Watches, Their History and Future
A truism that dates back to the 17th Century is that a man who has a wood watch knows what time it is, and a man with two is never certain. Wooden watches have changed tremendously since they were first invented for the nobility in the 16th Century.
The modern wood watch has gained functionality with the creation of the iWatch and the Pebble. Both of these devices have added Smartphone functionality to a wearable device. Calling them watches is becoming something of a misnomer. Computers are moving into every aspect of consumer devices.
Prior to this, there have been other advances in wood watches, dating back to quartz timing mechanisms (which made watches more accurate and got rid of rewinding them to coil up the mainspring. Other advances followed – LED digital watches became faddish items, then cheap tchotchkes in the 1980s, and by the mid 1980s, wood watches with four-function calculators had become the norm. It can be argued that more innovation has happened in the field of watches in the last forty years than happened in the entire field prior to their development.
The first wood watches were developed by Peter Hele in Germany, and they were large, 2-lb pendants that could maintain accurate time for roughly thirty to forty hours per winding, and required coming to the shop to be re-wound by an apprentice.
They didn’t have a clock-dial face as we know it, but would chime the hours on a regular basis.
Very quickly, wooden watchmakers refined the mechanical watch so that it turned hands on a dial, and the devices required ever finer gears and escapements, both to increase the amount of time they’d run between windings, and to reduce the overall size and weight.
It was Georges-Auguste Leschot who made the first widely sold pocket watches. Prior to the 1840s, every watch was a hand-made precision piece of engineering. Leschot’s wood watches used interchangeable parts, making watch repair easier. The interchangeable parts also allowed him to make machine tools that made the parts standardized.
Mass-produced wooden watches where an American invention, with the first produced in 1851, and by 1861, there were several vendors. Timepieces had been made to nautical standards prior to the development of the railroad, and met the requirements for determining longitude, which is dependent upon a chronometer that can survive the tossing of the deck of a ship at sea. By the 1890s, wood watches had to be even more precise to match the requirements of the cross-continental rail road industry; this precision also required the creation of time zones. Errors per day went from multiple minutes in the 1840s to under a few seconds per day by 1900. Modern quartz mechanism watches, using technology invented in the 1960s, will gain or lose a few seconds per year.
Modern wood watches – or their more commonly used descendants, cell phones – use Network Time.
Network time uses is an arcane set of rules that track the number of seconds since January 1st 1970. This time signature is transmitted across the Internet to maintain accuracy for several parts of TCP/IP and other networking protocols, and is coordinated by a Cesium clock in Colorado maintained by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). It’s cross checked with the time signatures used by GPS satellites and is so accurate that they have to add leap seconds periodically to counteract the tidal breaking on the Earth’s rotation caused by the Moon.
While wood watches have shrunk in size, and gained in ancillary functionality over the years, they still do the same thing: Help you meet your appointments and manage your life.