The history of timekeeping

The earliest dated watch known, from 1530

The earliest dated watch known, from 1530

It is believed that the clock, as it is known today, was invented in 1300, but there is no exact date for that. Knowledge of time measuring instruments existed since ancient times. Ancient civilizations measured time depending on the movement of the Earth and the Moon: the year and month after its revolution around the Sun (within 365 days), and the cycle of the day-after Earth’s rotation around its axis (in 23 hours, 56 minutes, 4 seconds). Since 3500 B.C. Egyptians built the solar clock, the Obelisk. The hours were determined by the shadow it dropped on Earth from sunlight. This helped them to know what time of day it was. Over the time, sundials evolved to more elaborate forms.

Another primitive model of measuring time is the hourglass. That is a vase of glass with 2 compartments. The top has a quantity of sand, water or mercury that flows into the bottom compartment in a certain period of time. The hourglass was used in Europe in the 14th century, when some historians appreciate that personalities of that time acquired the first clocks in their homes.

In fact, history records that, ever since the year 1280, a clock with wheels was invented in England. Such mechanisms functioned in monasteries and cathedrals of the time. However, the first public clock was made and elevated in Milan, Italy, in 1335. People did not have clocks in their homes until the 14th century.

Another important date in the evolution of horologes is 1427, when Heinrich Arnold invented a number of components necessary for the proper functioning of an evolved clock, including the arc, which is especially utilized nowadays.

In 1500 a German locksmith named Peter Henlein began making watches that were small and only had one hand for the hour, and not a minute hand, and did not have glass protection. These watches were the size of a hockey puck and were carried in hand or in the pocket. The minutes indicating hand was invented in the year 1577, by Jost Burgi.

The first swing clock was produced by the Dutch scientist Christian Huygens, in the year 1657 (some historians believe it was the year 1656), which had an error of less than one minute per day, which was a great achievement for that time. The error in time measurement was brought to the stunning result of a second per day, by George Graham, in the year 1721, who improved the accuracy of the pendulum, by offsetting changes caused by temperature variations.

In the year 1775, Abraham-Louis Bregeut set shop in Paris and became horologer to the Kings, having a keen

Portable drum watch with sundial.

Portable drum watch with sundial.

sense for business. He fused formerly used clock elements together, and invented a large number of his own, one of the chief ones being the tourbillon, an anti-shock device for the balance mechanism.

Today, the time industry is going through an unprecedented boom, each year adding to the number of those attracted to the mechanisms that work with an accuracy to the nearest thousandth of a second. And the fans for whom the clock has become the symbol of “good life” see the tourism to factories and themed museums as an expedition into a world of stories with artisans, mechanisms, hundreds of hours of work, precious gems, real Princes and Princesses.

The main groups have announced significant increases in their turnover. Swatch reported that for the first time in its history it surpassed the threshold of five billion francs (three billion euros), while Richemont announced sales of 4.3 billion euros. But, beneath all the growth reports, beyond the hordes of Asians craving after Swiss watches and after a brand’s image, there hides a world that fascinates even before meeting it, and persists in mind after you’ve met it.

As opposed to times before, when one watch accompanied a person for their whole life, today there are watches for all needs and purposes, from thrifty and disposable to the really well crafted and expensive. To name a few categories, there are Luxury watches and diamond watches which are more jewels that show off the elevated status of their wearer; then there are the Business and Casual watches, also ranging from affordable to expensive; then the so-called Sports watches, which themselves cover a whole range of sub-categories: there are the Military watches (here’s a page on the Best tactical watch of the moment), the Aviator watches, the Diver watches, the Running watches (with heart rate sensor), etc. Have a look at these pages for the best aviator watch and the best divers watch. Not least, the most striking distinction in modern times is between mechanical watches and digital or quartz ones. With all this industry pounding out millions of timepieces a year, the fascination with intricate and high performance mechanisms has not disappeared, quite the opposite.

Back to our Swiss watch making tour, the tourist armed with a travel guide and a “Swiss Made” watch should know that the Swiss watch industry is concentrated in the western part of the country, in the interior of the arch formed by the Jura Mountains, between Geneva and Basel. The Swiss promote this area under the brand of “Watch Valley” and have designed special programmes for the tourists who are fans of mechanisms and manufactures.

The point of departure is in Geneva, where watch manufactures appeared for the first time in the mid 16th century. After a brief tour in the old city center, dominated by the Cathedral of St. Pierre, where John Calvin preached, and by Ile Rousseau, a small island on the River Rhône, where there is a statue of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, a visit to the watchmaking Museum means more than watching some simple exhibits. Because here the mysterious links between the characters of Swiss history and clocks are elucidated.

Visiting the Museum, one discovers that the emergence of watch manufactures is due to the reforms of John Calvin who denied jewels, forcing jewelers to turn to the new trade of watchmaker. Calvin was over-obsessed with punctuality and in 1541 he decreed fines for those who were late for the Sunday service. In 1561 clocks were installed in strategic points in Geneva, so that there were no excuses for delays.

By the end of the 16th century, Swiss manufacturers were already famous for the quality of their devices. The industry received an important boost in 1685, when Louis XIV restricted rights to the French Protestant. Thus, they left the country by the thousands and settled in the city of Geneva, bringing with them the know-how of watch production. As a matter of fact, one of the most famous family of watchmakers in Geneva was that of philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

Moreover, one of the most spectacular pieces in the Museum is a watch that had belonged to the grandfather of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, in the form of a dead head which opened in half to reveal the clock.

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