The Pocket Watch Was the World’s First Wearable Tech Game Changer

Google Glass is just the latest in a long line of body-borne technologies designed to enhance our lives

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Would you wear a computer on your wrist?

It’s a new high-tech debate, as “wearable” computers begin to go on sale. We’ve long grown accustomed to carrying a computer in our pockets—but now tech firms are betting we’d rather have one on our wrist, showing us our messages, social-networking pings, maybe some Google searches. Already, over 400,000 people bought Pebble smartwatches last year, and Google’s head-mounted Glass computer was released to over 10,000 early adopters. Apple is widely rumored to be putting out a smartwatch later this year.

For many, wearables seem like a final, crazed step in information overload: Tweets on your wrist! Supporters, however, claim that a smartwatch might actually be less annoying—because you can quickly glance at it.

This isn’t the first time we’ve run through this debate, though. To really understand how the wearable computer could change our lives, consider the impact of the original wearables—the pocket watch and the wristwatch.

Clocks began to transform everyday life as early as the medieval period, when church bells sounded the hours, letting villagers know the pace of the day. But timekeeping began to weave itself into day-to-day life in an entirely new way as clocks became more omnipresent and portable. Affordable pocket watches weren’t common until the 19th century, but once they arrived, they quickly invaded the world of commerce. When you could time your actions with those of a remote trading partner, new styles of just-in-time commerce could emerge.

“Merchants desperately needed to time certain things,” says Nigel Thrift, co-author of Shaping the Day, a history of early timekeeping. “If you think about all the farms, those goods and crops around London, if they don’t get to the city at a certain time, they’re spoiled.” Meanwhile, pocket-watch-wielding conductors meant trains could begin to keep regular schedules; scientists and astronomers could conduct more precise experiments. Portable watches even made it easier for lovers to conduct illicit affairs, by arranging to meet at a preordained spot and time. (“You try conducting an affair without a sense of time,” Thrift jokes.)

And when precise time wasn’t available? Chaos ensued. In 1843, elections in Pottsville, Pennsylvania, were disputed when nobody could agree on what time the polls had closed—because the townspeople didn’t synchronize their clocks. (“It is well known that we have no exact or certain standard of time in this borough,” complained a local paper.)

Having a watch wasn’t just about keeping to the clock, though. It was a cultural marker—a performance of punctuality. Every time you pulled out your watch, conspicuously and in public, you signaled others that you were reliable.

“You were a modern person, a timekeeping person, a regular person,” says Alexis McCrossen, a professor of U.S. history at Southern Methodist University who wrote Marking Modern Times, a history of American timekeeping. A 1913 Hamilton watch ad explicitly described the device as a tool for moral improvement: “The Hamilton leads its owner to form desirable habits of promptness and precision.” Soon, the watch was a straightforward metaphor for having attained the middle class: Horatio Alger novels often showed the plucky protagonist had “arrived” when he got a watch. The technology even created a new compliment: If you were ambitious and hardworking, people called you a “stemwinder”—somebody who habitually wound his timepiece.

“Punctuality gets marked as a morally elevated thing,” notes Robert Levine, author of A Geography of Time and a social psychologist at California State University, Fresno.

But pocket watches had one problem: They were impractical when you were on the go. If you were trying to do something active—like drive a car or ride a horse—reaching into your pocket could distract you and cause disaster. So, much as today’s gym-goers put their iPods on an armband while they work out, sporting folks of the 19th century began to fashion “wristlets”—leather straps that would hold their pocket watch on their wrist while they rode on bicycles or on horseback. The 18th and 19th centuries also saw some of the first formal wristwatches—with delicate, small watch faces, worn by women as a form of jewelry.

Time became information you acquired with a quick glance. But because women were the main wearers of wristwatches, men mostly avoided the trend. They looked too effeminate.

“They were very gender divided,” Thrift notes. Even watchmakers thought the wristwatch trend was silly and hoped it would die off. One decried it as “the idiotic fashion of carrying one’s clock on the most restless part of the body.”

The tide changed during World War I. Officers began using wristwatches to coordinate the new style of attack: opening with a barrage of gunfire to stun and destabilize the enemy, followed immediately by an onrush of soldiers.

“You’d want the soldiers to be alert to the fact that the guns were about to stop, and be ready to spring,” says David Boettcher, a British horologist who has researched wartime watch-wearing. This required precise timing, and officers fumbling around in the dark for a pocket watch wouldn’t do. To make the wristwatches easily legible in battle, watchmakers fashioned them with large, round faces that had prominent dark numbers set off by a white porcelain backing and coated in radium that glowed brilliantly in the dark.

Suddenly, wristwatches seemed manly.

"It was the iPhone of its day, it was leading-edge technology,” Boettcher notes. And like many forms of hot new tech, it spread virally. “You get loads of boys out on military maneuvers, and one’s got on his watch that ticks and glows, and so everybody wants one.” Millions of soldiers went home having developed a wristwatch-wearing habit. The numbers tell the tale: In 1920 wristwatches were only 15 percent of all watches made in America, but by 1935 they soared to 85 percent of the watches. (Even today, men’s wristwatches are ostentatiously large—and often sold in ads boasting how jet-fighter pilots use them. “It’s almost to say, ‘I’m not a piece of jewelry—I’m a piece of technology,’” as McCrossen jokes.)

By mid-century, the exploding world of white-collar work presumed that its employees would—more often than not—have a wristwatch. Students received them as gifts upon graduation. Glanceability was precious in the highly coordinated world of office meetings. Craning your neck to look at the wall clock could risk offending a superior; a quick glance at your wrist wouldn’t. “There are all sorts of ways you can glance at your watch without anyone knowing, and it’s instantaneous,” McCrossen notes.

By the 1980s, the wristwatch had become, as York University humanities professor Douglas Freake dubs it, “perhaps the most important cybernetic device in contemporary industrialized societies.” We were cyborgs of time. And slaves, too, as critics pointed out. Wristwatches may have made us more efficient, but as humanists had long fretted, perhaps total efficiency is a creepy goal for everyday life.

These days, of course, glanceable time is no longer only on our wrists. It has evaporated into the world around us. Clocks are everywhere: on computer screens, phones, coffeemakers and microwave ovens. Nobody needs to wear a wristwatch to tell time anymore. It has transformed into pure metaphor, nothing but a signal.

But if the evolution of the wristwatch offers any clues, the journey of the wearable computer is likely to be tumultuous. As with early watches, the companies selling these odd new devices make appeals to one’s morality. Google claims its head-mounted Glass helps you “get technology out of the way,” while Pebble says a glance at the wrist is less rude than having to “pull your phone out in the middle of the meeting.”

Whatever one thinks of those assertions, it’s certain that wearables would tweak our orientation to the world around us. Much as wristwatch wearers developed a heightened sense of time, we’d develop a heightened sense of “what’s going on”—news of the day, invisible details of our health, the thoughts of a loved one. The watch allowed new feats of time coordination; wearables would increase social coordination.


And so we’d probably see a cultural echo, too. Those who thrive off social contact will love a wearable, but those already overwhelmed by Facebook and texting will find it tears at their solitude and sense of self. Both will be, in part, right. The device may be new, but those hopes and fears are old.

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