Although Patek Philippe was credited with inventing the first wristwatch in 1868, watches attached to the wrist were in fact around much earlier than this. Queen Elizabeth I is said to have worn one on occasions, and indeed royalty in general were the first to wear early wristwatches during the 19th century.

Initially, wristwatches were considered to be accessories for women, not men. Men preferred the more traditional pocket watches that had been around for a while. However, during battle the ability to be able to tell the time with a quick glance, rather than fumbling for a watch in one’s pocket, became critical. They were initially used by Officers in the Boer War in South Africa (1899-1902) and during the First World War they became increasingly requested and used by the military. They were crucial in aerial combat situations where it was necessary to synchronise one’s watches. After the war, the soldiers were allowed to keep the wristwatches they had been given and they became popular with the rest of the population.


After the First World War, wristwatches became widely worn by both men and women. Men preferred more rugged designs, including sports models and chronographs, whilst women preferred slimmer more decorative designs, as today. In 1927, Rolex created the first waterproof watch which was worn by Mercedes Gleitze when she swam across the English Channel.

Aound this time, the self winding mechanism was created, using the principals found in pocket watches. It was initially unreliable, but the original reliability problems were overcome and they became more accurate in the early 1940s.
However, during the depression of the 1930s, the demand for luxury items such as watches plummeted and many watch making companies went bust. In World War II, watches were again used for military purposes but were not available to the masses. Switzerland still made watches for the military, including fighter pilots.


After the end of World War II, watches were again manufactured for the population in general, and in 1957 the first battery operated watch, called “The Ventura”,was developed by the Hamilton Watch Company in America.

This lead to increased competition to make watches ever smaller. In 1969, Neil Armstrong wore and Omega Speedmaster, one of the first automatic Chronographs, when he took his first steps on the moon.

The Introduction of Quartz Watches

The first Quartz clock was developed in the 1920s and at the time was one of the most accurate timepieces available. It had long been known that quartz crystals vibrate at a constant frequency, but it was not until the invention of integrated circuitry in the late 1960s that quartz could be used in wristwatches.

The first quartz watch was the Beta 21, developed by an industrial consortium of Swiss manufacturers in 1968. However, commercial production became the forté of the Japanese, and by 1971 Seiko was manufacturing watches accurate to within 5 seconds a month. However, these early models suffered from a short battery life and LED (Light Emitting Diode) devices (introduced by Hamilton) required that you press a button in order to be able to tell the time.


LED’s were replaced by LCD’s (Liquid Crystal Displays) which continuously displayed the time without having to press a button. The development of Quartz chronographs continued at a pace and today, less than 10% are mechanical.

Nowadays, the wristwatch is no longer just a watch. The wristwatch has become a fashion accessory. Watches come in all colors and shapes imaginable. One can also buy compatible watches from every fashion collection. The current watches are dominated by the correct fashion trends. Despite these different trends, there is something for every taste. The small watches, which require glasses to tell the time, and the extravagant giant watches, which make it hard to walk upright. In any case, one thing is sure: science is still likely to make so much progress – that the wristwatch will be found on the wrists of people for a long time, to answer the question as to what time it is. The history of Americans and their watches is complex. Watches aren’t just functional everyday objects that provide the correct time. They are personal expressions of fashion and status. They are sometimes significant gifts – treasured family heirlooms that link generations or keepsakes that mark important life moments such as weddings, anniversaries or graduations. They are indicators of the way we think about ourselves. And they are deeply meaningful symbols of the ways we think about and use time.