Before the Apple Watch: Six of the best timepieces used through the centuries

| 10 March 2015

As details of the Apple Watch are announced, here are six classic designs that changed timekeeping

A photo of an old wristwatch with gold and dark blue features
© Science Museum / Science and Society Picture Library
Hamilton electric wristwatch (1957)

The world's first battery-powered wristwatch was launched by the Hamilton Watch Company of Pennsylvania in the US on January 3 1957, having taken more than ten years to develop.

The timekeeping was controlled by a conventional balance wheel, but kept in motion by electromagnets, rather than a main spring. It proved an instant success, making the need to wind watches by hand a thing of the past.

Hamilton employed designer Richard Arbib to produce a range of dramatic case styles to accompany the movement. These watches were in production until 1969, when they were replaced by superior quartz movement technology.

A photo of an ancient circular timepiece against a red and black background
© Science Museum / Science and Society Picture Library
Balance spring pocket watch in silver case (1675-1679)

One of the earliest surviving balance spring watches, this was made by the great English clock maker Thomas Tompion (1639-1713), with a Tompion-type regulator dial and a separate seconds hand.

The application of the pendulum in 1657 to clock timekeeping, which was of such huge significance to horology and science, was matched by the application of the balance spring in 1675 to watch timekeeping.

Both devices offered far more accurate timekeeping than had previously been possible – and in 1675, under the supervision of leading scientist Robert Hooke (1635-1703), Tompion made one of the first English watches equipped with a balance spring, a watch which was presented to Charles II (1630-1685).

A photo of a 17th century timepiece made from a circular golden clock
© Science Museum / Science and Society Picture Library
Early German watch and watch movement (16th century)

The earliest known watches were made in Germany at the beginning of the 16th century: scaled-down versions of the slightly earlier table-clocks made wholly of iron.

An example of the movement of one of these watches is shown on the left and dates from the first half of the 16th century; the watch on the right has an outer ring of dial figures running from I to XII and an inner ring that runs from 13 to 24.

Although made in Germany, it was intended for use in Italy, where a 24-hour system of of hour-reckoning was employed until the late 17th century. This watch would have been worn suspended from a cord slung around the wearer's neck.

A photo of a grey wristwatch with a silver mechanism and the words swiss made mechanism
© Science Museum / Science and Society Picture Library
Rolex 'Oyster Perpetual' wristwatch (1931)

Introduced in 1931, this rotor self-winding wristwatch incorporated a self-winding mechanism which became the standard form for all subsequent automatic wristwatches.

The Perpetual movement transforms each movement of the wrist into a reserve of power which keeps the mainspring at optimum tension, thereby ensuring greater accuracy and reliability.

A photo of a wristwatch with a black watch and a circular centre
© Science Museum / Science and Society Picture Library
Bulova 'Accutron' wristwatch (circa 1962)

This tuning fork-controlled, battery-powered wristwatch was the world's first truly electronic watch, designed by Max Hetzel and released in 1960 with a precision tuning fork as a time standard instead of the traditional balance wheel and hairspring.

The tuning fork ensured greater accuracy, and Bulova was able to guarantee that it would not lose or gain more than a minute in time a month – until the advent of the quartz crystal-controlled wristwatch in the 1970s, the tuning fork watch was state-of-the-art and was even used by NASA in its Apollo program.

Many thought it would become the standard mechanism for wristwatches. It remained in production until 1976, by which time five million tuning fork watches had been sold.

© Science Museum / Science and Society Picture Library
Longines 'Ultraquartz' quartz analogue wristwatch (1969-70)

One of the first ever quartz wristwatches, this was Swiss-made, although the Japanese manufacturer, Seiko, was the first to release a quartz wristwatch on the market in 1969 (the 35-series 'Quartz Astron').

The Swiss industry had been developing their own quartz watches in parallel, resulting in the generic 'Beta 21' movement.

1970 saw several quartz watches exhibited at trade conferences, including the Longines Ultraquartz and the Hamilton 'Pulsar' – the first electronic digital wristwatch.

You can see more in the permanent exhibition at the Science Museum in London. Visit the exhibition online.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

More from Culture24's Technology section:

World's most dangerous toy goes on display at Ulster Museum

Science festival announces stratospheric climate change solutions and survey of British sexual behaviour

National Museum of Computing enlists sound artist Matt Parker to create sound archive of computing
Latest comment: >Make a comment
These are real innovations in watches. The Apple Watch isn't innovative and is so ugly it can't possibly be a fashion piece like most watches are today.
>See all comments
More on the venues and organisations we've mentioned:
  • Back to top
  • | Print this article
  • | Email this article
  • | Bookmark and Share
    Back to article
    Your comment:
    DISCLAIMER: Reader comments posted at are the opinion of the comment writer, not Culture24. Culture24 reserves the right to withdraw or withhold from publication any comments that are deemed to be hearsay or potentially libellous, or make false or unsubstantiated allegations or are deemed to be spam or unrelated to the article at which they are posted.