The military origins of wearable tech, a century before the Apple Watch.
On July 9, 1916, The New York Times puzzled over a fashion trend: Europeans were starting to wear bracelets with clocks on them. Time had migrated to the human wrist, and the development required some explaining.
“Until recently,” the paper observed, “the bracelet watch has been looked upon by Americans as more or less of a joke. Vaudeville artists and moving-picture actors have utilized it as a funmaker, as a ‘silly ass’ fad.”
But the wristwatch was a “silly-ass fad” no more. “The telephone and signal service, which play important parts in modern warfare, have made the wearing of watches by soldiers obligatory,” the Times observed, two years into World War I. “The only practical way in which they can wear them is on the wrist, where the time can be ascertained readily, an impossibility with the old style pocket watch.” Improvements in communications technologies had enabled militaries to more precisely coordinate their maneuvers, and coordination required soldiers to discern the time at a glance. Rifling through your pocket for a watch was not advisable in the chaos of the trenches.
European soldiers were outfitting the device with unbreakable glass to survive the trenches and radium to illuminate the display at night. And civilians, seeing the wristwatch’s practical benefits over the pocket watch, were parroting the behavior.
This brought strange echoes of that history. In China, where the Apple Watch is quickly becoming a controversial, in-demand status symbol, the authorities reportedly banned the device. “The use of wearables with Internet access, location information, and voice-calling functions should be considered a violation of national security regulations when used by military personnel,” a Chinese military newspaper quoted a government agency as declaring, in apparent reference to gadgets like the Apple Watch. A technology conceived in war had become too technologically sophisticated for soldiers.
It was a reminder that advances in time-telling technology aren’t exclusively about finding a better way to tell time. They’re often about something else, too, even if that something else influences the perception of time itself. Over the past century or so, people have kept time mainly in their pockets, then on their wrists, and now back in their pockets. If the Apple Watch and similar smartwatches succeed, the wrist could experience a resurgence.
Alexis McCrossen, a history professor at Southern Methodist University and the author of Marking Modern Times: A History of Clocks, Watches, and Other Timekeepers in American Life, traces the story of the wristwatch back to the spread of “portable clocks,” or large pocket watches, in the 1700s, when “people want to start carrying the time around with them; they’re not content just to look at the public clocks in whatever village or town they might end up in.” These watches were made progressively smaller and better-secured with features like chains or straps, and were often seen primarily not as a timepiece but as a reliable vehicle for investing personal savings. “If you look at pawn records from the 19th century in the U.S., about 40 to 50 percent of all pawned items were pocket watches,” McCrossen told me.
Innovations in the mid- to late-19th century—including the machine manufacturing of watches, the advent of the railroad, factories, and electricity, and the standardization of time zones in Europe and the United States— increased demand around the world for watches and the “imperatives to own and control time” rather than obey it, she said.
These trends cascaded to warfare; during the Second Boer War in South Africa between 1899 and 1902, soldiers “jerry-rigged pocket watches and strapped them on their wrists” since it was now possible to precisely synchronize military movements, McCrossen explained. Wearing a bracelet with a watch on it had flitted in and out of female fashion in the 18th and 19th centuries, but the Boer War hinted that men could follow suit. Watchmakers operating in an increasingly competitive marketplace took note of the subtle shift in social conventions. One vendor in England advertised that the “wristlet watch” had been used at the legendary Battle of Omdurman in Sudan in 1898 and again during the Boer War, pointing out that “desert-experience is the severest test a watch can have.” The implicit message was a notable one in a period of more precise time: A wristwatch’s reliability, rather than its aesthetics, was what mattered most.
The wristwatch nevertheless remained largely a woman’s accoutrement, though one whose universal utility presaged broader popularity. “The wrist watch … is now the fashion of the hour,” The New York Times breathlessly reported from Paris in 1912. “It is worn over here by women who have to work as well as those who play.” Not only that, but “it is the most useful piece of jewelry that has been invented for many decades. … The watch hidden away in the belt, or turned face downward on the bust, or swinging loose from a chatelaine pin, was an ornament but not always a help. As it was usually under one’s furs or topcoat in Winter, it was better to guess the time than to try to prove it.”
All this changed with World War I, when aviators and soldiers in the trenches strapped on wristwatches en masse. The development conjured scenes like the one described by the English war correspondent Philip Gibbs in Belgium:
By the end of the conflict, watch manufacturers were designing wristwatches “for men with the promise that this watch could make a man more soldierlike, more martial, more masculine,” McCrossen said. “And they don’t just have some random soldiers out in Africa, they now have the most modern of all heroes of World War I—the aviator—[wearing wristwatches]. … By the 1920s, you have aviation, you have automobiles. The pocket watch was really intimately associated with the railroad. And so it seems very antiquated, it’s like something your dad wore. A modern man’s going to wear a wristwatch.” By the Great Depression, wristwatch production had eclipsed pocket-watch production; by World War II, the pocket watch was obsolete. The Great War, as one U.S. paper put it in 1919, had “made the world safe for men who wear wrist-watches.”
In 2013, McCrossen wrote that, with the introduction of smartwatches, the “pocket-to-wrist cycle may repeat itself.” In recent years, she argued, the adoption of smartphones has made wristwatches less popular, particularly for young people who use their smartphones as, among other things, modern-day pocket watches. (Thus far, sales of wristwatches, especially luxury wristwatches, have actually remained strong during the smartphone era, though today they may be more associated with fashion than timekeeping.)
But McCrossen’s not convinced that Apple and others will be able to restore the Age of the Wrist—in part because of the privacy and security that the pocket offers for treasured phones, and in part because “time is embedded everywhere” these days, from car dashboards to coffeemakers to iPhone screens.
“Maybe we’re so deeply saturated with the imperatives of clock time that we want to put it away,” she said. “Maybe we don’t want it on our wrist anymore. Maybe we don’t need it.”