Time and Time Again: Parallels in the Development of the Watch

Time and Time Again: Parallels in the Development of the Watch
Time and Time Again: Parallels in the Development of the Watch
and the Wearable Computer
Thomas L. Martin
Institute for Complex Engineered Systems, Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh PA 15213
This paper examines the parallels in the development of
the watch and the wearable computer. It discusses how the
locations where the watch was worn on the body has
changed over time, examines a variety of user interfaces
for watches, and looks at how the watch affected cultural
concepts of time and time discipline. The watch long ago
encountered many of the major issues confronting wearable computing today. The lessons for wearable computing
are that the physical wearability will be determined as
much by fashion as by human anatomy, that the user interface will gradually become simplified as people become
more acquainted with computers, and finally that the cultural impact will be a broadening of the definition of information, a rationalization of representing information, and
an increasing synchronization of personal events.
1. Introduction
Three of the major issues for wearable computing are
placement on the body, user interface, and potential impact
on society. There is broad speculation on all three fronts,
with no end in sight. The design and use of wearable computers is uncharted territory, with many options to be
explored. But perhaps wearable computers are not as
ground-breaking a technology as is commonly supposed.
History has already given us an example of a technology
that evolved physically from immobile to portable to wearable, that employed a variety of user interfaces, and that
revolutionized cultural conceptions: Time-keeping.
Before examining the wearable aspects of both computing and time-keeping, it is worthwhile to note the similarities in their overall developments. Where the computer is
the key machine of the information revolution, enabling a
vast collection, sorting, and analysis of data, the clock was
the key machine of the industrial revolution, allowing the
accurate determination of power and energy, which in turn
allowed the engineering of steam engines and other
machinery which we commonly associate with the industrial revolution [9]. Without accurate time-keeping, the
concepts of efficiency, performance, and productivity, the
driving intellectual forces of the industrial revolution, are
meaningless [5]. We speak of “embedded computers,”
computers within larger systems that users do not think of
as computers, but embedded clocks are even more common, in the form of timers in household appliances, in
manufacturing equipment, even in computers themselves.
With all of these similarities between time-keeping and
computing in general, it is important to examine the similarities in the particular wearable aspects of each technology. The two fields already have close ties, as the first
mass-produced wearable computers were probably wristwatches in the mid-1980’s which had address book and
calendar functions [1]. Finally, the watch is so widespread
and so familiar to us that it is easy to overlook the lessons
that can be learned from the course of its development.
This paper will give a history of several areas of the development of the watch and examine the parallels between its
development and the development of the wearable computer, concentrating on wearability, interface, and societal
impact. From these parallels the paper concludes that the
physical wearability will be a function of fashion as well as
a function of human anatomy, that the user interface will
gradually become less of a problem as people become
more acquainted with computers, and finally that the societal impact will be a broadening of the concept of information because of the ever-presence of the wearable
The remainder of the paper is organized as follows. Section 2 will examine the wearability of the watch, discussing
the parts of the body on which watches have been worn and
how these have changed through the ages. Then Section 3
will cover the user interface of the watch, presenting examples of visual, audio, and haptic representations of time.
Section 4 will discuss the societal impact of watches and
their role in changing our culture’s notions of and attitudes
toward time. Section 5 gives the conclusions to be drawn
from the parallels between the development of the watch
and the wearable computer.
Figure 1. Example of a musk-ball watch.
After [2].
2. Wearability of the watch
The first aspect of watches this paper will study is their
wearability, where on the body they have been worn.
Watches are the most common form of wearable technology today, specifically the wristwatch. But the wristwatch
is the latest of many generations of wearable time-keeping.
It became the most popular form in the years following
World War I, when it found favor with soldiers in the
trenches who valued being able to keep their hands free
when checking the time. Wearing a watch on the wrist
seems the most natural location to us now, but it was not
always so. The first watches were carried in the hand, hung
from a belt around the waist, or worn about the neck [2].
