A watch is a timepiece or clock. The word watch comes from French. Today, the word in Dutch is used almost exclusively for a small, portable timepiece. In French, on the other hand, watch means a fixed clock, while a portable timepiece is called montre. This article only discusses the portable timepiece.

Hands with watch

In addition to the time, some watches also show the day, date, month and year. Before the 20th century, most watches were so-called (vest) pocket watches or savonettes (pocket watch with spring cover), which, as the name indicates, were worn in a (vest) pocket. Usually these were provided with a chain. The wristwatch made its advance from the early 20th century.


In the 15th century the need arose for an accurate timepiece to be able to navigate at sea. The latitude can be easily and reliably determined from the height of stars above the horizon, but the longitude was only measurable by comparing the local time. By comparing the local time with the standard time of a European meridian (usually Paris or Greenwich), a sailor was able to determine how far east or west it was from this meridian. This measurement was sometimes far from accurate, so most maps and charts from the 15th century to about 1800 have precise latitudes but incorrect longitudes. If the clock is wrong for a minute, it means a deviation of 28 kilometers in the tropics. An accurate timepiece (chronometer) was therefore an important navigation instrument. Moreover, that timepiece should not be sensitive to the fluctuations of the ship. The latter requirement also applied to watches.

The first watches

The predecessor of the watch is the quadrans. The first somewhat reliable mechanical clocks operated with a pendulum. Because the clock has to hang or stand still, such a clock cannot be used at sea or in watches. The invention of the spring mechanism was crucial for portable clocks. The German Peter Henlein from Nuremberg made the first portable clock with a spring mechanism between 1504 and 1508. It took Henlein ten years to develop it. The breakthrough came with Henlein’s invention of the balance spring. His clocks can be seen as the first watches. They were worn on the belt or around the neck with a chain. Instead of the later round shape, Henlein made the housing oval. They were therefore called Nuremberg eggs. They only had an hour hand, the mechanism was still too imprecise for a minute hand. The inaccuracy had several causes. The timepiece worked especially well if it lay flat on a table and the balance could move horizontally. Furthermore, the watch experienced friction due to the faulty way in which the gears and other parts of the watch were finished. This made the watch need a stiff mainspring because the friction had to be overcome. Such a mainspring exerted more force when fully wound, causing the watch to run too fast.

Keep the watches running smoothly

The biggest problem that watchmakers of that time had to contend with was not only running the watches, but also keeping them running smoothly. Swiss mechanic Jacob Zech threw himself into this problem and came up with a solution in 1525. This solution was further improved by another Swiss named Gruet. The invention consisted of the snek, a mechanism that provided great resistance when the spring was tightly wound. As the spring slowed down, the mechanism rotated, reducing drag. The forces exerted on the actual time mechanism thus remained the same. Instead of a piece of jewelry, a watch now became a device that could really be used to mark the time. The demand for Swiss watches grew and many craftsmen made small parts that were then assembled into watches by a manufacturer.

After this it took a long time before further improvements were made to the watch. Around 1550, screws were used and the gears were made of copper. Copper was easier to machine than iron, so the gears could be worked finer. Occasionally a watch with a minute hand appeared. But the watch was not for the common man. Since each watch had to be made by hand, they were very expensive. In addition, at that time the time could be read in many ways. Church towers were the tallest buildings in a city and therefore highly visible – an ideal place for a public watch. In addition, a common timepiece had the advantage that everyone looked at the same clock, so it was not so important whether the time was exactly correct. At night the time (at full hours) was announced by watchmen, the predecessors of today’s police. Owning a watch was therefore a status symbol for its wearer.

Even more accurate

Before watches could really be used as a navigational aid, they had to be made much more precise. Normal clocks were so precise because they used a pendulum. Around 1675, the Englishman Robert Hooke and the Dutchman Christiaan Huygens came up with the same idea separately. They made a construction in which the spring rotated a balance wheel back and forth. The same kind of back and forth movement as a pendulum makes. It would be nearly 100 years before this principle was widely applied. This had various causes. Manufacturing the parts was still manual work and transfer of knowledge was much more difficult at the time. The transfer of knowledge went so slowly that one Julien Le Roy made the same discovery 100 years later, unaware that his invention was already 100 years old.

Another addition to the watch was made in 1704. Nicholas Facio from Switzerland, who worked in London, started to use gemstones in watches. These stones were not used for decoration, but to remove friction in the timepiece and to increase durability. Rubies or sapphire crystals are often used for this. Instead of spinning rotating parts in a metal casing, a very small hole is drilled in the stone. The metal part experiences much less friction, so much less oil is needed in the watch. Due to the hardness of the gemstones, there is also much less wear on the rotating parts.

In order to ensure that clocks were accurate enough to be used for navigation at sea, the English Parliament awarded a £ 20,000 prize to the clockmaker who managed this. The prize was won in 1762 by the Englishman John Harrison, whose watch was only 1 minute and 4 seconds apart on a 5-month journey. The mechanism was so complicated that he first had to record his invention so that other watchmakers would also benefit from it. After this major step forward, minor improvements were added, including those of the American Thomas Mudge and the Swiss Abraham Louis Breguet.

Subsequently, both French and Swiss watchmakers worked to reduce the friction. This allowed Gruet’s snek to be removed from the watches. Soon every watch was made this way, only the English kept the old way for a long time. This cost them the prestige they had as watchmakers.

