History - October 16, 2023

Among clocks, hours, and stories, meet the Brazilian who helped popularize the wristwatch worldwide

Every time you put on your wristwatch, have you ever stopped to think about the amount of history this item has in the evolution of time? An invention, to a certain extent simple, but one that revolutionized the way we deal with time.

The wristwatch we know today is the result of the evolution of various instruments created to measure time, dating back to antiquity, in various forms. It is one of the oldest human inventions.

Over time, instruments that could also be considered watches were invented. They always measured time intervals shorter than those defined by nature itself.

These devices have been used for millennia, operating according to various principles. What they have in common is the fact that they mark the hours, and all of them culminated in the wristwatch we know today, on your wrist.

Humans have always felt the need to measure time, and to meet new needs, they began inventing increasingly precise ways to measure time. It was no longer sufficient to measure years, months, and days.

The division of the day into 24 hours, although it had its origins in ancient Egyptian civilization, became standardized only in the 2nd century BC. The segmentation of hours into 60 minutes and minutes into 60 seconds also emerged at the same time, although there were also traces of this practice around 2000 BC when the Babylonians developed a hexadecimal system for astronomical calculations.

The Greek astronomer Eratosthenes was largely responsible for the standardization that continues to this day, but the effective use of the system is much more recent. Only in the late 16th century did the idea become popular. Until then, the preference was to divide hours into halves and quarters.

As for minutes, their division became more widely used in 1967. In that year, it was established that one second corresponds to the duration of 9,192,631,770 periods of radiation from the cesium atom. The so-called “atomic clock” became the global standard for establishing hours, minutes, and seconds. This standardization is known as UTC (Coordinated Universal Time).

Today, there are numerous museums dedicated to watches around the world, and it took years of evolution for them to arrive on your wrist. Whether analog or digital, automatic or battery-powered, the fact is that it took years of evolution to reach the present day.

Who invented the wristwatch?

The conventional watch has a history dating back centuries, but records indicate that the wristwatch was invented by Antoni Patek and Adrien Phillipe, the founders of Patek & Philippe watchmaking, in 1868. It was from them that the wristwatch became popular as a fashion accessory, especially for women, widely promoted by the Hungarian Countess Koscowicz.

But there are defenders of the version that this is not the first example in history: evidence suggests that the invention dates back to 1814, created by watchmaker Abraham Louis Bréguet, the founder of Breguet, today one of the world’s largest watchmakers, commissioned by Caroline Murat, Napoleon Bonaparte’s sister and the Princess of Naples at the time.

What about Santos Dumont?

The male version of the wristwatch was popularized by none other than Santos Dumont, which also causes some confusion that he is the inventor of the wristwatch. Around 1915, the aviation pioneer needed to time his flights in various experiments he was conducting, and at that time, men wore watches in their pockets with a chain for easy retrieval.

To expedite his timing process, the aviator commissioned his friend, jeweler Louis Cartier, to create a wristwatch model that could be fixed to his arm. For this first wristwatch, Cartier named it the “Santos Dumont.”

To this day, Santos Dumont’s collection of watches is sold, and the watches made at that time are preserved. The model developed by Cartier was very modern for its time: it had rounded corners, a harmonious contour of the lugs that converged to the bracelet, and the hours indicated by Roman numerals.

There are also reports of wristwatches being used in 1911 during World War I, as soldiers needed to know the exact time for each military action.

Like other inventions, it is difficult to pinpoint who truly was the inventor. All versions attempt to claim originality for their convenience, but it is interesting to observe how the wristwatch, from its earliest days, came to serve two basic functions: the need to know the time more easily and to work as a design and fashion accessory, replacing a difficult-to-handle pocket watch.

Text credits: by journalist Flávio Bergmann

Photomontage: by Vinícius Pascoal

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