Then for several centuries the pocket watch was the predominate form. It was only in the twentieth century that the
wristwatch became popular, although it had been in existence for at least a century [3] and the necessary level of
miniaturization had been available for even longer.
Throughout the history of the watch, one sees that its
size and form as well as the location in which it was worn
was driven by fashion. The earliest watches date from
about 1500-1520 and were worn around the neck [2].
These were called “musk-ball watches,” after the spherical
metal perfume containers that early watchmakers fit the
clockworks into, shown in Figure 1. As watches became
more popular, watchmakers began designing their own
cases instead of using the widely-worn musk balls. The
“pocket” watch became common in the 1600’s, although
due to its size it was rarely carried in a pocket but was still
worn about the neck like the musk-ball watches or hung
from a belt. At first pocket watch cases were ornate, but
with the increasing popularity of the waistcoat in the
Figure 2. Nineteenth century Japanese beltedmounted watch. The watch is on the left; the
pouch for carrying it is on the right. After [5].
1800’s, the pocket watch disappeared from view and the
cases became less decorated. When watches disappeared
into the waistcoat, they also became larger, reversing a
trend toward further miniaturization in men’s watches. The
pockets of the waistcoat allowed a larger watch to be carried than could be carried in other pieces of clothing, and a
larger watch tended to be more accurate, less delicate, less
expensive, and consequently more desirable.
What was desirable for men’s watches was not necessarily desirable for women’s. While the men carried
watches in their waistcoats, women wore watches pinned
to their clothing like brooches. One of the forces in the
miniaturization of time pieces was the desire of women to
reduce the weight of watches, because heavier watches tore
delicate fabrics [8]. Women were the first to commonly
wear wristwatches, beginning probably in the late 1800’s
when a London saddler introduced a watch on a leather
strap [4]. Until World War I, the wristwatch was considered
to be a feminine accouterment. But when the blood- and
mud-spattered soldiers of the European trenches returned
sporting wristwatches, they became popular among men as
Outside of Europe, the placement of the watch was
quite different. In Japan, for example, watches were worn
in a pouch hanging from a belt around the waist, with the
pouch slotted so that the face of the watch could be seen
without removing it from the pouch, as shown in Figure 2.
Because Japanese clothing had no pockets, the pocket
watch never developed. And for reasons to be discussed
later, the Japanese watches were not small enough to be
worn elsewhere.
Figure 3. A watch mounted in the hilt of a
sword, circa 1600. After [2].
Another interesting aspect of size and miniaturization is
that watches became bigger when they became more accurate, but not because the improved mechanisms were more
difficult to fabricate. The first watches were meant to be
wound daily, which was not an undue burden since they
kept time so poorly that they also had to be set daily. But
with improvements in the watch mechanism, watches
became better and better at keeping time. Watch makers
began using larger springs as the watches became more
accurate, so that the watches would run for longer periods
of time between windings. So the trend toward smaller
watches was not monotonic. Like the wearable computer,
people were willing to pay for increased performance with
increased size and weight.
So far we have discussed where on the body watches
were typically worn, but there are examples of watches
meant to be located elsewhere. These were usually baubles,
gadgets collected by the well-to-do, including watches fitted to finger rings, key chains, and swords. The first known
example of a watch fitted to a finger ring dates from 1542
[4], and later examples are quite sophisticated: King
George III was given a finger ring a half inch in diameter in
1764 [12], and a French watchmaker built a ring watch
with a calendar in 1779. But one of the more interesting
ring watches was one of Queen Elizabeth’s: Its alarm consisted of a small needle that scratched her finger [5]. Other
examples of miniature watches include chatelaine watches,
where the watches were mounted on the jeweled key rings
of ladies [11], and watches fitted to the hilts of daggers and
swords [2][5]. An example of a hilt-mounted watch is
shown in Figure 3. If a sword seems a useless place for a
watch, one must remember that warfare at the time
depended on the coordinated movements of hundreds of
soldiers spread over large areas; if a commander moved the
men in his charge too early, the battle might be lost. In this
light a watch on a sword is no more useless than a computer on an automatic rifle.
