The History and Evolution of the Timepiece

As humans, we have always had to tell the time. The only thing that has changed is the way we strive to measure it. Let us go through the evolution of timekeeping over the millennia of human ingenuity and strive for better time accuracy.

Ancient Ways Of Timekeeping

Devices and methods for keeping time have been constantly improved by a long series of new inventions and ideas. The oldest historical records come from the ancient Egyptian civilization.



The earliest known timekeeping devices appeared in Egypt and Mesopotamia, about 3500 B.C. Sundials consisted of a tall, vertical, or diagonal object called a gnomon. The shadow created by the gnomon allowed the Egyptians to measure time (with relative accuracy).

The earliest fully documented appearance of a sundial is the Egyptian shadow clock, circa 1500 BC. It  was discovered in Egypt's Valley of the Kings, the burial place of rulers from Egypt's New Kingdom period (around 1550 B.C. to 1070 B.C.)This clock used the passage of the sun overhead to help people decipher the time. 

At night, a tool called a Merkhet was used. The Merkhet consisted of two rods aligned with the pole star. It used the position of the Polar star to track the relative motion of the stars and constellations.

The use of these ancient clocks allowed the development of the Egyptian year. The Egyptians divided the day into two cycles of 12 hours each and conceived the modern 365-day, 12-month calendar by adding five days to the Babylonian 360-day calendar. 

Improvements On the Sundial

Later civilizations improved on the concept of shadow clocks, most notably the Greeks and Romans.

The ancient Greeks adopted designs from Egypt and Mesopotamia and applied new principles. Herodotus, a Greek historian, writes that sundials were adopted from Babylonia by Anaximander of Miletus around 560 BC.

Since the Greeks had extensive geometric knowledge and had carefully studied the movement of the sun, they were able to build a universal sundial that could be used anywhere on Earth.

The Romans, for their part, adopted the Greek sundials.

Not every Roman was happy with this; Plautus complained that his days were chopped to pieces by the sundials. Vitruvius, in his book De Architectura (c. 25 BC), described all the types of sundials known up to that time. 

In 10 BC, the Romans erected a very large sundial, the Solarium Augusti - a classical sundial with an obelisk - on a huge pavement of travertine that measured about 525 by 246 feet. 

During the day advanced, the shadow moved from west to east along the equinox and from north to south along the meridian through the passage of the seasons, beginning with the winter solstice under Capricorn and ending with the summer solstice under Cancer.

It then returned north for the remaining six months of the year. Nine months later, at the autumnal equinox, the gnomon's shadow reached directly east and, at sunset, into the Ara Pacis itself.

The Arabs made further improvements to the sundial with the greatest input coming in 1371. Ibn al-Shatir (the most distinguished Muslim astronomer of the 14th century) proved that placing the gnomon of a sundial parallel to the Earth's axis produced shadows of equal length every day of the year. 

This discovery soon became common practice in construction and led to the iconic "diagonal" appearance of modern sundials.

Water Clocks

A traditional water clock. The smaller bowl has a small hole in its centre

Another instrument for measuring time, also probably invented in ancient Egypt or Mesopotamia, was the water clock.

This used water as a measuring instrument and there were two general types of water clocks: Intake and outtake.

  • Intake water clocks had a hole in the center that slowly drew water from a basin or other reservoir where it is located.
  • In outtake water clocks, the water slowly drained either directly into a reservoir or into a water wheel, where the water powered the movement of the clock.

The advantage of this clock was that it could be used at night and on cloudy days, and it was better at measuring actual hours as opposed to seasonal hours.

The measurement markings would be read based on the water level. From this, the passage of time was deduced. The Chinese had also invented a water clock, which consisted of water in attached bowls that turned the wheel. 

Su Song Su Song an eleventh-century Chinese scientist engineered a hydro-mechanical astronomical clock tower. This monumental clock was more than 30 feet (9 meters) in height!

Regardless of their conceptual strength, water clocks still had their weaknesses:

First, freezing weather made water clocks useless. Second, water pressure was variable, making the speed at which the water flowed out of the machine inconsistent.


The first hourglass or sand clock is said to have been invented by a French monk named Liutprand in the 8th century AD.

However, concrete evidence of this revolutionary new form of timepiece, which measured time by dropping sand from one glass sphere to another, first appears in European ship inventories from the 14th century.

Hourglasses became so popular not because they create a new level of accuracy, but served a far more practical purpose:

They were used on ships for accurate timekeeping, which was essential for navigation at sea.

Hourglasses were particularly common on naval vessels for several reasons:

  • They remained dry and steady
  • They were not affected by the rocking of the ship and bad weather.
  • They were also cheaper and easier to maintain

Towards the end of the Middle Ages, however, mechanical clocks appeared and replaced all earlier timekeeping devices for good.

The Mechanical Clock Movements

Scholars consider the invention of the mechanical clock not only one of the most significant turning points in the history of science and technology but also one of the greatest achievements in the history of mankind.

This medieval mechanical clock was so much more significant and influential than its predecessors because it had the technological potential to evolve into a variety of timepieces that would increasingly transform science and society in the centuries that followed.

