The Timepiece on Your Wrist


DO YOU know what time it is? A mere glance at your wristwatch will tell you. But is your watch showing the correct time? We can easily take these timekeepers for granted, yet there is more to them than meets the eye.

Despite the immaterial and transient nature of time, man has always been interested in measuring it. The cycle of the seasons, the phases of the moon, the succession of day and night​—all divide time naturally. But man has long striven to measure time in smaller amounts and with greater accuracy.

The Science Behind the Machine

Horology​—the science that involves the making of machines that indicate time—​is among the oldest of the scientific crafts. The “heart” of these machines is the escapement. This regulates the rate at which the power driving the machine is released. When this power is allowed to escape only in small amounts and at regular intervals, periods of time can be measured. No one knows exactly when the first all-mechanical clock was invented, but a milestone was reached about the year 1500, when portable timepieces were first made.

The now common wristwatch is a relative newcomer. It became common in the late 1800’s, particularly among women. During the first world war, artillery officers found that a watch worn on the wrist was more practical than one carried in a pocket. Thereafter, the popularity of wristwatches grew.

Nowadays, most watches are electronic and utilize quartz crystals. When specially shaped and placed in a suitable electronic circuit, a piece of quartz vibrates at a constant frequency, acting like a rapidly swinging pendulum.

It is extremely difficult to adjust mechanical or quartz watches to keep exact time. So no matter what watch you have, it will to some extent gain or lose time. Today, however, quartz watches are available that periodically correct themselves using time signals from atomic clocks. * Advertisers claim that such radio-controlled watches are accurate to one second in a million years!

Mechanical Timepieces Still Have Appeal

Considering such high precision and the fact that the escapement used in mechanical watches was invented more than two hundred years ago, you may feel that the mechanical timepiece is obsolete. After all, who would choose to use a mechanical calculating machine if an electronic calculator was readily available? Yet, a watch that ticks still holds a fascination for many. Each year millions are produced. The value of Swiss exports of mechanical watches has in recent years even exceeded that of their electronic counterparts. New, efficient, low-friction escapements have been developed, and people continue to seek out and use skilled horologists to repair their mechanical timepieces.

What accounts for the appeal of mechanical timepieces? Michael, a horologist with three decades’ experience, believes that their long, useful life is one factor. He points out that while a quartz watch may work reliably  for some 15 years or so, a well-made mechanical watch can keep good time for more than 100 years. Such a watch, passed down from parent to child, can have great sentimental value.

For others the attraction of mechanical timepieces lies in the technical complexities and precision involved in displaying information about time and astronomy using minuscule gears and springs. Also, because these mechanisms can be made by hand, they can be understood and repaired by a dedicated enthusiast.

Unlike most machines, watches are expected to work day in and day out for years on end. What is more, wristwatches have to work at different temperatures and in every conceivable position, even when moving erratically, yet be exceptionally accurate. A watch that gains or loses no more than 20 seconds a day has an error of only 0.023 percent, the kind of accuracy normally expected of a carefully handled scientific instrument. No wonder many people appreciate the accumulation of skill, ingenuity, and craftsmanship embodied in the mechanical wristwatch!

Of course, other factors come into play. Michael, referred to earlier, explains that some people simply wish to avoid the battery changes required by most quartz watches. So, what can help you decide which type of watch to wear?

 Which to Choose?

No doubt you primarily want a watch that has personal appeal. To many, that means a watch that is not only practical and functional but also aesthetic. In addition, Michael recommends that you give some thought to what you expect from a watch. Will you wear it all day every day or only on special occasions? Will it be subjected to knocks or extreme temperatures? Regular exposure to chemicals or seawater, for example, can damage some straps and cases. So it is wise to take these factors into account.

On the matter of cost, it is best to set a budget and stick to it. Generally, mechanical watches are more expensive than quartz. Keep in mind, though, that the same basic movements are used in many different watches. The movement is that part of the watch, housed within the case, that actually gives the time. In the main, these are all well designed and constructed. Usually, prices vary because of the nonfunctional parts, such as the case or the bracelet. So a higher cost does not always mean greater accuracy or reliability.​—See the box above.

With a watch on your wrist, it is easy to check the time without a moment’s hesitation. Knowing something about the development of wristwatches can help you to appreciate these useful devices. After all, do you not find that you feel lost without your watch?


^ par. 9 Using atomic vibrations as a standard of frequency, atomic clocks keep time with the utmost accuracy.

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TYPE: A chronograph has counters to measure brief intervals of time, which is ideal if you want to time events. For engaging in sports, a water-resistant watch is advisable. If you have difficulty remembering to wind a watch, bear in mind that a quartz watch does not need winding. Neither do mechanical self-winding, or automatic, watches, which are wound by the movements of the wearer’s arm.

ACCURACY: If this is something you value, you might consider a chronometer, a high-precision timepiece that meets well-established and official criteria of accuracy. Ultimately, quartz technology offers more precise timekeeping. A modern mechanical watch with a fast-beat movement that ticks 28,800 times each hour works at a frequency of four vibrations per second. Compare that with a standard quartz watch that operates at between 10,000 and 100,000 vibrations per second!

DISPLAY: A digital watch uses numerals, or digits, to indicate the time; an analog display uses hands moving around a dial. Digital displays can present information, such as date, alarm, additional time zone, and chronograph. Analog displays present the time in a form easily and quickly absorbed, by just a glance at the angle of the hands.

SERVICING: Because a mechanical watch is driven by a powerful spring, it is less easily stopped by particles of dirt or dust than a quartz watch. Even so, for trouble-free timekeeping, mechanical watches need servicing more regularly than quartz. Having no moving parts, quartz watches with digital displays require no maintenance at all, other than battery changes.

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The first documented wristwatch, Abraham-Louis Breguet


The date is displayed on the watch face, Rolex


An electric-motor wristwatch, Hamilton Watch Company


The time is kept through electronics, Bulova


An all-electronic wristwatch with a digital display, Hamilton Watch Company

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Second and fourth photos: Courtesy of Hamilton Watches

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