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Watches: development through the centuries

The earliest references to the wearing of a portable timekeeper appear around 1500-10, particularly in northern Italy and southern Germany. During the first half of the sixteenth century, watches were commonly worn on chains or ribbons around the neck. This fashion continued until the seventeenth century, when they were increasingly hung from the waist. In the mid-seventeenth century two fashions developed: the 'form watch' - with elaborate cases taking the form of other objects such as flowers, skulls or crucifixes - and the plain, undecorated watch made for the austere taste of the Puritans.

The introduction of the pocket into clothing in the mid-seventeenth century may also have contributed to the latter. During the eighteenth century there were two main trends: the plain cased timepiece, perhaps intended for every day use, and the high quality clock-watch, which struck the hours either in passing, or repeating watches, which struck the hours and quarters on demand.

The introduction of the balance spring (1675) transformed the accuracy of the watch from around half an hour to within a minute per day. New escapements, such as the cylinder (1726) and detent (ca. 17??), and sophisticated temperature compensation devices further improved accuracy. Thomas Mudge's new lever escapement (about 1754) was eventually used in a modified form in millions of mechanical watches and still used by leading Swiss manufacturers up to the present day.

During the nineteenth century, the traditional hand-made watch, produced in small batches in small workshops, was joined by the machine-made watch, gradually introduced from the 1850s. Made in Switzerland and the United States, these were eventually produced at such low prices that by the end of the century a watch was affordable to the vast majority of ordinary people.

In the nineteenth century the watch remained either in the waistcoat pocket or on short chains or ribbons. The beginning of the twentieth century saw the introduction of the wrist watch, firstly for women, but following its successful use in service during the First World War (1914-18), increasingly among men, until the pocket watch became an archaicism. The introduction of quartz in the 1970s transformed accuracy to the point where an ordinary cheap watch could be expected in most circumstances to perform to within one second per month.

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