The Evolution Of Timekeeping

Timekeeping may be a basic feature of everyday life, and most people will therefore take it for granted. However, it wasn’t always as simple as glancing up at the wall or down at your phone.

The Evolution Of Timekeeping: Sundials and Water Clocks

Sundials and water clocks are some of the earliest inventions of timekeeping. Though they quickly became two of the core principles of timekeeping and an integral part of human culture.

The oldest known sundial was created in Egypt in 1500 BC. It was an L-shaped device that had a horizontal and vertical leg. A numerical value was assigned to the horizontal leg. When the sun cast its shadow upon the vertical leg, it was clear to read the time based on which number the shadow was covering.

The basic concept of the water clock is the regular emptying and filling of a marked vessel by continuous dripping water. The first physical evidence of the water clock dates to 1417–1379 BC, during the reign of Ancient Egyptian Pharaoh, Amenhotep III.

Water clocks made a distinctive dripping sound. It is where the ticking of the clock that we know today is thought to have originated. The invention of these two devices had substantial social consequences.

They established times for religious practices, work, and public activities. Aided in bureaucratic affairs, debates, and court proceedings.

The Evolution Of Timekeeping: Mechanical Clocks

Although it isn’t exactly clear when the first mechanical clock was invented, it’s thought to be around the start of the 14th century. Mechanical clocks work by marking the time by counting the swings of a weight. It twists back and forth, powered by weights.

The earliest mechanical clocks were thought to be considerably inaccurate. They didn’t include minute hands to begin with, though they were still a great progression from the flaws of sundials. Those were inactive unless it was sunny, and water clocks, which often froze up in the winter.

It was during the prominence of mechanical clocks that the ‘tick-tock’ sound was properly introduced. The sound was produced by the twisting gear teeth colliding with each other.

The Evolution Of Timekeeping: Pendulum Clocks

Developing from the mechanical clocks was the pendulum clock. Leonardo da Vinci had produced some of the earliest known drawings of a pendulum in 1493. Though the first pendulum clock was not invented until 1656 by Dutch polymath Christiaan Huygens.

Within the next decade, pendulum clocks nailed accuracy down to the second. Soon they became an essential instrument for astronomers and citizens alike.

Prior to the development of the quartz clock in 1927, pendulum clocks remained the norm for accurate timekeeping in most homes. They were still in use as recently as the 1940s.

The Evolution Of Timekeeping: Pocket Watches

The first pocket watch was invented by German watchmaker, Peter Henlein in 1510. In the early days, the pocket watch was in fact worn on a chain around the neck.

The pocket watch was redesigned in the 17th century, to more suitably fit into a pocket. It was done by reducing its bulkiness. Then it was redesigned again in the 18th century, when intricate designs such as jewels and diamonds were added.

It then soon became an accessory worn only by the elite due to its price tag. King Charles II sported a pocket watch inside the pocket of his waistcoat. He was a key contributor to its popularity during his reign.


The exact date of the creation of the first wristwatch is up for debate. However, in 1810, a wristwatch was created by Abraham-Louis Breguet, designed for Queen Caroline Murat of Naples. This development has led to Breguet’s modern collection, the Reine De Naples.

It’s also thought that Louis Cartier, may have created one of the first wristwatches, the Santos-Dumont. After pilot Alberto Dumont complained to his friend, Cartier about the difficulty of managing the controls of his plane whilst checking his pocket watch.

Wristwatches became an integral part of military uniform towards the end of the 19th century, as soldiers would wear watches during the Second Boer War to synchronise manoeuvres during battle. The functionality of the wristwatch was then ever apparent, and it wasn’t long before everyone wanted one.

Nowadays, wristwatches are more of a fashion accessory than a functional tool. With a countless number of designs, colours, makes and models, we’ve certainly come a long way from the days of the pocket watch.


Since the early 2010s, smartphones and smartwatches have become the most common timekeeping devices. The average person is generally never a few metres away from their mobile phone, and thus, knowing the time is a basic commodity.

Leading tech companies such as Apple, Samsung, and Google have led the world into a new era of timekeeping, by producing devices that combine the traditional elements of timekeeping with the functionality and practicality of a smartphone.

Not only are smartwatches a great timekeeping tool, but they also operate like a smartphone in the sense that they notify the user of incoming calls, messages, emails, and more, as well as tracking health, and doubling up as a bank card using platforms like Apple Pay.

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