History of Timekeeping

Written by Andy Ray Hall, June 2022


Mankind has always been concerned with measuring and recording the passage of time. Time recording has been crucial to the development of civilizations, from knowing when to plant or harvest crops to identifying important events throughout the year. Civilizations from the ancient Egyptians to the Roman Empire have used different methods to find out what day of the year it is. However, it has always been difficult for early humanity to measure time. The sundial, which is possibly the first type of clock that was intended to indicate times of the day, can be traced back over 5,000 years.

The time indicated on a sundial was based on the movement of the sun in the sky. This was different during the seasons and of course did not work on cloudy days or at night. Other methods such as Water clocks (Clepsydra), candles and hourglasses served only as rough indications of short periods of time and could not be used for the purpose for which the sundial was used.



The pendulum

The pendulum was patented by Christian Huygens in 1656, but was first experimented within 1602 by Galilei. The pendulum clock reduced the time deviation to approximately 15 seconds per day compared to the existing mechanical accuracy of 15 minutes per day. Scientists, including Isaac Newton, studied the pendulum and helped measure the shape of the earth accurately due to the force of motion.


Pocket watches

The early pocket watches that were produced in the late 16th century only showed the hour. It was not until 1680 that minute hands were added to the watches. The pointers for the seconds appeared 10 years later, but did not become common practice until well after. This change is said to have taken place after Charles II of England introduced the use of vests. When the watch had to be worn in a pocket instead of being protected in a pendant, the watch case was flattened and curved to prevent sharp edges from sticking out and damaging the clothes. The dial was covered with glass in 1610 to protect the hands from damage.


Ownership of watches

In the 18th century, the ownership of watches became more widespread. The manufacturers made watches in all shapes and sizes, including large car boxes and decorative table clocks. As watches became more common, a greater development of technology followed. The first self-winding mechanism (automatic clock) was invented in 1770 by Abraham-Louis Perrelet Mass Production. With the upgrades in technology in the 19th century, manufacturers were also able to develop their own systems for copying tools and machines. Mass production flourished. Cheaper materials made it possible to mass-produce pocket watches, making them available to ordinary people for the first time. Mass production also required a change in the way pocket watches mainspring were wound. From around 1860, key winding was replaced by keyless winding. This meant that the pocket watch was charged by turning the crown, this method is still used today.


The first wristwatch

Wristwatches were actually invented in the 1570s. however, they were described as "arm watches". Wristwatches became popular with men in the military in 1880. Constant Girard of Girard-Perregaux, mass-produced 2,000 wristwatches for German officers in the Navy.

Brazilian aviator Alberto Santos-Dumont was looking for a watch that would allow him to keep both hands on his plane while taking time on his flights. He turned to his good friend Louis Cartier to find a solution. Cartier and his watchmaker Edmond Jaeger developed the Santos wristwatch, which became hugely popular in the period of World War I, and is now considered to be the watch what made wristwatches popular amongst men, eventually overtaking pocket watches.


The story of Eterna (ETA)

The story of ETA starts in 1856 when the company was founded by Josef Girard and Urs Schild. Girard retired in 1866 and sold his shares. Urs Schild died in 1888; it was then that Eterna was taken over by Schilds brother and his sons Max and Theodor. Theodor Schild wanted a brand for the production of their own designed watches (Eterna watches) and for their production of watch parts for export. ETA SA became one of the first manufacturers of automatic movements (with extremely precise hand-drawn manuals), this is one of the reasons why ETA SA still has a great deal of respect in the industry to this day. The company ETA is known for having her movements in watches from luxury brands like Omega, IWC and many more. In addition, their workhorses: ETA 2824-2 and ETA 2892 as well as their chronograph ETA / Valjoux 7750 are highly respected in the industry.


The logos are shown as representation with educational purpose. 

Quartz Crisis

For centuries, watches have been considered a luxury item. They were reserved for the aristocracy and other elite members of society or were used for functional purposes in the military and other occupations where one needed to put time into one's work. The 1970s marked a period of transition for both the Swiss watch industry and the watch industry as a whole. On Christmas Day in 1969, the Japanese watch brand Seiko introduced the world's first quartz wristwatch: Astron.

Instead of a mechanical or automatic movement, it had a battery-powered movement. Thus began what is known as the quartz crisis. In addition to the attractiveness of the new, futuristic-looking technology, quartz watches quickly gained ground because of their price and durability. They were not only cheaper than most mechanical or automatic watches, but also surprisingly robust and actually more accurate than mechanical. And although the manufacture of mechanical and automatic watches had become much faster than in the old days, when the watches were made exclusively by hand, quartz watches were still much easier and thus faster to manufacture. There was panic in the Swiss watch industry and in the watchmaking industry as a whole. They feared that the quartz crisis could mean the end of centuries of watchmaking traditions, a concern that was not unfounded. Seiko was not only the first watchmaker to launch quartz technology, but also the absolute leader in the field. By 1977, they had become the world's largest watch company in terms of turnover, totalling around $700 million with a production of approximately 18 million pieces. Seiko's success eventually forced the Swiss watchmaking industry to re-evaluate and change its methods. At the forefront of this rescue operation were: Ernst Thomke and Nicolas G. Hayek.

Thomke took care of the restructuring of ASUAG, one of the largest groups in the Swiss watch industry at the time. His work to streamline, reorganize and reduce production costs led to the first glimmer of hope for the Swiss watchmaker industry since the quartz crisis began. But his work was not enough. The Swiss banks were still forced to bail out the watch industry in an attempt to save the country's third largest export industry. Hayek proposed a merger between the two largest Swiss watch industry groups, ASUAG and SSIH, to form what is today known as the Swatch Group.

Under Swatch Group, ETA SA was included at this point and it became a big asset. In 1982, the world's first Swatch was released; it was a direct and perhaps more exciting competitor to Seiko's quartz watches. The Swatch is just another sign of ETA's innovation and quality.

It was not long before Swatch watches sold hundreds of millions of copies and made a real difference to the power relationship between Switzerland and Japan. Today, mechanical, automatic and quartz movements have found a way to coexist in the watch industry. This has made more people get into watches, as they often become a part of this hobby through the cheaper quartz watches. Ultimately, the quartz crisis has helped the watch industry become more efficient and more flexible in terms of technological development.