This history of where on the body watches have been
worn shows the first major lesson for wearable computing.
Wearability will be a function of fashion as well as a function of anatomy. The watch was small enough and inexpensive enough to have been worn on the wrist for well over a
hundred years before this location was widely acceptable,
and only came into vogue with men due to romantic
notions of warfare and masculinity. That many of the first
wearable computers were belt- and back-mounted is not
solely due to their weight and size: Most were designed on
college campuses, home of the fanny- and back-pack. Like
the early watch makers, who fit their clock works into the
common musk balls, the early wearable computer builders
fit their designs into common fashion accessories. Shoulder
and neck-mounted wearables are comparatively rare perhaps because they resemble purses, shoulder bags, and
necklaces too closely. Most wearable computer users are
men, who from years of societal training would be apprehensive about appearing to be effeminate. The watch is
worn for adornment and status as well as for utility; there is
no reason to suspect that the wearable computer will be any
3. User interface
The second major aspect of the watch this paper will
examine for parallels with wearable computing is the user
interface. While the watch makers experimented with
where on the body the watch was worn, they also experimented with how the time was conveyed to the wearer.
Most of these interfaces were visual, but the watch makers
also created haptic and audio interfaces. Queen Elizabeth’s
finger ring, with its scratching alarm, is obviously a haptic
interface. A more common haptic interface became popular in the mid-1600’s: raised buttons on each hour so that
the time could be read in the dark. Baillie relates a quote
from a fellow in 1644 who would undoubtedly have seen
the advantages of a vibrating pager over a beeping one:
...it smacks too much of the business man to look at
your watch in company; it is impolite to your hosts
because it looks as if you had another engagement
and were in a hurry to keep it. As for striking watches,
they are very tiresome, because they interrupt conversation. That is why one should adopt the new kind of
watch in which the hour and half hour marks are raised
enough to enable one to feel them with the finger and
so tell the time without having to take out the watch and
look at it. [2]
The “striking watch” mentioned above is a repeater
watch, which indicates the time with a series of tones. They
were probably first made for use by the blind, but became
popular with the general population in an age with no electric lights and no matches. The first repeater watches indicated only the nearest hour, but at the height of their
popularity, examples could be found which indicated the
nearest minute [7]. Furthermore, because of the interruption caused by their chimes in company, later repeater
watches were made so that the case would vibrate instead
Figure 4: Variety of visual interfaces: (a) sun-and-moon, (b) differential, and (c) wandering hour.
The time on the sun-and-moon dial (a) is 3:37 in the afternoon, because the sun is pointing to the
III. The time on the differential dial (b) is 5:25. The time on the wandering hour dial (c) is 3:33.
After [2].
of having the chimes rung [5]. One could then check the
time surreptitiously, as with a watch having raised hour
While haptic and audio interfaces were common, the
most usual interface was visual. A variety of visual representations were tried, especially after minute hands became
widely available. Figure 4 show several forms that were in
vogue at various times. Figure 4a shows a sun-and-moon
watch face, where the hour is indicated by a sun or a moon
to distinguish between day and night, and the minutes are
indicated along the outer dial. Figure 4b shows a differential watch face. The lone hand indicates the minute on the
fixed outer dial and the hour on the rotating inner dial.
Finally, Figure 4c shows a wandering hour watch face. The
hour visible in the small circle points to the minutes.
Although each of these examples is from about 1700,
watches in these styles were common for over 50 years
after the minute hand became the norm. Some of the alternate forms of representing the time were partly embellishments, attempts to differentiate products in a vast market,
but they are also a sign that the watchmakers feared that the
wearers would not be able to read their watches. Even
when the watch face settled down to the two hands sweeping concentric circles that we are familiar with, there is evidence that the watchmakers were cautious about the
wearer’s ability to tell time. When minute hands first
became available, most watches had the minutes numbered
in large Arabic numerals and the hours in smaller Roman
numerals. Every five minutes were numbered, and every
hour as in the examples of Figure 4. As time passed, only
every fifteen minutes were numbered, and then no minutes
were numbered, while each hour was still marked. It was
not until the twentieth century that watches were sold with
no numbers on their faces whatsoever, as people became
more familiar with time and the concepts of hours and minutes [5].
