While there have been endless innovations in timepieces, with several manufactures claiming world firsts for a whole catalog of different advancements within the field of watchmaking, there are relatively few that have succeeded in altering our perception of them. Here, however, are 7 watches/timepieces that drew a line in the sand, and effectively changed our watch loving landscape forever.
John Harrison’s H4 Chronometer
There are few, if any timekeeping devices, that can claim to have ushered in the changes as compellingly as John Harrison’s chronometer. His invention harked back to the Longitude Problem, whereby for every 15° that one travels eastward, the local time moves one hour ahead. Similarly, travelling West, the local time moves back one hour for every 15° of longitude. Therefore, if the local times are known at two points on Earth, it is possible to use the difference between them to calculate how far apart those places are in longitude, east or west. This concept was vital to sailors and navigators in the 17th century.
In 1714 the British Government commissioned the Longitude Prize, an award of £20,000 (equivalent today to £2.58m) to anyone who could create a timekeeper capable of remaining accurate within two minutes on a voyage from England to the West Indies.
Enter John Harrison, a joiner from Lincolnshire with little formal education. As with many modern day inquiries that the government commissions, the award of the Longitude Prize rumbled on for decades. In fact the final tranche of the reward money to long suffering Harrison was not awarded until 1773, some 59 years after commissioning the prize.
Harrison devised four versions of his chronometer, and it was Harrison’s son William who set sail for the West Indies, with H4, the fourth version of Harrison’s chronometer aboard the ship Deptford on 18 November 1761. The ship arrived in Jamaica on January 19 1762, where the watch was found to be only 5.1 seconds slow! It was a remarkable achievement but it would still be nine frustrating years before the Commissioners of Longitude were sufficiently satisfied to grant Harrison a reward.
Harrison’s chronometer made the British Navy the most powerful in the world, and ultimately forged the start of the British Empire, a map of which above shows how much of the world this small island nation once ruled as a direct result of accurate navigation.
It’s one of the first and most successful diving watches in history. Diving had become revolutionized in the 1950’s by Jacques Cousteau’s invention of the aqua-lung, which made diving easier and more accessible. Cousteau was also commissioned by Rolex to help test their new diver’s watch, the Submariner. The first Submariner was introduced at the Basel Watch Fair (Baselworld) in 1954. It was the right watch at the right time. In the post war years consumers wanted to forget about war and focus on the good things in life. The Rolex Submariner enabled the rapidly growing leisure pursuit of diving to become safer and more reliable with the use of the unidirectional rotating bezel. For the first time divers could accurately calculate their dive time and avoid decompression – commonly known as the bends, by setting the zero mark to the right number of minutes for safe resurfacing. The Submariner changed our world because it effectively became a classic luxury watch offering prestige for both adventurous divers and those that never got any closer to water than the office water cooler. Not surprisingly, it is regarded as the most iconic watch of all time, known and instantly recognized around the world, it’s one of the few watches that keeps its value when bought.
The Japanese did not invent quartz, but they did perfect it, and the introduction of the first quartz watch, the Seiko Astron, on Christmas Day 1969, had almost as much impact upon the Swiss watch industry as the Japanese had on the Second World War when they attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7 1941.
The Astron was accurate to ±0.2 seconds per day, ±5 seconds per month, or one minute per year. The Astron heralded the dawn of the quartz watch. Almost overnight consumers recognized that this new form of time-telling was more accurate and reliable than even the finest mechanical watches. Within a short space of time – less than a decade — almost 100 years of dominance by the mechanical wristwatch legacy was overturned.
Where mechanical movements can typically be off by several seconds a day, an inexpensive quartz movement in a child’s wristwatch may still be accurate to within half a second per day — ten times better than a mechanical movement. Reliable Japanese quartz watches flooded the traditional watch buying markets of Europe, and the Swiss watch industry, based upon traditional mechanical watchmaking skills, saw several venerable centuries old manufactures go to the wall. At the time of the so called Quartz Crisis, there was not one single Swiss family involved in the watch industry who was not profoundly affected by the flash flood effect of quartz. Today, modern quartz movements are produced in vast quantities, and even the cheapest wristwatches typically have extremely reliable quartz movements.
