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Keeping an eye on the time

A watch is a small timepiece intended to be carried or worn by a person. It is designed to keep working despite the motions caused by the person’s activities. A wristwatch is designed to be worn around the wrist, attached by a watch strap or other type of bracelet. A pocket watch is designed for a person to carry in a pocket.

Watches evolved in the 17th century from spring-powered clocks, which appeared as early as the 14th century. During most of its history the watch was a mechanical device, driven by clockwork, powered by winding a mainspring, and keeping time with an oscillating balance wheel. In the 1960s the electronic quartz watch was invented, which was powered by a battery and kept time with a vibrating quartz crystal. By the 1980s the quartz watch had taken over most of the market from the mechanical watch.

Today most inexpensive and medium-priced watches, used mainly for timekeeping, have quartz movements. Expensive collectible watches, valued more for their elaborate craftsmanship, aesthetic appeal and glamorous design than for simple timekeeping, often have traditional mechanical movements, even though they are less accurate and more expensive than electronic ones. Various extra features, called “complications”, such as moon-phase displays and the different types of tourbillon, are sometimes included. Modern watches often display the day, date, month and year, and electronic watches may have many other functions. Time-related features such as timers, chronographs and alarm functions are common. Some modern designs incorporate calculators, GPS and Bluetooth technology or have heart-rate monitoring capabilities. Some watches use radio clock technology to regularly correct the time.

Developments in the 2010s include smartwatches, which are elaborate computer-like electronic devices designed to be worn on a wrist. They generally incorporate timekeeping functions, but these are only small fractions of what the smartwatch can do.

Watches evolved from portable spring-driven clocks, which first appeared in 15th century Europe. Watches weren’t widely worn in pockets until the 17th century. One account says that the word “watch” came from the Old English word woecce which meant “watchman”, because it was used by town watchmen to keep track of their shifts at work.Another says that the term came from 17th century sailors, who used the new mechanisms to time the length of their shipboard watches (duty shifts).

A great leap forward in accuracy occurred in 1657 with the addition of the balance spring to the balance wheel, an invention disputed both at the time and ever since between Robert Hooke and Christiaan Huygens. This innovation increased watches’ accuracy enormously, reducing error from perhaps several hours per day to perhaps 10 minutes per day, resulting in the addition of the minute hand to the face from around 1680 in Britain and 1700 in France.

The increased accuracy of the balance wheel focused attention on errors caused by other parts of the movement, igniting a two-century wave of watchmaking innovation. The first thing to be improved was the escapement. The verge escapement was replaced in quality watches by the cylinder escapement, invented by Thomas Tompion in 1695 and further developed by George Graham in the 1720s. Improvements in manufacturing such as the tooth-cutting machine devised by Robert Hooke allowed some increase in the volume of watch production, although finishing and assembling was still done by hand until well into the 19th century.

A major cause of error in balance wheel timepieces, caused by changes in elasticity of the balance spring from temperature changes, was solved by the bimetallic temperature compensated balance wheel invented in 1765 by Pierre Le Roy and improved by Thomas Earnshaw. The lever escapement was the single most important technological breakthrough, and was invented by Thomas Mudge in 1759 and improved by Josiah Emery in 1785, although it only gradually came into use from about 1800 onwards, chiefly in Britain.

The British had predominated in watch manufacture for much of the 17th and 18th centuries, but maintained a system of production that was geared towards high quality products for the elite. Although there was an attempt to modernise clock manufacture with mass production techniques and the application of duplicating tools and machinery by the British Watch Company in 1843, it was in the United States that this system took off. Aaron Lufkin Dennison started a factory in 1851 in Massachusetts that used interchangeable parts, and by 1861 it was running a successful enterprise incorporated as the Waltham Watch Company.

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