Watches – miniaturised clocks for personal timekeeping – have been around for centuries in one form or another. Perhaps the most famous type of watch no longer in general use was the pocket watch – a small personal watch attached to one’s clothing by a short chain to protect from loss and theft. The pocket watch was the most common form of watch from their invention in the 16th century, and a common sight amongst the upper classes after their popularisation in the 19th century, up until their replacement with wristwatches during the First World War.
Wristwatches were popularised during the war, due to the convenience that came with accurate timekeeping without needing to provide visual signals on the battlefield. During WWI the armed forces employed a transitionary model – the trench watch. The trench watch, also referred to as a wristlet, incorporated aspects of both traditional pocket watches and modern wristwatches. Prior to this, wristwatches had mainly been decorative jewellery pieces for female aristocrats and members of royalty.
But who invented the very first wristwatch, centuries before we decided to employ them in armed conflict? Well, there’s some debate. According to the Guiness Book of World Records, Swiss watch maker Patek Phillipe invented the world’s first wristwatch in 1868. A claim they repeat on their website, but one that has a few holes!
The issue with Patek Phillipe’s claim is that historical references to wristwatches predate 1868. It is said that in 1810, Abraham-Louise Breguet invented the world’s first wristwatch in a commission for the Queen of Naples. Indeed, the documentary evidence exists to back up this claim, with the commission being requested on 8th June 1810 for a “repeater watch for bracelet”. The Queen of Naples at the time was one of Breguet’s best and highest esteemed clients and had purchased some 34 clocks and watches between 1808 and 1814.
But the story doesn’t stop there, because even Breguet may have been beaten to the punch! Other historical references to wristwatches have been found as early as the 16th century! Written records from 1790 suggest that a watch worn on a strap was manufactured by watchmaker Jacquet-Droz and Leschot. In 1650, philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal was believed to wear a watch on his wrist. Finally, all the way back in the late 1500s, Queen Elizabeth I of England and Ireland is said to have received a wristwatch as a gift from Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicester.