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(originally published to Helium writing site, now gone)

We have always wanted to know the time of day. In the Stone Age, sticks were put in the ground, and people saw how the direction and length of shadow changed throughout the day. Sundials were developed as early as 5,500 years ago in Egypt. Personal sundials were around in Roman times. By the 1270s, mechanical clocks appeared on towers in English and Italian cities. As technology improved, clocks became smaller until eventually they were small enough to put on a wall or table in a house. Soon they were small enough to fit in one’s pocket. Thus a pocket watch was an extension of clock-making technology rather than an invention in its own right.

A pocket clock is mentioned in a letter by Italian clockmaker Bartholomew Manfredi in 1462. He offered the Marchese di Manta a “pocket clock” superior to that of the Duke of Modena, who must have already owned one of these gadgets at the time. Spring-driven clocks were invented in Italy in the late 1400s. Using this technology, German locksmith Peter Henlein first made a portable watch during a period of asylum between 1504 and 1508. It could run for forty hours without rewinding. He created the first pocket watch in 1524.

Early pocket watches were cumbersome, box-shaped or drum-like contraptions, more suited to wearing around the neck than trying to squeeze into one’s pocket. But watch-making soon spread through Europe and England. Henry VIII probably wore a watch on a chain around his neck.

They were not particularly accurate though. Large clocks kept better time, but neither clocks nor watches had minute hands until much later. Pocket watches became noted as ornaments rather than as useful timepieces. A variety of craftsmen, such as watchmakers, casemakers, enamelers, jewelers and engravers, came up with elaborate cases and dials. French watches, in particular, were quite decorative and expensive. It became the fashion among the aristocracy to wear and show off their pocket watches, their accuracy being of secondary importance. As accuracy of pocket watches improved, the extravagant styles diminished.

The invention of the balance spring in 1675 by Dutchman Christian Huygens meant that clocks and pocket watches were accurate enough to add a minute hand. By this time, a good watch was accurate to about ten minutes a day. Improvements in escapement, or the working mechanism of a watch or clock, further improved accuracy, as did jeweled bearings to reduce friction. Abraham-Louis Breguet created a self-winding watch in 1780.

An assortment of craftsmen were used to make pocket watches. The division of labor was quite pronounced. Separate individuals would make the rough castings, case, spring, dial and hands. A watchmaker would then put all the parts together. One of the reasons watches were so expensive was because there were so many people involved. Raw materials weren’t cheap either. And of course everything was made by hand. This was the norm until mid 19th century when mechanization of pocket watch production started in the United States. Pocket watches then became more affordable.

They became popular on coaches and with other travelers. The use of pocket watches became widespread with the development of the railways in the mid to late 19th century. Trains had to run to a timetable and passengers had to know what time their train was arriving and departing. Pocket watches were also carried by railroad staff so they could keep their trains running to timetables. With more and more trains, accidents could occur if a train was running late and passing through an area where another train was running on time, especially on single-track lines.

The American Railway Association met in 1887 to discuss standards for watches. While officials were still procrastinating, a train accident causing eight deaths occurred at Kipton, Ohio, in 1891 because an engineer’s watch stopped for four minutes. Soon after this, a chief time inspector was appointed to develop a timepiece checking system and precision standards for all pocket watches used by train staff.

The General Railroad Timepiece Standards of 1893 stated that pocket watches used on the railways had to be “… open faced, size 16 or 18, have a minimum of 17 jewels, adjusted to at least five positions, keep time accurately to within 30 seconds a week, adjusted to temps of 34 to 100 (degrees) F, have a double roller, steel escape wheel, lever set, regulator, winding stem at 12 o’clock, and have bold black Arabic numerals on a white dial, with black hands”. Railroad workers today are still obliged to keep their watches accurate, or face discipline.

The demise of the pocket watch began in the late 19th century when wristwatches were first manufactured. This followed their invention by Patek Philippe in 1868. Women took up the new trend but men still preferred pocket watches, considering wristwatches as unmanly. But males on the frontline in World War I found that wristwatches were more convenient, and male fashion changed from that time. Wristwatches were more practical in occupations such as pilots and nursing.

Pocket watches enjoyed a brief resurgence in the late 1970s when men’s three piece suits became fashionable again. Some men at this time put a pocket watch in their vest pocket, which was the original purpose of it.

Today there is a niche market for pocket watches for males. However, a jacket is usually needed as they can be uncomfortable in trouser pockets. Women’s clothing, with its lack of pockets, isn’t usually practical for the carrying of a pocket watch. A gold-cased pocket watch is often given to an employee for long service or at retirement.

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