The mechanical clock was weight-driven, meaning that it could function in sub-zero temperatures (unlike the water clock) and at night and on cloudy days (unlike the sundial).

This mechanism for measuring time - the escapement - consisted of a rotating multi-notched wheel, the gears of which were periodically blocked and released by a device that moved rhythmically back and forth, allowing it to track the passage of time.

These medieval mechanical clocks often announced the time by the clanging of bells. The word "clock" was taken from the Latin word clocca, which means bell.

These clocks initially served a religious purpose: they regulated the monks' mass times, prayers, meals, and work. In the late thirteenth century, clocks spread rapidly from monasteries to churches across Europe. 

The Salisbury clock located in Salisbury Cathedral in southern England and dates from about 1386 is the oldest of its kind known to still be working

The Pocket Watch

Surprisingly, for such a historical invention, it is difficult to pinpoint the origin of the portable mechanical watch. Usually, the invention of the first pocket watch in 1510 is attributed to a watchmaker from Nuremberg named Peter Henlein.

However, it is important to note that many other European watchmakers made similar devices in the late 15th and early 16th centuries. They called these creations clock watches.

This invention was made possible by the invention of the mainspring. This important invention was basically a coiled piece of metal band that served as a power source in mechanical watches.

The user only had to wind the watch every now and then to maintain the tension on the mainspring.

Not long after the invention of the first watches, consumers were looking for a new way to wear their timepieces. The original clock watches were usually worn as pendants around the neck. King Charles II introduced the "vest" (waistcoat) in 1666 as part of the modern three-piece ensemble. 

He did this to boost the English wool trade and force the nobles to abandon French fashion. It worked, as the vest soon became a popular part of English men's fashion. 

This led to clock watches that could be carried in coat pockets, which became known as pocket watches.

Not only was it practical, but it also protected the timepieces from weather and other damage.

Later, in the 1800s, Prince Albert developed a new watch accessory, the Albert chain. This allowed men to attach their watches to the pockets on the front of their coats.

Originally, there was no glass to protect the dial. Cases with hinges and intricate skeletonization were developed to protect the hands and still tell time until glass became common in the early 1600s.

It was during this time that the Swiss watch and clock industry emerged in Geneva.

In 1541, the reformer Jean Calvin, by banning the wearing of ornamental objects, in effect forced goldsmiths and other jewelers to turn to a different art: watchmaking. 

Cases and dials were painstakingly handcrafted, with opulent designs and gems. Soon the pocket watch became a symbol of wealth and status!

By the end of the century, Geneva had already acquired a reputation for excellence and in 1601 the Watchmakers Guild of Geneva was established, the first of its kind in the world.

Further Developments of The Mechanical Watch

Over the centuries, many inventions and developments followed.

In 1770, Abraham-Louis Perrelet developed the "perpetual" watch (French "montre à secousses"), which is considered by many to be the forerunner of the modern self-winding watch.

In 1816, Louis Moinet produced the first chronograph, the "compteur de tierces."

In 1842, Adrien Philippe, one of the founders of the prestigious Patek Philippe manufacture, invented the pendant winding watch.

During the same period, the manufacture of complicated timepieces (chronographs, etc.) and the introduction of functions such as the retrograde hand and the perpetual calendar, began to flourish.

In 1868, the first official wristwatch was made by Patek Philippe for Countess Koscowicz of Hungary.

The 19th century also saw the onset of mass production. This development, first popularized in the United States by the Waltham Watch Company, opened up the watch industry to the common people.

In 1878, Sir Sanford Fleming invented standard time to facilitate weather forecasting and train travel.

The Warren Clock Company was founded in 1912 and manufactured a new type of clock that ran on batteries. Previously, clocks were either wound or run by weights.

In 1923, Swiss inventor John Harwood developed the first self-winding watch

In 1927, Canadian-born Warren Marrison, a telecommunications engineer, developed the first quartz clock, a high-precision timepiece based on the regular oscillations of a quartz crystal in an electrical circuit.

These are just a few of the many inventions and advancements that were made during this period.

Military Influence in Popularizing Wristwatches

In the late 1880s, Girard-Perregaux mass-produced wristwatches for German naval officers. 

Louis Cartier was also tasked to find an alternative to the pocket watch for Brazilian aviator Alberto Santos-Dumont. 

The Cartier Santos model was developed in 1904 to meet the needs of having hands on the controls, but also to measure flight time.

The First World War also made the wristwatch very popular among soldiers. 

Before wristwatches existed, soldiers had to find a way to signal others on the battlefield, potentially giving away their plans to the enemy.

With a wristwatch, however, they could coordinate a maneuver to begin at a specific time. As long as everyone's watches were synchronized, they could launch an attack without alerting the enemy.

This was revolutionary for battlefield tactics at the time. At the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, numerous watchmakers began to develop more and more wristwatches.

Soldiers were required to buy their own watches and became part of the Officers Kit for the war front. 

Watchmakers had the freedom to design the watches as they wished, with the stipulation that they had to have a luminous wristwatch and unbreakable glass.

Watch companies advertised everywhere to encourage soldiers to buy their model rather than a competing product. After the war, the public picked up on the benefits of a wristwatch over a pocket watch.

Next: The Birth of The Modern Wrist Watch

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