A Brief History of Pocket Watches

The pocket watch is one of the oldest denizens of the watch world. It traces its lineage to 16th-century Germany, where innovative clockmaker Peter Henlein of Nuremberg (inventor of spring-powered clocks) was one of the first to make pocket watches. In the 1700s, a specially designed oversized pocket watch by English clockmaker John Harrison played a decisive role in determining longitude.

Fine pocket watches were expensive status symbols of America’s wealthy-both men and women-in the 19th century, until “dollar watches” were mass-produced by American companies in the late 1800s. In the 1890s, a 4-minute error in a railroad engineer’s pocket watch caused a horrific train collision, which led to creation of a uniform system of precise “railroad time,” adopted by Congress in 1918 as the standard for timekeeping in the United States. In the 20th century, pocket watches became fashion accessories, worn with zoot suits in the 1930s, three-piece business suits in the 1950s, and casual cargo pants today. They’ve also been accessories for style-setting celebrities, including movie stars like James Dean in the 1950s and pop stars like Ricky Martin and Sean “Puffy” Combs in the 1990s.