Wednesday, October 14, 2015

How World War I Started the Wristwatch Revolution

Waltham World War I era wristwatch that used
a metal gate to protect the crystal. Photo from
the German Clock Museum and Wikipedia.
It’s strange to think that if it hadn’t been for World War I, we might still be stuck with bulky watches in our pockets instead of wearing wristwatches. (In a way, though, our phones, which live in our pockets and which always thoughtfully know the correct time, are a nod to the bygone era of pocket watches.)

The mechanization of war led to an increased need for precise timing, which meant that the boys who became soldiers had to carry watches. On July 9, 1919, the New York Times reported, “The telephone and signal service, which play important parts in modern warfare, have made the wearing of watches by soldiers obligatory.”  But what kind of watch? Pocket watches were slow to the draw: With a pocket watch it took time to tell the time. But a watch on the wrist turned a soldier into a quick-draw time-teller.

Early wristwatches had their own special problems. Because wristwatches weren’t protected like pocket watches were, their crystals were easily shattered. In war, that was dangerous. According to the New York Times: “the chief danger [was the] breaking of the crystal, and, when the watch was worn on the wrist, the consequences [were] serious, owing to the parts of the shattered crystal flying into the eyes, and for a time there was talk of discontinuing the use of wrist watches.”

But cleverness and creativity prevailed. The New York Times again: “The fertile brain of the inventors finally hit upon unbreakable glass, clear in color and non-inflammable... So great has become the demand for wrist watches equipped with unbreakable glass that European manufacturers are working overtime and being compelled to convert ladies’ watches into military timepieces to meet the military needs.”

First in Europe, then in America, “strap watches” began to replace pocket watches. It wasn’t an easy change either, as the newspaper noted: “Until recently, the bracelet watch has been looked upon by Americans as more of less or a joke. Vaudeville artists and moving-picture actors have utilized it as a funmaker, as a ‘silly ass’ fad.” (Emphasis added, because, wow, who knew that watches worn on wrists were the foundation of jokes?)  

But change was coming, and thanks to how very useful wristwatches were for soldiers in World War I, in 1919 pocket watches were on their way to becoming quaint artifacts of earlier days. Though you could say some parts haven’t changed: You can always pull your smartphone out of your pocket and think of it as a pocket watch.

New York Times article about wristwatches moving into pocket watches' territory. 

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