Watch technology has been a surprisingly innovative field of technology for centuries. From the first true mechanical watches to sport watches today, manufacturers have constantly sought to make timepieces that are efficient, accurate and stylish accessories.
From Clocks to Watches
Early clocks took advantage of earth's gravitational pull by using heavy weights to slowly spin a clock's internal components, allowing the hands to move on the watch face. These weight driven clocks were highly functional, but required people to reset the weights regularly.
Fueled by the need to provide portable clocks to their consumers, clock makers began looking for better internal mechanisms to power clocks in the 15th century. The weight mechanisms were replaced by a small, coiled spring that could store a high level of energy. The metal spring is under tension and releases energy as it attempts to uncoil. This technology, called a mainspring, allowed clock makers to make smaller, cheaper clocks available to a wider audience.
The move from weight driven clocks to mainspring clocks, also known as manual clocks, was a significant step in the clock industry. The mainspring was scalable to a very small size, allowing clock makers in the 16th century to transition from larger clocks to smaller, portable watches, known as wristlets for women and pocket watches for men. Wristlets and pocket watches were far removed from today's watches, but they were, at the time, accessories that allowed men and women to show their status.
Early manual watches had limitations, such as accuracy and durability issues, but these were improved on over the next century. One such limitation was the fact that mainsprings would not discharge energy at a regular rate, meaning the watch would lose its accurate time over a matter of hours or days. Watchmakers found several solutions to this problem, such as the balance spring, which improved timepiece's accuracy significantly. Because early watches were required to be wound every few days, watchmakers in the 1770s designed a self-winding watch, known today as an automatic watch, which uses the natural motion of your wrist to move a weight inside the watch that winds the spring.
The Emergence of Electrical Watches
It wasn't until the discovery electric properties in quartz that the next major paradigm shift for watch makers. Quartz, or silicon dioxide, is a common material that has significant electrical properties that allow modern watches to keep very accurate time. When an electric signal is sent to the quartz crystal, it oscillates at a specific frequency, and that can be used to track time very accurately. These properties were discovered in the 1880s, but the first quartz clock wasn't produced until 1927. This clock was reminiscent of the old weight-driven clocks because of its large size and immobility. Many quartz clocks were made over the next few decades, but they were expensive and virtually unmovable, so they were mostly used in laboratory settings where time accuracy was vital.
Quartz watches weren't available to the general public until the 1960s, with the advent of small electronic circuits. Electronic circuits are found everywhere today, from children's toys to supercomputers. Watch companies jumped at the opportunity to incorporate these circuits into their timepieces. Since the 1970s, quartz watches have become extremely popular for both watch manufacturers and consumers due to their low production cost and accuracy.
Today & Beyond
With timepieces readily available, the industry has advanced toward stronger, more durable materials, a higher level of accuracy and smaller, longer lasting batteries. Some such watches use solar power to constantly charge the watch's battery, meaning you'll never have to replace it. Others are capable of receiving radio signals that automatically adjust the time on your watch, so you'll never need to set the time. Some of the best watches today are designed to withstand the elements, whether you're camping in the mountains, trekking through a desert or scuba diving in the deepest seas.
So what's next? Watch manufacturers are turning their attention to the arena of smart devices, as the interconnectivity of devices, or the Internet of Things, is becoming more real each day. The smart watch is to the regular watch as the smartphone is to the regular phone. Instead of just displaying the time or giving you stopwatch features, smart watches pair with your phone and display quick notifications so you don't have to use your phone for simple tasks. For example, some smart watch models allow you to read texts, ignore phone calls, check the weather or even change the song you're listening to, right from your wrist.
The best thing about watches for men and women today is the versatility and level of choice you have in timepieces. Manual watches are still produced and are widely popular for their aesthetic properties and mechanical complexity. Quartz watches are extremely accurate timepieces that are relatively cheap and usually can handle some abuse from the elements, which makes them useful watches for men and women who enjoy the outdoors. Smart watches are still emerging on the market, but all of them aim to connect you to the wide world from your wrist. Regardless of which watch matches your personality and needs, the technology behind each watch has been building since the first known watches in the 15th century.