It began, appropriately, with an egg. Around 1500, Peter Henlein, a craftsman from Nuremberg, Germany, created the first watch enclosing a timekeeping movement in a round portable case (an iron musk ball, writes one historian) and adorning it with a dial and hours hand. Henlein's timepiece and others that followed were later dubbed "Nuremberg eggs" because of their shape.
So goes one version of the birth of watchmaking. It has never been confirmed, and, like much watch history that followed, is the subject of some dispute.
Ovoid or otherwise, from Nuremberg or somewhere else, the first watches and all their descendants up to the middle of this century -- depended on a simple but ingenious invention. It was a spring that, as it gradually unwound, provided energy that moved the timepiece hands, thus performing the same function as the weights that powered the clock atop the village church tower. This device came to be known as the mainspring.
The earliest watches were ornate, exorbitantly expensive contraptions that contributed more to their wearers' social status than to their punctuality. They had no minutes hands, which would have been pointless on timepieces that could barely register the correct hour. Furthermore, they were a royal nuisance (and royalty were just about the only people who could afford them), needing to be wound with a key twice a day. People wore them around their necks or carried them in purses. (Elizabeth I of England, who lived from 1533 to 1603, reportedly bucked convention when it came to watches as she did in much else. She is said to have worn a "ring" watch that alerted her to the arrival of a pre-set hour by scratching her finger with a metal projection.)
Accuracy improved gradually through the 16th and first part of the 17th centuries. Then, around 1675, it made a quantum leap due to the second great invention in watch history, the "balance" or "hair" spring. The balance spring was an unprecedentedly precise way of regulating the oscillations of the balance. Most historians give credit for the invention to Christian Huygens of Holland. The balance spring made watches accurate to within an amazing 5 minutes a day. There would not be a comparable leap in watch accuracy until the first electronic watch, Bulova's Accutron (developed by the Swiss electrical engineer Max Hetzel), appeared in 1960.
Timekeeping improvements followed quickly during the century that followed. The first watches with a seconds hand appeared in the 1690s. The first chronograph, consisting of a seconds hand which could be stopped independently while the watch itself kept running, appeared in 1776.
One of the biggest events of the era, though, wasn't the birth of an idea, but of an idea man. Abraham-Louis Breguet (1747-1823), just about everyone agrees, was the greatest watchmaker of all time.
Born in Neuchâtel, Switzerland, he spent most of his life working in Paris, where he became the watch and clockmaking darling of the ancien régime before the French Revolution. He was watchmaker to European royalty and U.S. presidents (George Washington owned a Breguet. So did Czar Alexander I. Marie Antoinette owned many. Napoleon and Josephine Bonaparte were avid customers, as were other Bonaparte family members.) Everyone wanted, to paraphrase an English baronet, writing a century after Breguet's death, "to hold the brains of a genius in his pocket."
Among Breguet's inventions was the tourbillon, which compensates for the slight differences in timing a watch records when held in different positions. The tourbillon remains a much-coveted feature on expensive mechanical watches today. He also invented a watch that ran without winding for 60 hours. The perpetual calendar, was another Breguet invention. It, like the tourbillon, is a sought-after feature on modern watches.
Thanks to a shockproofing device Breguet developed, the timepieces made in his 100-man workshop were more durable and reliable than any had been before. (The nearly 300 years that had passed since the Nuremberg eggs, whose fragility made the name doubly apt, had done little to make watches sturdier.) They also looked completely different from the elaborately decorated rococo styles that had been in vogue. Breguet's watches had slim, graceful cases and simple faces. An engraving process called "engine turning," yet another Breguet invention, gave the dials a rich, satiny finish. Even the watches' hands were stand-outs, bearing elegantly tapered tips embellished, for greater visibility, with small open circles. Watch designers today still use "Breguet" hands to impart a look of elegance.
Breguet's life bridged two eras in watch history. The first was one of hand craftsmanship catering to the wealthy few, an age Breguet epitomized with his exquisite, custom-made pieces. The second, already underway when Breguet died, would be increasingly dominated by mass production and mass demand, the hallmarks of the Industrial Revolution.
SOURCE: From the article "Past Times" in a recent issue of Fine Times Magazine.
The Diary of Frederick MacKenzie, 1775-1781, Harvard University Press, 1930. MacKenzie was in Rhode Island when this entry was written.