Watches – An Early History

People love gadgets: cell phones, PDAs, MP3 players, GPS devices, et cetera and et cetera all make our live easier, but our fascination with them goes beyond the mere practicality of them. It has been predicted that ubiquitous cell phone will soon replace the original “gadget”, the watch, but some think that our attachment to wrist watches is too deep for them to go away quite so easily.

The watch was invented during the 16th century in Europe. Of course, before the watch, mechanical clocks had been around for a while. Prior to about 15th century, all clocks were powered by hanging weights, which when pulled down by gravity, powered clocks mechanisms. Many mechanical clocks are still made this way. You may have seen Cuckoo Clocks with iron pine cones that hang down from a chain to provide power to the clock.

Sometime during the 15th century — it’s exact origins are unclear — German clock makers invented the “mainspring”. The mainspring is a spiral shaped spring which can be wound up tightly. As it loosens itself, it powers the clock or watch.

Now clocks no longer needed to be confined to a hanging position on a wall or on a tower. They could be laid flat, set on a table top, or even carried around. Miniaturization gradually produced smaller and smaller clocks until it became practical to carry one around suspended from a chain around your neck and eventually carried in your pocket.

It is difficult to pinpoint who it was exactly that invented the watch, because as clocks grew smaller and smaller, it’s nearly impossible to say when clocks stopped being clocks and started being watches, but by the mid 16th century, watches were becoming very common, although affordable to only a few. In the mid 1600s, pocket watches became popular. This was probably driven by a change in men’s fashion: men began to wear waistcoats, which proved to be a handy place to tuck a watch. It was much more practical than to have one constantly swinging around your neck (the original bling?). These early watches were notoriously inaccurate. As the spring wound down, it provided less energy to the watch which slowed down.

In 1657, an important invention would dramatically improve the accuracy of watches. Either Robert Hooke, or Christiaan Huygens invented the balance spring. A watch’s escapement helps regulate the transfer of energy from the mainspring to the rest of the watch’s mechanism. The addition of the balance spring to the balance wheel, helped the escapement deliver power to the mechanism in a much more constant and consistent manner than was previously possible. Escapements gradually improved, as did accuracy. An important potential application of clocks during this time was in marine navigation. Determining a longitudinal position upon the high seas had always been an inexact science with potentially devastating consequences when you were wrong.

The development of the chronometer, or watches and clocks of demonstrated accuracy, allowed ships to determine their longitude by comparing the sun’s position in the sky at their current location with the suns known position over the prime meridian at Noon Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) which was kept track of by the ship’s chronometer. If the chronometer was off by even a little bit, navigators might calculate an erroneous position, causing them to become shipwrecked of lost at sea. The quest for an accurate chronometer is chronicled in the excellent book Longitude, by Dava Sobel.

Source by Hugh Capet

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