The wristwatch

The wristwatch was invented in 1810 by Breguet after an order on June 8 of that year from Caroline Bonaparte, Queen of Naples. Therefore, at that time it was mainly seen as a woman’s jewel. However, in 1790 an account book by the Geneva watchmakers Jacquet-Droz and Leschot already mentions a watch that was attached to a (women’s) bracelet. At the beginning of the 20th century, Brazilian inventor Alberto Santos-Dumont had problems reading the time when flying. He asked Louis Cartier, a friend of his, for a watch that was easier to use. Cartier gave him a watch with a leather strap. Given the popularity Cartier enjoyed in Paris, he also sold other of these watches to men. During World War I, officers in the military found that it was easier to take a quick look at the wristwatch than to take out a pocket watch. In addition, an increasing number of officers died in battle. They were replaced by soldiers who did not have pocket watches. The soldiers had no financial means to buy a pocket watch, so they depended on what the army offered them as a watch. This, together with the increasing need of the various army parts to carry out their actions at the same times, ensured that the army provided their officers with reliable, but cheap, mass-produced watches. After the war, the European and American officers were allowed to keep their watches, which contributed to the popularity of the wristwatches. Nowadays there is a lot of uncertainty about which arm the wristwatch should be worn on. The majority of watch wearers are right-handed and wear the watch on the left wrist. In addition, the wrist watch is worn on the left wrist to prevent shock to the right hand that is usually used more.

A new era

The watches as they were made around 1800 do not differ much from the mechanical watches that are made today. The first major change took place in the mid-20th century. An electric watch was made in 1957. Instead of a spring, a battery provided the mechanism with the power to rotate the hands. The first quartz watches were produced in the 1960s, using an oscillating quartz crystal as a timekeeper and water resistant.

Types of watches

It is possible to classify watches in several ways. For example, it is possible to look at the technology (mechanical or quartz) or the method of time indication (analog or digital).


Traditionally, watches have been mechanical and since the 90s of the 20th century, these watches have been popular with consumers again. If a mechanical watch offers more functions than just time indication, such a watch is called a ‘complicated’ watch. A function is called a complication.

Examples of complications are:

  • Date display
  • Weekday indication
  • Month indication
  • Year indication
  • Perpetual calendar
  • Moon phase
  • Sun position
  • Stopwatch
  • Rattrapante
  • Stopwatch
  • Second time zone
  • Self-winding mechanism (indicated by the term automatic)
  • Designation for power reserve
  • Alarm clock
  • Tourbillon
  • Rehearsal work
  • Tachymeter

Mechanical watches are generally analog watches, the time is indicated with hands. There are only a few mechanical watches on which the time is indicated with numbers. Usually only the hour is indicated by numbers. The markings on the dial are called wedges.

If a machine is not worn, it can be placed in a watch winder to keep the watch running.

Quartz watches

A quartz watch is an electronic watch that uses a quartz crystal as the heart of time measurement. A very stable vibration can be generated with quartz crystals. This vibration number, also known as frequency, is known in advance. By counting the number of vibrations, one knows when a certain time has passed. For example, if you have a crystal of 1 MHz, a second has passed after 1 million vibrations.

Most quartz crystals for watches have a frequency of 32 768 Hz. This vibration is always divided by the IC, until eventually a frequency of 1 Hz remains. Then the vibration is converted into a digital signal. This pulse is then passed through a coil, which thereby becomes magnetic. This drives a rotor. This rotor drives a mechanical mechanism that makes the hands rotate.

The first models were made in 1964 by the CEH research laboratory in Switzerland. The first quartz watch in production was by Seiko, the 35 SQ Astron in 1969. There are several options for powering this type of watch. The battery is probably the most used, but it is also possible to get energy by means of solar energy (also called light energy) or kinetic energy (by means of movement). The most famous watches on light energy are the Eco-Drive watches introduced by Citizen in 1995 and the Solar watches by Seiko. A little-used power source takes advantage of the temperature difference between the wearer and the environment.

Quartz watches are available in analog (with hands) and digital (with numbers). There are also quartz watches with both options.

Digital quartz watches often have additional functions in addition to the time indication. Usually these are a date display, alarm, chronograph and / or chronometer. There are also watches with a calculator, database, pedometer, GPS function, tachymeter, alarm clock or computer games. Mountain athletes often have a watch with altimeter, thermometer and compass.

There are also watches that can equate themselves with a DCF77 receiver (radio-controlled). These have been on the market since 1983, but only since the early 21st century has this become commonplace for consumers. Because this requires quite a lot of energy, this adjustment occurs only a few times a day, without reception, the watch continues to run on a quartz crystal. The watch is therefore very accurate, and summer time is also set automatically.

While quartz mechanism watches can be made very cheaply and cheap ones can also have very high accuracy (on the order of a second of deviation per day), more expensive fully mechanical watches are still in demand among consumers. Because of the technique and the craft, mechanical watches are seen as a status symbol by many people. After the introduction of quartz watches, these caused a fall of many Swiss watch brands, this is called the quartz crisis.


In 2013 a watch from around 1300 was found in Zutphen (the Netherlands); one of the oldest watches (Dutch: klant horloge) in Northern Europe. Originally developed by the Arabs, this type of watch was called quadrans, and it works as a kind of mini sundial, with which one can measure the latitude in addition to measuring time. In Germany (Deutschland) even more watches are made.

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