The history of the pocket watch

Steampunk pocket watch
Steampunk pocket watch

Talking about time and the measurement of it can lead to some pretty in-depth conversations about creation and the fourth dimension which ultimately leads to a debate about whether it actually exists or not. After all, time is a man-made invention devised so that our puny brains can grasp hold of the wonders of life and the universe. With that in mind, let’s pretend that time exists, either as a non-existent, yet ever present entity like energy, or as the fourth dimension that so many others accept on a daily basis.

Along with the corset, that I recently covered, the history of the pocket watch really takes off around the 16th century. At this time they consisted of a large clock that hung around the neck, not placed in a pocket. (Amusingly, it makes me wonder if Flava Flav from Public Enemy knew that he was reviving a 400 year old fashion).

The earliest recorded mention of a pocket watch was in a letter in 1462 by an Italian clock maker called Bartholomew Manfredi. There’s seemingly no other information about him because he shares his name with a famous artist who also came from Italy around 100 years later. Bartolomeo Manfredi was an Italian artist responsible for artworks such as Mars Chastising Cupid, Caesar’s Tribute and Cain Kills Abel. However, according to various sources, he was born in 1582 – 120 years after the letter was written, so it couldn’t be the same person.

Based on reports from various other sources, Manfredi is often cited as the inventor of the clock-watch, but merely tried to open a market for it by sending the aforementioned letter to the Marchese di Manta. He offered him a “pocket clock” that he claimed was better than the one belonging to the Duke of Modena.

Early on they only had an hour hand,were drum shaped, relatively large and the face was exposed. It wasn’t until the first quarter of the 1500s that pocket watches were being regularly made my watch master Peter Henlein, thanks to the development of the spring driven clock. Around 150 years later the minute hand was introduced. Early pocket watches were extremely inaccurate; needing resetting every day. By the end of the 1700s, the inaccurate verge escapement movement was replaced by the lever escapement in limited supply, but completely took over by 1820.

In the mid-nineteenth century, the American Watch Company revolutionised the industry creating the Waltham Model 57. This watch was unique in that it had replaceable parts. It made them a lot easier and more cost effective to repair. The large scale manufacture of pocket time-pieces meant that as the American railroad expanded, the workers could all have a watch in order to avoid crashes. The American Railway Association defined standards for watches and even employed a Chief Time Inspector to establish precise times across the network. The role was created after a large crash on the Lake Shore and Michigan Southern Railway in Ohio occurred because the watch of an engineer stopped for four minutes.

Pocket watches saw a decline around World War I when wrist watches began to increase in popularity, then a double whammy of the electronic watch and the quartz movement saw the pocket watch largely disappear. For a few decades it was mostly seen in ceremonies and on Screaming Lord Sutch until steampunks began to repopularise it from the late 1980s onwards. Copycat fashion icons “paved the way” for the pocket watch to be a cool accessory in the early 21st century with the likes of Gary Barlow thinking that they reinvented a trend that has been embraced by a bunch of Victorian themed geeks for 20 years beforehand.

Types of pocket watch:

English: Pocket watch made by the famous Polis...
English: Pocket watch made by the famous Polish watchmaker Franciszek Czapek, circa 1876. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Open face:

  • Lacks case to protect the glass face
  • Pendant located at 12.00
  • Sub-second dial located at 6.00
  • Open face with same movement locations at a Hunter are called “Sidewinders”
Pocket watch, savonette-type. Italiano: Orolog...
Pocket watch, savonette-type. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Hunter case (Full Hunter):

  • Protects from dust, scratches and debris
  • Vintage watches have the hinge at 9.00
  • Modern watches have the hinge at 6.00
  • Half Hunter cases feature a glassed panel in the lid for easy time viewing

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