WristReview’s Top 5 Most Important Innovations in Horology

By Harlan Chapman-Green

There’s been so much work done by so many different people over the thousands of years humanity has been telling the time that grouping it all together into a list and refining it down to just five was a massive challenge. In this article, WristReview presents the Top 5 most important innovations in horology. We know that every invention in horology is important and does mean something, but there are also those which make the entire industry leap forward into a new dimension. Like the creation first ever mass production of disc brakes on the Citroën DS or the introduction of three-point safety belts as standard on all Volvo cars. So, in that sense, as well as just forwarding horology, our list also looks at how we as a whole have been pushed forwards by simple inventions. Without further ado, here is our list of the Top 5 most important innovations in horology.

5. Quartz – Warren Marrison & J.W. Horton

Seiko Astron 35SQ

Warren Marrison, pictured in Donald de Carle, British Time (London, 1947)

Why? Why would we put this on the list?! Quartz watches are what demolished our precious horology industry and wiped out most of our favourite companies. However, quartz timekeeping only did that through the practical advantages it held. People didn’t go and start using quartz watches because they thought mechanical watches were idiotic or representative of a minority. Quartz watches dominated because they were cheap, stylish (at the time) and extremely accurate. Even the cheapest most basic quartz watches were more accurate than the super expensive Patek Philippes or the rugged reliable go-anywhere Rolex watches.

The principles for the quartz timing devices were discovered in the late 19th century, by scientist Pierre Curie, the husband of Marie Curie. He found that by passing electricity through quartz, the crystal vibrates thousands of times a second. Using a second circuit and some gearing that can be slowed down to make a one-second tick if using intermittent power (i.e. the electricity from the battery to the crystal is not running all the time). The first quartz wristwatch was the Seiko Astron 35SQ. The Japanese and the Chinese became very competent in making vast amounts of quartz watches, which in turn inspired the more free-thinking traditionalists away from their mechanical watches. Ironically, it was the massively popular cheap Swatch watches, which were quartz powered, that saved a lot of the watch industry from ruin altogether, and formed the Swatch Group as well.

4. Wrist Watch – Abraham Louis Breguet

Breguet Reine de Naples 8965

Abraham-Louis Breguet

Coming in at number 4 on the list is, perhaps, the most used innovation in all of horology today. No disrespect to those who are still faithful to their standing clocks, or to those who use clockwork for other means, like Reuge do. Breguet, the innovator, appears on this list, not for the tourbillon, the repeater gong springs or even the first automatic winding system. All of those are viable innovations for sure, but the one which takes the spot on this list is a little more humble than you’d think. However, it does have an interesting story to it, as Breguet pieces often do.

You see, although watches were commonplace in the 18th and 19th centuries, they were only designed for the pocket and were usually a masculine item. One of Breguet’s most loyal and charismatic followers, Maria Carolina of Austria, or as we’d know her, the Queen of Naples and sister to Queen Marie Antoinette, commissioned Breguet himself to make her a new kind of watch. Whether this was for a particular event, no one is sure, however, the request was that the Queen of Naples should be able to wear the watch on her wrist, rather than place it in a pocket probably hidden on her skirt. Breguet gladly obliged, and created Breguet No.2963 specifically for her, and had in fact invented the wristwatch. Believe it or not, records suggest that the idea was ignored completely, and it wouldn’t be until the Cartier Tank watch came along nearly a century later that the idea of wearing one’s timepiece on the wrist became a normal thing.

3. Pendulum Clock – Christiaan Huygens

Panerai Pendulum Clock PAM00500 (TrIbute To Galileo Galilei)

Christiaan Huygens

Before the production of pocket watches was common, timepieces were large clocks which needed a lot of people to move around. They provided accurate time, a sense of calmness in a busy world, and also a great place to hide in if you’re young. While we take grandfather clocks for granted as great hidey-hole, go back to the 17th century and they were heralded as a new age in timekeeping. A grandfather clock is just one example, there are also wall mounted clocks, scientific clocks, mantle clocks and even clocks built into entire buildings. What they all share in common is that they use a pendulum in order to regulate time and move the gears of the clock forwards.

Christiaan Huygens, a Dutch horologist, physicist and astronomer, looked at the works of Italian physicist, Galileo Galilei, who was himself focused on the physics behind pendulums. Huygens’ work on the pendulum clock was very in-depth. He even published a book about it. Huygens also solved one of the key causes of confusion with the pendulum, in that he noticed how the placing of the centre of the mass at the end of the pendulum could affect the speed of the swing. A long, slow swing is, obviously slower and perhaps less accurate, but a short swing is affected by motion more (much like in watches today, smaller balance wheels are affected more by jarring motions). Granted, a huge clock is unlikely to be moved around often, but imagine a wall clock on a ship rolling in the seas, the pendulum will be going everywhere.

2. Marine Chronometer – John Harrison

Marine timekeeper H1

John Harrison

It’s been a necessity of man to navigate the planet safely and accurately since humanity took its first steps. At the very beginning, we no doubt wandered aimlessly around bumping into things we recognised from the last time we got lost. However, for boats, it’s not easy to just change course whenever they like, especially sailboats. Before marine chronometers, the only way to be totally sure you were headed to port safely was with star charts, a few maps and dead reckoning. This, of course, caused a lot of shipwrecks. In a time where sea travel and exporting were becoming widespread, a safer way was needed. Whilst the star charts allow one to locate their position north or south of the equator, they don’t allow you to fix your position east or west because that’s the direction the stars travel across the sky. In order to navigate towards land, a good understanding of how many degrees longitude you’d covered (and therefore, how many time zones you’ve crossed) was needed.

Enter John Harrison, a carpenter from Yorkshire, England. He created a series of marine chronometers and longitude watches which were designed to be extremely accurate and rugged enough to survive at sea. It was doubted by the likes of Christiaan Huygens and even Sir Isaac Newton that a clock could be used to navigate accurately. By keeping an accurate reference time (the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, London), Harrison was able to successfully navigate the test ship, the HMS Orford, back to homeport after the sea trials. Both the captain and the navigator were very impressed with the chronometer, their traditional navigation methods had put them over 50 miles off course, while Harrison correctly predicted their path. It’s because of John Harrison and his series of marine chronometers that navigation at sea became a lot more accurate, and an enormous amount of lives were saved by his methods as well.

1. Lever Escapement – Thomas Mudge


Classic Swiss lever escapement

Thomas Mudge

The lever escapement, in our eyes, is by far and away the most important innovation in all of horology, this invention, developed around 1755, is used in nearly every watch, alarm clock, kitchen timer and basically anything without a pendulum. Created by English horologist and apprentice to George Graham, Thomas Mudge, the lever escapement is the mechanical linkage which pushes the balance wheel back and forth, moving the gear train, and thus the hands, forwards. The lever escapement is also what makes the ticking noise of a watch.

The main benefit of the lever escapement is that it is more accurate than others were at the time. Because, apart from when being pushed, the balance wheel is allowed to swing freely which makes the oscillations smaller and therefore more accurate. There had been several weird and beautiful escapements created before the lever escapement came along. But, these were mainly restricted to large pendulum clocks as the balance was regulated by gravity rather than springs and pallets. Mudge’s lever escapement was a revolution for pocket-sized timepieces and has been improved and changed over the years by the likes of Abraham-Louis Breguet among others. It was also the inspiration for George Daniels’ famed Co-Axial escapement.

By the way, if you’re interested in learning how a watch works then The WristWatch Handbook, written by Ryan Schmidt is a great place to start. Or, if you prefer something animated, there’s a fantastic video created by Hamilton in the 1940s on YouTube, it’s well worth a Watch.