When Was the First Wrist Watch Made?
The exact time the first wristwatch appeared is not known. The concept of the wristwatch goes back to the production of the very earliest watches in the 16th century. Elizabeth I of England received a wristwatch from Robert Dudley in 1571, described as an arm watch. Some people say the world’s first wristwatch was created by Abraham-Louis Breguet for Caroline Murat, Queen of Naples, in 1810.
From the beginning, wristwatches were almost exclusively worn by women, while men used pocket watches up until the early 20th century. By the mid nineteenth century, most watchmakers produced a range of wristwatches, often marketed as bracelets, for women. But soon after the beginning of the 20th Century women’s small pocket watches began to be fitted into specially made leather or gold adapters to be worn on the wrist. They were immediately successful, and their popularity rapidly increased in the First World War because they could be consulted without undoing a coat or uniform jacket.
Wristwatches were first worn by military men towards the end of the nineteenth century, when the importance of synchronizing maneuvers during war without potentially revealing the plan to the enemy through signaling was increasingly recognized. It was clear that using pocket watches while in the heat of battle or while mounted on a horse was impractical, so officers began to strap the watches to their wrist.
The Garstin Company of London patented a ‘Watch Wristlet’ design in 1893, although they were probably producing similar designs from the 1880s. Clearly, a market for men’s wristwatches was coming into being at the time. Officers in the British Army began using wristwatches during colonial military campaigns in the 1880s, such as during the Anglo-Burma War of 1885.
During the Boer War, the importance of coordinating troop movements and synchronizing attacks against the highly mobile Boer insurgents was paramount, and the use of wristwatches subsequently became widespread among the officer class. The company Mappin & Webb began production of their successful ‘campaign watch’ for soldiers during the campaign at the Sudan in 1898 and ramped up production for the Boer War a few years later.
These early models were essentially standard pocket watches fitted to a leather strap, but by the early 20th century, manufacturers began producing purpose-built wristwatches. The Swiss company, Dimier Frères & Cie patented a wristwatch design with the now standard wire lugs in 1903. In 1904, Alberto Santos-Dumont, an early aviator, asked his friend, a French watchmaker called Louis Cartier, to design a watch that could be useful during his flights.
Hans Wilsdorf moved to London in 1905 and set up his own business with his brother-in-law Alfred Davis, Wilsdorf & Davis, providing quality timepieces at affordable prices – the company later became Rolex. Wilsdorf was an early convert to the wristwatch, and contracted the Swiss firm Aegler to produce a line of wristwatches. His Rolex wristwatch of 1910 became the first such watch to receive certification as a chronometer in Switzerland and it went on to win an award in 1914 from Kew Observatory in London.
The impact of the First World War dramatically shifted public perceptions on the propriety of the man’s wristwatch, and opened up a mass market in the post-war era. The creeping barrage artillery tactic, developed during the War, required precise synchronization between the artillery gunners and the infantry advancing behind the barrage. Service watches produced during the War were specially designed for the rigours of trench warfare, with luminous dials and unbreakable glass. Wristwatches were also found to be needed in the air as much as on the ground: military pilots found them more convenient than pocket watches for the same reasons as Santos-Dumont had. The British War Department began issuing wristwatches to combatants from 1917.
The company H. Williamson Ltd., based in Coventry, was one of the first to capitalize on this opportunity. During the company’s 1916 AGM it was noted that “…the public is buying the practical things of life. Nobody can truthfully contend that the watch is a luxury. It is said that one soldier in every four wears a wristlet watch, and the other three mean to get one as soon as they can.” By the end of the War, almost all enlisted men wore a wristwatch, and after they were demobilized, the fashion soon caught on – the British Horological Journal wrote in 1917 that “…the wristlet watch was little used by the sterner sex before the war, but now is seen on the wrist of nearly every man in uniform and of many men in civilian attire.” By 1930, the ratio of wrist- to pocket watches was 50 to 1.
The first self-winding wristwatch was invented by John Harwood, an Englishman who patented it in 1923. In 1961 the first wristwatch travelled to space; it was Russian. Today the largest watch making industry in the world is concentrated in the Jura Mountains and the valley of the Aar in Switzerland.