Timekeeping was one of mankind's first puzzles to crack. First marked only by night and day, then by the town square's church bells ringing in the hours, and eventually by precision clocks that can count the minutes and seconds, our concept of time has evolved as our needs have. One of the greatest innovations was the development of the “portable clock,” or watch. With the invention of the portable pocket watch, commerce could thrive in ways it hadn't before. Farmers could accurately coordinate with town merchants to time produce shipments, train conductors could keep a punctual schedule, and scientists could conduct more precise experiments.
With a 500-year-old history, no method of timekeeping possesses more range, style and individuality than the antique pocket watch. Read on to discover the origins of the pocket watch and some notable facts about these timepieces.
The first portable clock was created by German locksmith and clock-maker, Peter Heinlein, in 1505 in Nuremberg - a scientific and humanist hub at the time. Heinlein was successfully producing these devices regularly by 1524, and he and his contemporaries improved upon them throughout the 16th century, although they only included the hour hand. (The minute hand would not be possible until roughly 1675 after French watchmaker, Isaac Thuret, revolutionized the movement design and improved accuracy.) These first watches, known as pomanders, were often turned into pendants or attached to clothing, making them the first clocks to be worn.
It became the fashion for men to wear these watches in their pockets rather than around their necks in 1675 when Charles II of England popularized the waistcoat. This resulted in the emergence of the pocket watch design we are familiar with today - a smooth, flattened sphere that easily slipped into a pocket with a chain to attach the watch to the waistcoat.
For much of their history, pocket watches were considered a luxury item and therefore a symbol of wealth and status for the wearer. They would not become ubiquitous within the middle class until the Industrial Revolution when more affordable options were available and they were essential to conducting business. It was only then that they became common across many industries, including sailing and railroading.
Pocket watches slowly began to fall out of fashion after WWI due to the wristwatch's widespread use among soldiers during the war. The telephone and signal service began to play an important role in the war effort, making the ability to tell time at a glance a necessity for soldiers, thus, the wristwatch became standard issue. The trend then trickled into civilian life and became the preferred watch accessory.
A Watch With a Job
During the 19th century, railroading was on the rise, and pocket watches were an essential tool to an engineer in running the trains on time. One of the great American railroad tragedies led to stringent standards for watches used in railroading. On April 18, 1891 in Kipton, Ohio, the eastbound fast-moving mail train #14 and the westbound Toledo Express passenger train were on the same tracks when they collided head on, killing six postal clerks and two engineers. An investigation later found that the crash was due to the Toledo Express's conductor's pocket watch being four minutes behind, making the train late. Had the conductor's watch been correct, he would not have started the journey to Toledo and would have known that the mail train was approaching on the same line.
The investigation of the timekeeping issues on the line was led by Cleveland jeweler, Webster Ball. Ball eventually became the timekeeper of the railroads, and he instated watch performance inspection standards. All pocket watches had to be inspected regularly and they needed to be accurate to within 30 seconds. Also, station clocks were standardized and synchronized as time was relayed to stations via telegraph. “Railroad-grade” pocket watches were adopted by almost all railroads and remained the standard until the 1970s.
Most of these conductors' pocket watches were plainly made and utilitarian, but some, like the one below, had a bit more design and personality. Crafted in 18-carat gold by one of the leading American firms, Waltham Watch Company, the cover displays a detailed train motif, hinting at this pocket watch's purpose.
Pocket watches have historically been given as gifts at important milestones like a graduation or retirement, are passed down in a family, or given as an honor for an act of service. The pocket watch below, for example, was presented to Henry William Webster, Captain of the British tugboat Champion, by Woodrow Wilson. In 1919, Webster was rewarded with this 18-carat gold watch for assisting the U.S. vessel Piave when it ran aground after a fierce storm on Goodwin Sands at the southern end of the North Sea. All of the sailors were saved thanks to the heroic efforts of Capt. Webster.
The back of the watch features this engraved dedication: “From the President of the United States to Henry William Webster, Master of the British Tug Champion, in recognition of his humane services in effecting the rescue at sea, on January 31, 1919, of the master and crew of the American Steam Ship Piave.”
A tradition started by Abraham Lincoln, these watches were a kind of medal of valor awarded only to captains of foreign vessels who rescued American crews at sea. A sea rescue was considered an extremely noble act and deserving of the highest recognition. A pocket watch carried with it the dignity and gravity appropriate for the honor.
An Accessory for the 20th Century (And Beyond)
Even as wristwatches became more popular in the first half of the 20th century, pocket watches still held a place with fashionable gentlemen. They were often handed down as family heirlooms and high-end jewelry firms like Cartier continued to created beautiful pocket watch designs like the handsome onyx Art Deco example below.
Carrying a pocket watch signified something special about a person. Sure, there was a stylish aspect to wearing one, but there was also a moral implication. It meant you valued punctuality, dependability and modern independence. A nickname even developed in the public lexicon for pocket watch carriers: a “stemwinder” was someone who habitually wound their watch and they were seen as hardworking and reliable.
Today, time surrounds us. We can easily check for the time via a clock on the wall, a microwave, a computer screen, or that little technological miracle in our pockets - the smart phone. The contemporary world has no practical need for pocket watches any longer, but they exist as a reminder of progress and remain a stylish, nostalgic and impressive mechanical accessory. To begin or expand your own collection of antique pocket watches, click here to see the watches M.S. Rau has to offer.
Bruton, Eric. Clocks & Watches. New York: Hamlyn, 1969.
Clutton, Cecil, and George Daniels. Watches. New York, NY: Viking Press, 1965.
Friedman, Uri. "A Brief History of the Wristwatch." The Atlantic. May 27, 2015. Accessed May 29, 2019. https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2015/05/history-wristwatch-apple-watch/391424/.
Leonardi, Leonardo, and Gabriele Ribolini. Pocket Watches = Lorologio Da Tasca. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1994.
"The Great Kipton Train Wreck." National Postal Museum. Accessed May 29, 2019. https://postalmuseumblog.si.edu/2013/04/the-great-kipton-train-wreck.html.
Thompson, Clive. "The Pocket Watch Was the World's First Wearable Tech Game Changer." Smithsonian.com. June 01, 2014. Accessed May 29, 2019. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/innovation/pocket-watch-was-worlds-first-wearable-tech-game-changer-180951435/.