This history of the watch interface shows the second
major lesson for wearable computing. The interface will
gradually become less of a problem as people become
more acquainted with computers. While the information to
be conveyed by the wearable computer is more diverse
than that conveyed by a watch, both sets of devices share a
common difficulty in conveying it: The ability of the user
to understand the format of the information. When the user
understands the format, more of the interface can be
devoted to the information itself. Finally, another lesson to
be drawn from this history of the watch interface is that
watch makers experimented with haptic and audio interfaces long before wearable computer designers, often for
similar reasons, and that these interfaces became less popular because of changes in other technologies and in societal
4. Cultural impact
The third aspect to study for parallels between the
watch and the wearable computer is the cultural impact.
That people would be unfamiliar with time measurement
seems odd to us as we near the end of the twentieth cen-
tury. But until only a few centuries ago, time was kept by
the sun and the stars rather than by time pieces. The time of
the day was measured with “temporal hours”, wherein each
period of daylight was considered to be 12 hours and each
period of night was considered to be 12 hours [2]. At the
latitude of northern Europe, these hours varied between 40
and 80 minutes over the course of the year [7]. When
clocks and watches were first introduced, not every one
understood the “constant hours” that the clocks kept. The
situation today is reversed: Most people have never even
heard of temporal hours, and would probably have difficulty setting their schedules with them. Our day begins
when the hands of the clock are in a particular arrangement, whether the sun has risen or not.
The watchmakers were clearly affected by the cultural
transition from temporal to constant hours. Early watches
were sold with “watch papers” bearing equations of time,
instructions on how to set the watch by a sun dial so that
the watch would show noon at mid-day. Some watches
were even sold with small sun dials to aid in this setting.
The monk Gerbert worked out a schedule of the length of
day and night for each day of the year and gave instructions
to monasteries on how to set their water clocks to show
proper temporal hours for each day of the year. The beltmounted Japanese watch mentioned previously had movable numbers on its face so that it could show temporal
hours. Periodically the numbers would be shifted by the
user so that the watch read the appropriate time in temporal
hours. (That the Japanese did not develop watches as small
as their European counterparts until after the late 1800’s,
when constant hours were introduced by Westerners, is
perhaps due to the limitation of having to move the numbers on the watch face.)
While the time pieces were affected by the cultural attitudes toward time, those attitudes were in turn affected by
the time pieces. The advent of the clock tower gave rise to
fights between factory owners and their workers over control of the clocks [6]. The workers believed that unscrupulous owners set their clocks ahead in the morning and back
in the evening. When watches became affordable for the
workers, the owners could no longer easily cheat their
workers. But the watches also made the workers conscious
of time outside the shop, causing workers to organize and
schedule their personal time more strictly, and creating a
dichotomy between what Landes calls “my” time and
“company” time [5]. The 16th and 17th centuries saw the
first maxims about wasting time. The notions of efficiency
and productivity introduced in the workplace spread into
the personal life. The watch, not the house clock or the
clock tower, was the agent of the spread of these notions.
One was often out of sight of a clock or out of earshot of a
clock tower, but the watch was an ever-present reminder of
the passing of time.
This is the third lesson for wearable computing. Where
watches created a dichotomy of “my” time versus “company” time, wearable computers will set up a dichotomy of
“my” information versus “company” information. As people become more familiar with computers, they will
broaden their concept of “information.” Information will
no longer be just the data a person enters at work, data
from measurements; information will become aspects of
their lives that they currently consider un-quantifiable, uncomputerizable. A few years ago a person’s schedule was
carried in a small binder, but now it’s a document on her
laptop or PDA. Similarly with an address book. Photographs, those pictures of memories people once collected
in shoe boxes and photo albums, will be taken digitally,
and stored digitally. Though some might be printed onto
paper, most will be kept on CD-ROM’s and hard drives.
