Watches in History: The Development of the Wristwatch

It used to be that no self-respecting man would ever dream of wearing a wristwatch. Such watches were considered nothing but women's frippery. In fact, the first wristwatch was invented by Patek Philippe as a piece of women's jewelry in 1868. Today watches are worn on the wrists of men and women and designer wristwatches are status symbols. How did this come to be?

The Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902)

Some credit the British victory over the Boers due to a wartime jury-rigged wristwatch cobbled together by the soldiers. Since the pocket watches of the day were clumsy to maneuver during combat, the soldiers created wristwatches by affixing their pocket watches to leather straps and tying the contraption onto their wrists. Since advances in weapon design had created a new type of war where precision mattered more than ever, British officers were able to time their attacks using the humble timekeepers strapped to their wrists.

World War I (1914-1919)

It wasn't until World War I that wristwatches were seen as functional apparel to be worn by either sex as opposed to merely women's jewelry. Building on the lessons of the earlier Anglo-Boer war, military pocket watches now came with leather straps and shrapnel guards.

After the war was over, soldiers returning home from overseas still wore their trench watches, the name given to these timekeepers because of the novel style of fighting employed during the war: trench warfare. The sight of returning war-heroes wearing watches on their wrists changed the public's perceptions of wristwatches forever.


Hans Wilsdorf, Rolex's founder, was quite the visionary when it came to wristwatches. Even when most men would rather chew off their foot rather than be seen wearing a wristwatch, he continued to work on improving them. He even sent his wristwatches to the prestigious Neuchatel Observatory for accuracy and precision testing. He then used the results to market his timepieces. During the war, Rolex capitalized on the demand for accurate military timepieces and once wristwatches had shed their stigma of being useless baubles for females, it launched several successful models, including the tool watches of the 1950s. It is credited with inventing the auto rotor, the device that allows wristwatches to be self-winding. Watch companies still use this device even today.

Watches Go Digital

In the 1970s the personal computer was born due to the shrinking size of computer technology. This advance lead to a new industry in Japan that involved creating timepieces that relied on digital data rather than mechanics as all watches and clocks did prior to this point. Not only could they tell time, they could also tell the current date, including the day of the week.

Full Circle

Today, watches are considered to both functional and decorative. Both men and women wear wristwatches and some of them, made for either sex, resemble bracelets in style and design. From gold to gold-plated, some feature bejeweled faces and accents. Indeed, wristwatches remain very much a fashion accessory now just as they were back in the day.