It would be interesting to know why it is that the origin of so many useful and valuable inventions is lost in antiquity. The individual who commits a crime of any sort hands down his name imperishably to posterity. Every schoolboy, for instance (according, at least, to Macaulay), knows who strangled Atuahalpa. Nobody, on the other hand, schoolboy or professor, knows who invented the watch. It is generally supposed that the inventor was the monk Gerbert, who was raised to the tiara in 999 under the name of Sylvester II., but this is merely conjecture. The only thing that is definitely known of the matter is that watches and clocks did not come into use until the close of the tenth century, after which time they very generally superseded the old-fashioned sun-dial and hour-glass. The earliest watches were very cumbrous machines, and it is not till the fourteenth century that we hear of their being rendered portable. In the middle of the fifteenth century, the spiral spring was invented, and from that time forward improvement was rapid, and watches of a small and handy size came more and more into use.

Even in those days the majority of useful articles were made in Germany. The earliest watches were known as Nuremberg eggs, partly because they emanated from that South German city, and partly on account of their shape. The works were enclosed in circular metal cases, which, as they hung from the girdle, suggested the idea of an egg. From various accounts we gather that ideas with regard to watches were very conservative in medieval times. People considered that they had secured a good thing, and discouraged any attempt at alteration in it. From 1500 to 1540 the movements were made entirely of steel; then brass was adopted for the plates and pillars, the wheels and pinions only being steel; and ultimately steel was only used for the pinions. About 1540 the fusee was universally adopted, and for about half-a-century no important change took place. During this time watchmakers appear to have devoted their energies entirely to the fabrication of quaint watches, for which the silversmiths manufactured equally quaint cases. One of the earliest instances of this eccentric workmanship is a watch formerly in the Bernal Collection. It represents an eagle carrying a boy on its back, evidently Jupiter and Ganymede. The works are contained in the body of the eagle, which opens across the centre to display the dial-plate, richly engraved with scrolls and flowers. The watch is so constructed that when not suspended to the girdle by the ring in the centre of the bird’s back, it can stand on its claws wherever its owner may choose to place it. Now that watches were made of every shape and size, the silversmiths began to exercise their ingenuity in the matter of the cases, which they constructed in every variety of unusual design and of all kinds of materials. Crystal was most commonly used, since it allowed its owner the simple pleasure of looking at the mechanism when he felt so disposed. Sometimes stones of a more precious character were cut and adapted to the purpose. The Earl of Stamford possessed a watch, resembling an egg in shape, the cases cut out of jacinths, the cover set round with diamonds on an enamelled border. Another quaint specimen of the art belonged to a Mr. Morgan. It was in the form of a golden acorn, and discharged a diminutive wheel-lock pistol at a certain hour. Sometimes the fancy of the watchmaker took a more lugubrious turn. When the famous Diana of Poictiers became a widow, the French Court, out of compliment to her bereavement, took to wearing watches fashioned in the form of skulls, the top of the skull opening so as to exhibit the dial of the watch.

During these fifty years the watch-making industry may be said to have been taking a holiday, but in the early part of the seventeenth century serious work was resumed. Watches of a quaint and bizarre type passed out of fashion, and watchmakers devoted their attention chiefly to the compact character of their work. About 1620 they used a flattened oval form, which enjoyed the favour of the public for many years. These were sometimes furnished with astronomical dials, and perpetual moving calendars, and often struck the hour, the inner case acting as a silver bell. In Ben Jonson’s “Staple of News,” the opening scene introduces a young man awaiting the striking of the hour which is to proclaim his majority. Here the watch appears to have been of the type described above.

From the days of Elizabeth to the invention of the pendulum-spring the mechanism of the watch appears to have made no advance. The pendulum spring was invented in 1670, and led to considerable improvement (at first chiefly in France), particularly with regard to weight and size. There is in existence a gold enamelled watch made by order of Louis XIII. as a present to Charles I., which almost rivals modern work in its smallness. It is oval in shape, measures two inches by one and a half inches across the face, and is an inch in thickness—dimensions which, though bulky compared to those of some of the watches manufactured nowadays, compare favourably with the average modern timepiece.

An exception to the statement that grotesque forms for watch cases went out of fashion in the seventeenth century is offered by the so-called “Abbess’s watches,” which were occasionally made in the form of a cross to hang at the girdle. Hence their name. Such watches were elaborately engraved as a rule, generally with some scene taken from the New Testament.


Unsigned article in the Globe; title and date entered by Wodehouse in his
Money Received for Literary Work notebook.


Transcriber’s note:
Wodehouse claimed that he “dug these [turnovers] out of reference books” and we can verify that in this instance; except for a few comments, nearly all of the column is adapted or copied from “Ancient Watches” in The Book of Days: A Miscellany of Popular Antiquities, edited by Robert Chambers and published by W. and R. Chambers in 1864.

Neil Midkiff