While we currently think of the photograph as the medium,
the photographic paper, soon we will think of it as its form
alone, independent of the medium upon which it is presented. The desktop computer has already started this
change of thinking, but the wearable computer, due to its
being ever-present, will carry the change into areas
unavailable to the desktop.
By having the time with them, on their person, people
were able to monitor and synchronize their actions in a
way that was not previously possible. Likewise, wearable
computers will create a new level of synchronization, a
synchronization of information in addition to synchronization of time. The wearable computer, like the watch before
it, will change the pace of society due to this increasing
5. Conclusions
While the watch is a commonplace to us, it is only so
after centuries of development. Wearable computers are
currently in the position of the watch in the 1600’s: A bauble for the wealthy, educated few. At the same time it
appears to be poised on the brink of widespread utility and
acceptance, awaiting only the first wearable computer fashion fad.
As with the watch, wearability will not be determined
by size and weight alone. This paper has shown that the
popular fashions of the day will likely be a determining
factor in acceptable weight, size, and form factor. When
the design criteria for a wearable computer is to “fit in a
pocket,” it should be specified whether the pocket is on an
office worker’s business suit or a mechanic’s coveralls.
Should our society again develop a taste for the waist coat,
then wearable computers can be larger than those of today,
which must fit into a hip or shirt pocket. On the other hand,
if the masses develop a taste for Lycra bicycle shorts and
shirts, the wearable computer will have to become considerably smaller.
This paper has also shown that watchmakers experimented with a variety of modes for the user interface long
before wearable computer designers. Haptic and audio
interfaces for watches were probably initially intended for
use by the handicapped, but became popular with the general public as well because of lack of light at night and
because of social propriety. After changes in other technology (i.e., electric lights) and societal norms, these interfaces became less popular.
The change in the watch face as society’s notion of time
changed leads one to suspect that the difficulties with the
wearable computer user interface may be a conceptual
problem of how to represent information rather than a technological problem of conveying it to the user. Just as the
change from temporal hours to constant hours enabled the
new watches to have a simpler interface, a change in our
concept of information may be necessary before interfaces
can become intuitive and easy to use, or before a single
interface can be used for a what we now consider to be disparate types of information. The representation of information is deeply involved with the manipulations that can be
performed on it. For example, division is easier with Arabic numerals than it is with Roman numerals [10]. Even if
our concepts and representations of information change,
the user interface will not become simpler until computing
and its underlying concepts permeate society. The changing cultural understanding of time allowed a simplification
of the watch’s user interface. Wearable computers will benefit from the same process.
Another lesson from time-keeping is that the contemporary decisions about the interface and the representation
will likely have lasting impacts long after the reasons
underlying those decisions become unimportant. For
example, many clocks and watches today have Roman
numerals for the hours, a holdover from the 1600’s, and
there are 24 hours in a day and 60 minutes in an hour
because the ancients needed units that were easily divisible
by small integers (24 = 2 × 3 × 4; 60 = 3 × 4 × 5). Consequently, interfaces and representations must be judged not
only by how well they meet our current needs, but also by
how they may limit future changes.
In summary, the field of wearable computing can learn
from the development of the watch about wearability, user
interface, and cultural impact. Wearability will likely be
determined as much by fashion as by functionality and
human anatomy. As for the user interface, it will become
less of a problem as people become more acquainted with
computers. User interfaces now should strive not just for
usability, but for ease of future simplification. The cultural
impact will be a broadening of the definition of information, a rationalization of representing information, and an
increasing synchronization of personal events. If we do not
learn the lessons about wearability, user interface, and cultural impact apparent in the development of the watch, we
will repeat them, time and time again.
Francine Gemperle, LeMonté Green, and Karen
O’Kane were kind enough to provide feedback on drafts of
this paper.
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