility of that type of watch, that’s why this market segment is expected to grow in the following years.

What’s next ?

Writing this article in 2018, I do wonder where the watches are going to go. Are they going to replace our phones completely ? Are they going to have more sophisticated functions ?

I presume that in the next period we will probably see a lot of health function added to the watches, for closer monitoring of people that are sick (for things like the pulse or blood pressure, but maybe even more things, like fat or sugar levels in the blood). Other than that, I don’t really have any practical idea at this moment.

Only time will tell, though.

Photos and research: Wikipedia,, Bathys

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