Time Pieces History Project Item One: Pocket Watch

The Pocket Watch – Introduction to Item 1

As this project is called ‘Time Pieces’, it seemed only fitting that the first object was related to time, and I chose the pocket watch to represent my great-grandfather. He was lovingly referred to as ‘Dad the Old Man’ to differentiate him from my own father, his grandson, and was a pivotal figure in my early years.

A pocket watchI spent a lot of time with him and ‘Mam’, who babysat me when my parents went out. She and I had a little song we sang while waiting for Dad to come home from the pub: “It’s 8 o’clock and he’s not here. He must be drunk or on the beer!”

Some of my earliest memories are in their tiny front room, squinting at the coal fire and listening to the cheeps of the canary in the window. I also spent a lot of time in their garden, which was Dad’s pride and joy. He grew rhubarb, which I ate by the stick, dipping the stringy end into a bowl of sugar to take the edge off.

Although he spent a lot of time in the garden, growing the white roses which are now my favourite flower, and puffing happily on his pipe, I see him most clearly in his Sunday best, with Mam’s brooch pinned to his black jacket, hanky in one pocket and watch in the other. 

The Concept of Time

Time is a huge, boggling concept to try to distil here in a single blog post, so I don’t intend to dig too far into it. Unsurprisingly, the Oxford Dictionary’s definition is matter of fact about this most ephemeral of subjects, explaining it as “the indefinite continued progress of existence and events occur in an apparently irreversible succession from past, present and future.”

As we know, humans measure time to track days, weeks, months and years and measure how much has elapsed between events. Stephen Hawking covered time in his book “A Brief History of Time”, which was about the universe, physics, nature, black holes and more.

It would seem that time, as we’ve now defined it, is fairly straightforward (pun intended). But countries have had to agree some universal times, with Coordinated Universal Time (UTC) being agreed in 1884, during the International Meridian Conference in Washington DC. GMT (Greenwich Mean Time) had been established some years earlier, in 1847, to be used for British railways, the shipping industry and the Navy.

Ancient Ideas of Time

Many Native American tribes, as well as Hindus, Buddhists and others, regard time as being cyclical – with repeating ages that happen to every creature in the universe between birth and death. They call this the wheel of time.

By comparison, the Islamic and Judeo-Christian faiths see time as linear and beginning with God’s creation, moving towards the end time. Greek mythology defines Chronos as chronological time, and Kairos as the right or most opportune moment.

 The History of Clocks

Once the idea of time could be understood, people then needed a way to map its passage. The first method used for telling the time was the sundial, which is mentioned in the Old Testament and used by Ancient Romans, Greeks and Egyptians.A sundial clock

As the Earth orbits the Sun, shadows are cast and move across the face of the sundial, which relies on the noon line (which represents when the sun crosses the local meridian) and longitudinal correction, which varies depending on the country.

Although sundials were used throughout history as they became more accurate, other ways of telling time were also invented. The Egyptians came up with the water clock, which used the flow of water from one container to another and its movement past ring marks to track hours.

Similarly, the Saxon candle clock used the burning down of hour-long segments marked on a candle to track time. From there, mechanical clocks were invented in the 13th century, with the oldest working clock in the world at Salisbury Cathedral.

A Grandfather ClockClocks were often in churches and operated by weights. Portable clocks were developed after the invention of coiled springs. Only the rich could afford a personal clock in the 16th century.

From there, clocks evolved into more accurate time keepers with the introduction of the pendulum (1657). Long case clocks appeared in the 17th century, and cuckoo clocks arrived in 1775. It’s worth noting that all of these were set by referring to a sundial.

The History of the Pocket Watch

While the spring made clocks lighter, they were still large and heavy, and not really as portable as the name suggests. Around the same time as the spring, the pocket watch was also in developed. They were too boxy to fit in a pocket, though, so were carried around the neck instead.

A pocket watch was very much a status symbol. Only wealthy, image-conscious gentlemen had them, and Charles II was an early user, and his fondness for waistcoats meant his timepiece needed to fit into a smaller pocket. These watches had brass covers to protect the mechanism, and the single, hour hand could be viewed through the latticework designs.a pocket watch

Over time, the watches, like clocks, became smaller and more accurate. The invention of a glass front for the casing also made a difference, and the pocket watch became more decorative, with engravings on the back and jewels on the face itself.

Of course, a pocket watch was an essential piece of kit for a working man as well as the gentleman, whenever keeping time was part of his job. They were particularly handy on railroads, and a serious train crash in Ohio in 1891 was caused when an engineer’s watch stopped for four minutes. 

Father Time

Father Time holding a sickle. The personification of time, Father Time has appeared in various guises throughout history. He is connected to ‘Chronos’ (see above), but the ancient Greeks also conflated him with Cronos, who was the god of crops and harvest. He was usually depicted with a sickle, which is now used in images of Father Time.

He is often seen as an old man with a beard and wings, wearing a robe and carrying an hour glass, a Renaissance addition. He is also connected with Saturn, who was the Romans’ god of agriculture.

Father Time is also considered the father of truth, and is seen at the end of the year in modern depictions, handing over to ‘Baby New Year.” He is also a companion of the Grim Reaper, and no doubt the sickle comes in handy!

Please come back on Tuesday for Item Two! You can also read a bit about how I’m using my skills within the project here.


Local Histories: Clocks
History of Watches: The History of the Pocket Watch
Novareinna: Old Father Time


  1. Ian Sharp on at

    Made me think about the history of numbers. It’s incredible that the world uses the same number symbols. Or do they?
    Then for fun we put Roman numerals on clocks.

    • gudrunlauret@gmail.com on at

      As far as I know, most of the world uses numbers? I think it makes it easier! I suppose the Roman numerals is left over from the sundials. The history of numbers would be interesting.

  2. Chantel on at

    Brought to my mind the Harrison clock that was made for identifying Longitude. There was a prize I seem to remember for inventing a clock that was portable and accurate enough for maritime use. I guess pendulum clocks didn’t work very well at sea.

    • gudrunlauret@gmail.com on at

      Ooh, that’s cool. The history of maritime instruments would be a whole project in itself.

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