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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This is Room 69a, our next #MuseumOfTheFuture gallery space. It's used for small temporary displays by the Coins and Medals Department – the current one is all about trade and exchange in the Indian Ocean. You can see the entrance to the Department in the background of this pic – it's designed like a bank vault as the Coins and Medals collection is all stored within the Department. Born #onthisday in 1757: poet and printmaker William Blake. This is his Judgement of Paris Happy #Thanksgiving to our US friends! Anyone for #turkey? This is Room 69, Greek and Roman life. It's the next gallery space in our #MuseumOfTheFuture series.
Room 69 takes a cross-cultural look at the public and private lives of the ancient Greeks and Romans. The objects on display have been chosen to illustrate themes such as women, children, household furniture, religion, trade and transport, athletics, war, farming and more. Around the walls, supplementary displays illustrate individual crafts on one side of the room, and Greek mythology on the opposite side. This picture is taken from the mezzanine level, looking down into the gallery. The next gallery in our #MuseumOfTheFuture series is Room 68, the Citi Money Gallery. The history of money can be traced back over 4,000 years. During this time, currency has taken many different forms, from coins to banknotes, shells to mobile phones.
The Citi Money Gallery displays the history of money around the world. From the earliest evidence, to the latest developments in digital technology, money has been an important part of human societies. Looking at the history of money gives us a way to understand the history of the world – from the earliest coins to Bitcoin, and from Chinese paper money to coins from every nation in the world. You can find out more about what's on display at britishmuseum.org/money The next gallery in our #MuseumOfTheFuture series is Room 67: Korea. The Korea Foundation Gallery is currently closed for refurbishment and will reopen on 16 December 2014. You can find out more about the refurb at koreabritishmuseum.tumblr.com  The unique culture of Korea combines a strong sense of national identity with influences from other parts of the Far East. Korean religion, language, geography and everyday life were directly affected by the country’s geographic position, resulting in a rich mix of art and artefacts.
Objects on display in Room 67 date from prehistory to the present day and include ceramics, metalwork, sculpture, painting, screen-printed books and illuminated manuscripts.
A reconstruction of a traditional sarangbang, or scholar’s study, is also on display and was built by contemporary Korean craftsmen.
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