Who Invented the Watch?

Though many no longer wear a watch, preferring to check a cell phone for the time, a wristwatch is a classic part of many people's wardrobe. The portable timepiece has undergone several transformations since its inception. Today's watch, typically a composite of technology, style and function, is a far cry from what was first created.


Peter Henlein developed the first portable timepiece in 1504. While it was easy to carry, it was in no way accurate as the wearer's walking movement impacted the timepiece's ability to keep time. Patek Philippe is most often credited with the first creation of a wristwatch in the late 19th century. He designed a timepiece that was viewed as an accessory for women. Louie Cartier then invented a timepiece for men in the early 20th century. He designed this timepiece to aid pilots who couldn't afford the time to fumble for a watch while involved in the delicate task of flying a plane. Similarly, the officers involved in WWI demanded a method to check the time while in the heat of battle. Feeling around in their waistcoat pocket wasn't an efficient option, so the Army drove demand for a mass-produced, efficient wristwatch. Soldiers were allowed to keep their wristwatches after being released from the Armed Forces and the wristwatch became a part of popular culture.


Watches need to be accurate and portable, a combination made possible by the work of an engineer in Bell labs. In 1927, Warren Morrison found that a very accurate clock was possible by combining quartz crystal with an electric circuit, creating the first quartz watch. Portability comes from a watch being worn on the wrist. The first recorded wristwatch was seen in the 1600s. It was a pocket watch attached to the wrist by a piece of string. Nowadays, people wear wristwatches attached by elastic wristbands, leather or a precious metal alloy.


To become part of mainstream culture, wristwatches needed to be relatively easy to use and maintain. The self-winding watch, invented by Abraham-Louis Perrelet in 1770 and perfected in 1923 by John Harwood, ensured that the watch would keep time without the wearer needing to maintain the watch's time-keeping ability constantly. Today, watches are powered by batteries, the wearer's motion or by the self-winding mechanism that is part of the watch.


The first watches were 4 to 5 inches wide and about 3 inches thick. Watch inventors benefited enormously as miniaturization became less expensive in the early 20th century. They downsized the parts that had made the pocket watch so heavy, and thus, best carried in the wearer's pocket. Today's watches range from the heavy, somewhat masculine watches produced by manufacturers such as Rolex to the tiny, delicate watches that are disguised as jewelry.


Today's consumers typically have at least a dress watch and a sports watch. However, fewer people wear a wristwatch on a daily basis. Cell phone technology and automated calendar programs that alert you to the time before your next meeting are commonplace. Wristwatches may become similar to the pocket watch, worn only for formal occasions.