British Museum blog

Through time: the history behind your watch

detail of watchDavid Thompson, former Curator of Horology, British Museum

Do you own a watch? What does your watch look like? Is it a traditional mechanical watch made by one of the leading Swiss watch manufacturers or is it perhaps a cheap everyday item which you use just to tell the time? There is no doubt that even today, where smartphones have become a popular way of keeping time; watches are still very personal items. For many they are birthday, Christmas or anniversary presents. For others they have been specifically chosen as suitable for the owner to wear and to show to others. A person’s watch might equally have been chosen to suit a particular fashion, or in time-honoured tradition might be a retirement gift donated by work colleagues. For everyone they are an elegant combination of technology, design and decoration.

MS Gilt-brass tambour cased watch

MS Gilt-brass tambour cased watch. South Germany, around 1560

Anonymous gold and niello cased cylinder watch with digital dial and en-suite chain and key

Anonymous gold and niello cased cylinder watch with digital dial and en-suite chain and key, Geneva, Switzerland, around 1830

Louis Vautier gold and enamel cased verge watch. Blois, France, around 1630–38

Louis Vautier gold and enamel cased verge watch. Blois, France, around 1630–38

How many people, however, have any knowledge of the history behind the watch they wear? Few people probably realise that this innocent machine has a history of more than five hundred years since its first appearance at the beginning of the 16th century in South Germany. At the beginning, and for the first two centuries, watches were inaccurate timekeepers worn as items of fashion or as demonstrations of wealth. Just as today, fashions changed and watches became obsolete unless they were handed down as heirlooms from generation to generation. Then, in about 1660, the pocket in clothing came into existence and the pocket watch became an item of everyday wear. Just a little later, the introduction of the balance spring or hair spring made the watch a far more accurate and reliable machine making it an essential asset for organising the day. That is for those who could afford them, for it was not until the last years of the 19th century that cheap affordable watches became available for those with less money to spend – this thanks to the ingenious efforts in America and Switzerland which enabled watches to be machine manufactured in huge numbers at low cost.

Robert H. Ingersoll & Bro wristwatch. USA, 1915

Robert H. Ingersoll & Bro wristwatch. USA, 1915

Over the centuries, fashions changed and the technology in the watch improved making it ever more accurate and reliable. Towards the end of the 19th century, the wrist watch appeared and following the First World War, became the normal way for the watch to be worn, although to this day, there are still a few stalwarts who insist on wearing a pocket watch. In more recent times, the introduction of quartz technology has made the watch a very precise machine. Today, a radio-controlled watch has, in theory, the same accuracy as the atomic clocks used to determine the international time standard – one second in 300 million years – assuming the batteries last that long.

An interesting reference to opulent watches comes from the inventories of Queen Elizabeth I:

Item. A watch of agate made like an egg garnished with gold. Item. a little watch of crystal slightly garnished with gold with her majesty’s picture in it.
Item. a little watch of gold enamelled with sundry colours on both sides alike.

Sadly no examples of these jewelled watches are known to survive today, but there is no doubt that someone somewhere is wearing a modern watch which might have a similar description.

If you own a watch, make sure you look after it, as it will serve you well, and when you look at it bear in mind the amazing history behind it.

Ingersoll Ltd pin pallet lever watch. Ystradgynlais and London, 1952

Ingersoll Ltd pin pallet lever watch. Ystradgynlais and London, 1952

A new edition of David Thompsons’ Watches is available online from the British Museum shop at £16.99, Members’ price £15.29. The book explores the history of watches, based on the British Museum’s extensive watch collection which spans over 500 years. All the major makers of Europe and America are represented. Examples included range from 16th-century early stackfreed watches to modern 19th- and 20th-century watches made by companies such as Waterbury and Ingersoll.

Clocks and Watches (Room 38–39), The Sir Harry and Lady Djanogly Gallery

Animation: How does a mechanical watch work?

Filed under: Collection, Room 38-39 Clocks and Watches Gallery, , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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We’re celebrating our partnership with @googleartproject, and have asked curators to tell us about their favourite objects. Hugo Chapman, Keeper of Prints and Drawings, explains why he chose this chalk drawing by Michelangelo. ‘One of the things I love about drawings is the way they sometimes allow a glimpse into the private, behind the scenes world of an artist, one unseen in finished works in paint or stone. An example of that is a red chalk drawing by Michelangelo of grotesque heads in red chalk that reveal that the Florentine Renaissance artist had a lively, if caustic, sense of humour. The three heads were probably drawn to amuse but at the same instruct his pupils, as the three studies show how slight changes can radically alter the reading of an image with the character and mood of each figure (paranoid anxiety; vacuous joy; and depressive gloom) signalled by the position and erectness of their donkey-like ears.  I wish my ears were as expressive.’ Discover many more incredible works of art in the Google Cultural Institute at

#Michelangelo #art To celebrate our partnership with @googleartproject, we’ve asked members of British Museum staff to highlight their favourite objects and explain what makes them special. Jill Cook, Deputy Keeper of Britain, Europe & Prehistory, chose this stone chopping tool from an early human campsite in Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania. ‘Holding this 2 million year old African tool in my hand I am reminded that whatever differences exist between people now, we are united by our common origin in Africa. The discovery of this piece by Louis Leakey in 1931 began to change our understanding of what makes us human. It illustrates the beginning of a transition from an ancestral ape that walked upright on two legs within the confines of a limited ecological niche to humans with more complex brains capable of changing and eventually dominating the world around us by making tools and weapons. This chopping tool is one of the seeds from which all human cultures and societies have grown.’ Discover the stories of thousands of objects in the Google Cultural Institute at

#MuseumOfTheWorld In Victorian England many people were fascinated by their past, and the ancient tribal leader Caratacus (also spelt Caractacus) was adopted as a symbol of national pride and independence. Like Boudica, Caratacus resisted the Roman invasion of Britain. Although he was eventually defeated, he earned a reputation as a noble and worthy foe. The Victorian sculptor J H Foley portrays him here standing triumphant, the embodiment of courageous English spirit. See this incredible #Movember moustache in our #Celts exhibition, until 31 January 2016.
J H Foley (1818–1874), Caractacus. Marble, 1856–1859. On loan from Guildhall Art Gallery/Mansion House, City of London. Some more #Movember inspiration! Here’s the Museum’s security team from 1902 photographed on the front steps. They include officers from the Metropolitan Police, and the London Fire Brigade (identified by their flat caps). We’re celebrating #Movember with Museum moustaches great and small. Here’s a #Movember fact: Peter the Great of Russia introduced a beard tax in 1698 and this token was given as proof of payment! Our unique new partnership with Google's Cultural Institute @googleartproject now allows you to virtually walk through the whole Museum! The British Museum is the largest space ever to be captured on indoor #StreetView, putting the unparalleled world collection at your fingertips. Come and explore!
#MuseumOfTheWorld #Google #ForEveryone

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