Inspired by Stanley Kubrick’s visionary movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, the first digital watch was introduced by Pulsar, a division of the Hamilton Watch Company in 1970. Kubrick had asked Hamilton to create the futuristic digital clock for his film. The oval clock with glowing red digits and the prominent Hamilton logo captured the public’s attention. Watch lovers didn’t have long to wait until the digital clock was transformed into watch form. The Pulsar was the first watch to display time in a digital format, using light emitting diodes (LEDs), as well as the first all-electronic watch with no moving parts. The honor of being the world’s first digital watch is significant considering that it was the first new way to tell time in half a millennium. Watch experts, such as Henry Fried, consider the digital display the greatest technological leap since the hairspring in 1675. But it was Japanese company Casio who ultimately stole the show, and the digital watch loving audience with the introduction in 1991 of the classic Casio F 91W, a cheap, reliable digital watch much beloved the world over. This watch continues to be a retro bestseller with numerous variations and remains one of the cheapest, most dependable watches money buy.
Ironically, it was the Swiss watchmaking industry’s answer to the ubiquitous Japanese quartz watch that brought about another world changing timekeeper. Introduced in 1983 as a means of combating the relentless and ruinous advance of the quartz watch, Swatch watches were inexpensive quartz watches, but they were much more than mere devices for telling the time. The Swatch was a new language that immediately captured the imagination of the lucrative youth market.
The Swatch phenomenon at its mid-80s peak saw several collectors wearing two on each arm. Each model was quirky, colorful and individualistic. It was devised as much as a talking piece as a time piece, and the Swatch story continues to this day with designs limited only to the watchmaker’s imagination. It was this simple, quartz powered watch that almost singlehandedly saved the Swiss watch industry, restored its innovative reputation and enabled the traditional mechanical watchmaking industry to right its own ship. Early Swatch watches are hugely collectible, and new (relatively) limited editions sell out in minutes.
The G-Shock heralded a new watch world changing genre of cool collectible timepieces that once again disrupted traditional watch buying attitudes. Designed by an engineer working for Casio by the name of Kikuo Ibe, the idea was based upon the triple ten concept: a watch that has a 10 year battery life, is water resistant to 10 bar, and can survive a 10m fall onto a hard surface. 200 prototypes were tested by dropping them from rooftops, or third story windows. Where the Swatch was small, sleek and cute, the G-Shock was big, bulky, obtrusive and in your face. The popularity of G-Shocks increased rapidly throughout the 1990s. By 1998, 19 million G-Shocks had been sold worldwide. Like Swatch watches, it’s incredibly hard to get hold of limited editions made in partnership with all kinds of cool designer labels. Forever adapting to changing tastes, one of the latest incarnations of the G-Shock is the introduction of ‘Grown up G-Shocks’ expensive and technologically sophisticated G-Shocks aimed at an audience that has matured and wants a more ‘adult’ version of the watch on their wrist. High-end G-Shocks feature Tough Solar batteries that feed off the sun’s rays, and atomic timing synchronization as well as the usual host of features common to all G-Shocks from a stop watch to an alarm function. Watch purists may regard them as ugly and brutal, but the G-Shock Forum on Watchuseek continues to be the busiest brand Forum on the site!
Love it or hate it, the march of the much derided ‘smart watch’ is upon us. There are a number of players in the field in this relatively new genre, but by reputation and clout alone, the Apple iWatch is the one that attracts the most attention. It hasn’t changed our watch loving world yet, but it may well do. Let’s not forget, a little over 20 years ago people laughed at those with mobile phones and could not see the point of them, now of course we can’t live without them. A new generation of device users have grown up feeling that the watch is an irrelevance, but with the ability for smart watches to receive and respond to notiﬁcations in an instant, to track your daily activity, to control your music using only your voice, to pay for groceries and much more, the smartwatch is certainly starting to capture a great deal of attention. It also has Siri, an app that enables you to talk to your watch to get information on everything from the way to the Guggenheim Museum to the time of the next showing of the latest Mission Impossible. In fact telling the time is low on the Apple iWatch’s list of priorities, and that in itself, could prove to be a major world changer.
Have any other watches changed our world? Let us know!
Rolex Submariner ad courtesy of Jake’s Rolex Blog