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A Chronicle of Timekeeping [Preview]

Our conception of time depends on the way we measure it

Watches for the Masses
MANY CLOCKMAKERS of this era realized that the market for watches would far exceed that for clocks if production costs could be reduced. The problem of mass-fabricating interchangeable parts for watches, however, was considerably more complicated because the precision demanded in making the necessary miniaturized components was so much greater. Although improvements in quantity manufacture had been instituted in Europe since the late 18th century, European watchmakers' fears of saturating the market and threatening their workers' jobs by abandoning traditional practices stifled most thoughts of introducing machinery for the production of interchangeable watch parts.

Disturbed that American watchmakers seemed unable to compete with their counterparts in Europe, which controlled the market in the late 1840s, a watchmaker in Maine named Aaron L. Dennison met with Edward Howard, who had established a successful clock- and scale-making business in Roxbury, Mass., to discuss mass-production methods for watches. Howard and his partner gave Dennison space to experiment and develop machinery for the project. By the fall of 1852, 20 watches had been completed under Dennison's supervision. His workmen finished 100 watches by the following spring, and 1,000 more were produced a year later. By that time the manufacturing facilities in Roxbury were proving too small, so the newly named Boston Watch Company moved to Waltham, Mass., where by the end of 1854 it was assembling 36 watches a week.

The American Waltham Watch Company, as it eventually became known, benefited greatly from a huge demand for watches during the Civil War, when Union Army forces used them to synchronize operations. Improvements in fabrication techniques further boosted output and reduced prices significantly. Meanwhile other U.S. companies formed in the hope of capturing part of the burgeoning trade. The Swiss, who had previously dominated the industry, grew concerned when their exports plummeted in the 1870s. The investigator they sent to Massachusetts discovered that not only was productivity higher at the Waltham factory but production costs were less. Even some of the lower-grade American watches could be expected to keep reasonably good time. The watch was at last a commodity accessible to the masses.

Because women had worn bracelet watches in the 19th century, wristwatches were long considered feminine accoutrements. During World War I, however, the pocket watch was modified so that it could be strapped to the wrist, where it could be viewed more readily on the battlefield. With the help of a substantial marketing campaign, the masculine fashion for wristwatches caught on after the war. Self-winding mechanical wristwatches made their appearance during the 1920s.

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