The Origins of the Automatic Wrist Watch

February 23rd, 2010 | 5 Comments

In the beginning, there were mechanical pocket watches. So what made us break this 400 hundred year old tradition, and take the watch from our pocket and put it on our wrist?


Let’s take a closer look at the development of the automatic wrist watch:

The watches of the past: pocket watches

During the 16th to the early 20th century, pocket watches were the popular choice. The invention of the pocket watch allowed people to tell time on the go. The concept became increasingly important during the advent of the railroad. Punctuality was key in preventing train accidents, so railroad workers were required to keep an accurate pocket watch.


A few years earlier, Perrelet developed a self-winding mechanism for pocket watches. The self-winding mechanism would wind as the wearer walked. This invention sparked the interest of Breguet, who further developed the mechanism.

However, the self-winding mechanism for pocket watches wasn’t very successful or reliable, so Breguet stopped producing them in 1800. The watch world was at a mechanical stand-still until World War I.

The watches of the present: wearable watches

Flying an airplane during the early 1900′s was probably really scary and difficult. To make things a little easier, the wrist watch was created. The wrist watch concept was also convenient for soldiers during the trench warfare of WWI.


In 1923, John Harwood took the self-winding mechanism concepts presented in the 18th century and created the first self-winding, a.k.a. automatic, wrist watch. Harwood’s system is referred to today as the “bumper” system because the pivoting weight didn’t rotate a full 360 degrees; instead, the spring bumpers limited the weight rotation to about 180 degrees.

Unfortunately, Harwood’s watch company went out of business during the Great Depression. However, big watch companies like Rolex helped to carry on and popularize the automatic wrist watch concept during the 1930′s.

The Rolex Oyster Perpetual shows us the first example of an automatic watch with a weight that rotates a full 360 degrees. This early automatic had an impressive power reserve of about 35 hours.

rolex oyster perpetual

Over the next few decades, the automatic wrist watch concept was improved and popularized by companies like Rolex, Breitling and Cartier in Europe and America and Seiko and Orient in Japan.

Today, in addition to mechanical and automatic pocket watches and wrist watches, we also have quartz, solar powered and even cell phone watches. And though our current watches are full of gadgets and technology never imagined by early watchmakers, most people wear watches as luxury items, conversation pieces or status symbols in addition to functioning time pieces. For example, most people don’t find a chronograph feature especially useful these days, but the extra feature shows a watch’s quality and worth.

But with so much computer technology and a decrease in the need to wear a watch, what is the fate of the wrist watch?

The future of wrist watches

Sure, trains no longer depend on an accurate pocket watch, and most people rely on computers or cell phones to tell the time.

But has anyone ever heard of a cell phone that lasts longer than 2 years? No, of course not. Unlike a good quality time piece, our current technology becomes obsolete within a few years.

People continue to wear watches (and even pocket watches) because they still offer a sense of consistent convenience and class.

And a watch is more than a time piece these days, it’s a fashion statement. You may have noticed the pocket watch/Victorian fashion reprise during the last few years.

Gadget-y watches are also increasingly popular as well as “retro” watches as seen in Orient’s OrientStar Retro Future Collections.

retro future motorcycle

Lastly, automatic watches offer technology that is powered by you, not a machine. This human element makes an automatic watch truly irreplaceable.

What are your thoughts about automatic watches? Comment below.

  1. 5 Comments | Tell us what you think!

  2. By Alicia on Feb 23, 2010

    I like the old watches because those were excellent quality, more durable and the magic is involved on the pat of the spirit of the manufactured person his live in them

  3. By Alex on Feb 23, 2010

    OLd watches. they have a certain level of precision to them, esp using jewels for frictionless movement, unlike modern quarts. THey have that “handmade” look, feel, and durability to them.

  4. By Niccolo on Feb 24, 2010

    I just got schooled, thanks for the primer.

  5. By Eric on Feb 24, 2010

    I agree about the classic look of old watches, but I also like the sleek and modern look of the new watches and the fashion statements they make.

  6. By Markos on Jun 12, 2010

    Men have to do some awfully mean things to keep up their respectability.

5 comments | Tell us what you think!