HERITAGE A Wristed Development: What stopped the pocket watch?

Part Two

5 minutes

A look back at the fascinating moment (alright, it took a few years...) when the world made the shift from the stopwatch to the wrist-watch. From the hotly-debated ‘first’ wrist-mounted timepiece, all the way to the first Heuer watch – join us for a rambling review of time-keeping through time.

Military Movements, Continued:

Soon after Officers first began pragmatically strapping their pocket watches to the wrist, soldiers or ‘privates’ under their command also started to adopt the practice. In fact, The First World War was a time when watches would truly come into their own.  To allow soldiers to carry all their heavy equipment and keep their hands free, they were given wrist watches called ‘trench watches’ or ‘wristlets’. They were made with pocket watch movements, with the crown usually at 12 o’clock. Worn on leather straps, with luminous indices, they allowed for accurate coordination of maneuvers and attacks, and became a vital part of the Officer’s Kit for the war front before spreading like wildfire through the trenches. 

Sometimes protected by a metal ‘cage’ attached to the front of the case to defend the crystal against damage, these trench watches were often personalised or engraved with names or messages, making them a source of rich historical colour and detail to this day. But despite their firm roots in the practical demands of war, they didn’t just remain on the battlefield – the statement caught on in the civilian world as well. Now symbolic of heroism, masculinity, and bravado, wristwatches began to be worn by men in everyday life to express the ‘spirit’ of the brave soldier.

An early Heuer chronograph wristwatch dating from 1914

Flying High

Another important origin for the, er, ‘soaring’ popularity of the wrist-watch was the Brazilian aviator Alberto Santos-Dumont. Around the turn of the 20th century, Santos-Dumont was in search of a watch that would allow him to keep both hands on the controls while timing flights; with the help of his friend Louis Cartier and watchmaker Edmond Jaeger, the Santos wristwatch was born. Other aviators soon adopted the style, as it was far more practical and safe to use while airborne; military pilots made it even more popular and widespread.

An openface pocket watch with enamel dial

All the Rage

By 1917, the British Horological Journal wrote that “…the wristlet watch was little used by the sterner sex before the war, but now is seen on the wrist of nearly every man in uniform and of many men in civilian attire.” And by 1930, the ratio of wrist-to-pocket watches was about 50 to 1. This growing market meant that innovation and invention came thick and fast – the first successful self-winding system was invented in the 1920s.

 

 

Heuer’s Horological Evolution

Always ahead of the curve, the Heuer company had already made strides in innovation with an 1869 patent for a keyless crown-operated winding system for pocket watches. Not long after, in 1887, Heuer patented the ‘oscillating pinion’; this extraordinary breakthrough consisted of a moveable shaft with two differently toothed gears, engaged to make the chronograph function start or stop by way of push buttons. So significant was this invention that it is still used in mechanical chronographs today! 

Another early chronograph clearly showing the soldered wire lugs

Always synonymous with practical, hard-wearing designs perfectly suited to their purpose, at the turn of the 20th century Heuer had already garnered a reputation for accuracy and durability. Renowned as a purveyor of sporting chronographs, dashboard timekeepers, and easy-to-use stopwatches, for Heuer the transition to wrist watches was in many ways a logical step forward for the maison. With the demand growing for resilient watches in the trenches, Heuer quickly adapted the chronograph movement from the pocket watch, introducing their first wrist chronograph in 1914.

 

Cleverly rotating the movement and shifting the counters to 9 and 3 instead of 12 and 6 meant that the crown was far less vulnerable to the threat offing damaged.  The lugs migrated to 12 and 6, to enable easy reading.  While Heuer stopwatches had often been crafted in elegant gold cases, the precious metal was too soft and easily damaged for treacherous wartime conditions; ever pragmatic, Heuer showed a preference for making hard, weatherproof steel cases suited not only to active duty but day-to-day wear for civilian life.  Lugs evolved from welded attachments that made the dial vulnerable to breaking and cracking, via hinged lugs, to eventually being soldered into position. Luminous hands were essential for night-time legibility, and bold numerals to make time reading as easy as possible were also a consistent feature.

Charles Heuer's personal pocketwatch

In short? The shift from stop-watches to wrist-watches instigated by wartime demands was in fact an incredibly natural extension of the Heuer philosophy; not just of exceptional design and accuracy – but of unwavering reliability, durability, and innovation.  The legacy continues to this day, with TAG Heuer’s constant re-imagining of the wristwatch – from the ergonomic Connected bracelet, to new landmarks in chronograph design. Where will the wristwatch go next? Stay tuned…