History of Watches

Throughout history, the movement of the earth relative to the sun and stars measured time. The earliest type of timekeeper was the sundial, which was first documented in the 3rd century B.C., and used up until the invention of clocks and watches. Cruder devices included notched candles and knotted ropes that were burned to measure shorter segments of the day and night. Other early timekeepers were hourglasses, which used flowing sand and water clocks or clepsydras, in which the flow of water indicated time.

During the 14th century, heavy, mechanical time indicators were installed in bell towers. In Germany about 1500 A.D., portable timepieces known as Nuremberg eggs, used coiled springs as a source of power. By the 17th century improvements made to the Nuremberg design gave it the characteristics of modern day pocket watches. Watchmakers from diverse areas of the world created unique styles of pocket watches that are seen in assorted collections to date.

Advances in timekeeping throughout history came from different parts of the world. Many cultures used clocks, but the watch appeared for the first time in Germany. In the early 16th century, Peter Henlein, a locksmith from Nuremberg, Germany, utilized springs as a power source to produce the first watch, which was later referred to as the Nuremberg egg. The dial in many instances had an outer ring of Roman numerals, which were later converted to Arabic form to satisfy Italian, Bohemian, and West German timekeeping. The Thirty Year’s War, however, dealt a severe blow to the German watch making industry which gave rise to French excellence.

Consequently, English watchmakers followed suit and began producing their own timepieces. By the end of the 16th century, English watches circulated throughout the country, but they remained merely duplicates of the French and German makes. However, during the early part of the 17th century, English watch production developed a style of its own, and the workmanship, as good as the best continental watches, gained merit. In 1845, as Swiss and American companies started to show prominence, Britain made efforts to produce machine made watches at competitive prices. Despite their efforts, Swiss companies staggered the market and weathered better than any other competitors throughout Europe and the rest of the world.

During the middle of the 19th century, the Swiss introduced mass production, and by the end of the century they had unseated the premier British watch manufacturing industry. The Swiss maintained their production status, and in recent years they have consistently produced forty-five million watches annually (Welch 64). Likewise, factories in colonial America succeeded in mass-producing watches around 1850. The Warren Manufacturing Company in Boston, Massachusetts, later called the American Waltham Company distributed their first watches in 1851. Many American watch factories began, however, in the last quarter of the 19th century and the first quarter of the 20th century.

After a while, as many American manufacturers existed as did European manufacturers. The American Waltham Watch Company stood at the forefront of production lines. Edward Howard and Aaron Dennison combined watch-making techniques in 1851 and made their first watches under the name Warren Manufacturing Company, a subsidiary of the American Horology Company. The company through the years had numerous owners, and they inevitably faced problems of demand. The American Waltham Company began in 1859 with a merger between two prominent companies: the Appleton, Tracy, and Company and the Waltham Improvement Company, which were subsidiaries of the American Horology Company. Another American company called the National Watch Company was formed in Illinois under the direction of some impartial organizers for the Waltham Company. The National Watch Company changed their named to the Elgin National Watch Company in 1874 and produced watches into the 1950’s. In addition, the New York Watch Company formed in 1866 in Providence Rhode Island but moved shortly after in 1867 to Springfield, Massachusetts. James Durer bought the company in 1886 after watch case manufacturers formed a boycott against his controlling interest. He then moved the company to Canton, Ohio under the name of Hampden Watch Company, and at the end of 1889 the factory produced 600 watches per day. Furthermore, the Illinois Watch Company operated in Springfield, Illinois from 1869 to 1927. The Illinois Watch Company used more names on its movements than any other manufacturer at the time. Although, an identifying clue, the location "Springfield, Illinois", appeared on most of the watches, they remained extremely difficult to recognize. The company was sold to Hamilton Watch Company in 1927, but they continued manufacturing watches bearing the Illinois name until 1939.

Since so many companies manufactured timepieces, some watches became exceedingly popular. The railroad watch in America became one of the most important timekeeping contributions. By 1838, the General Railroad Timepiece Standards were adopted, and any watch that the railroad personnel used, who were responsible for schedules, had to meet certain specifications. For instance, a railroad watch was an open-faced watch that had to keep the time accurately with a gain or loss of only 30 seconds per week. More features included a winding stem at the 12 o’clock position and plain Arabic numbers printed in black on a white dial with bold, black hands. More importantly this watch greatly reduced the occurrence of collisions on the rail line, which caused great injury to human life and stress on the railroads financial budget. Although manufactured earlier than the railroad watch, the repeater acted as an important tool also. Repeaters sounded the time at the wish of the user at intervals of half-hours, quarter hours, every five minutes or every minute. These watches had no special winding button, but early models utilized the pendant, which was pressed to engage the repeating chime. Later watches had a slide on the side of the case that moved and loaded a spring, which when released set the repeater going. These watches helped people tell the time during the night before electricity was invented. Similarly, early antique watches usually contained a bell with a striking mechanism. These watches had a drum-like shape about two inches in diameter and one half-inch think. A hinged lid covered the watch face, but it was pierced with holes so the user could determine where the hour hand rested.

Because of the elegant nature of the pocket watch, certain characteristics measured the worth from which collectors derived its value. The foremost inspection determined the quality or value of a watch and set its price accordingly. Demand, in comparison with availability, dealt with serial numbers, historical value, and the age of the timepiece. The overall appearance of the watch for appraising purposes revealed the value of metal content, style or type of casing, and universal eye appeal. The movement, which included the number of jewels, the type of plates, and the general working pieces of the watch, along with the damaskeening or engraving on the plates, effected the appraisal for better or for worse. Equally important, watches manufactured by hand, or watches in their original cases, increased the overall estimate. Next, to accurately appraise the watch a grade was assigned to it. The grade explained the condition of the watch. For example, a watch considered extra fine in grade looked as though it had not seen much use, and contained within the original case was the original dial, hands, and movement. Faint scratches were evident, but there could be no dents and no hairlines on the dial. Other characteristics considered by an appraiser, consisted of ease of identification, future potential for investment, and scrap value. A final assessment on the watch was developed only after it had been carefully inspected and graded.

Consequently, collectors wanted pocket watches that were highly graded and original throughout. Collectors on a limited budget, however, were advised not to go beyond their means. The railroad pocket watches, for instance, contained quality movements even if a railroad man could not afford an expensive case. American railroad pocket watches were durable and accurate for their time, so they were judged on their quality and performance and not just by their appearance. Railroad personnel had to have watches that met certain standards, so they were unsurpassed in reliability, therefore they were very expensive. Likewise, old watches with broken or missing parts were expensive and all but impossible to repair. For example, some watch parts had to be made by hand, and low-cost production watches were hard to repair. A good collector started with a good working knowledge of how a pocket watch worked and then learned the basic skills such as cleaning, mainspring, and staff replacement. Then they made their choices based on the knowledge of the history and demand of the watch.

From its origins in the 16th century, the pocket watch underwent many changes that were applied in different areas of the world. Watches had many important purposes, and the people who used them depended on their accuracy. Therefore, watch manufacturers throughout the world met the challenges that became evident as timepieces emerged with continued precision. As time passed, watches that were scarcely made accumulated greater value than those that were produced in greater numbers, and collectors demanded more rare timepieces. An appraiser had to have extensive knowledge of the mechanisms inside the watch and an eye for the various styles of certain time periods. Collectors on the other hand, had to be hard workers, have perseverance, and let shrewdness and skill of knowledge take the place of money. All in all, collections to date present a range of diverse timepieces that were manufactured in many different areas by different people from various cultures.