Home // News // Besides Wristwatches: A Look at Instrumental Timekeeping Devices...

Besides Wristwatches: A Look at Instrumental Timekeeping Devices

Longines Equestrian Pocket Watch Collection Cortina Watch Featured Image

History is replete with examples of human inventions that sought to measure time.

Apart from wristwatches that we are so familiar with today, what were some of the devices that laid the foundation of modern chronometry?

Most people carry a device, in one form or another, which tells us the time. Knowing the time of day is as effortless as a flick of the wrist. But have we been taking that convenience for granted?

Going back in time, before the inventions of wrist and pocket watches, wall and table clocks, time telling was certainly not an instinctive task that it is today. For example, mediaeval folks had to rely upon the ritualistic chimes of the clock tower that stood in the middle of the town to learn the time of day.

The edifice was typically the tallest structure in town built with a large clock face for maximum visibility. Having been relegated to a landmark and superseded by more advanced instruments, today, the clock tower no longer bears the same chronometrical importance it once did. It does, nevertheless, serve as a reminder that there were other epoch-making apparatuses that were created in the past to measure the time as we know it today, and they are worth knowing and remembering.

8 most important timekeeping devices besides wristwatches:


Sundial_Cortina Watch

The gnomon is the part of a sundial designed to cast a shadow, most commonly in a triangular shape (credit: Chris F / Pexels)

Among the earliest sundials were recorded in ancient Egyptian and Babylonian civilisations. They date as far back as 1500 BC. Prior to the invention of the clock, the sundial was the only reliable instrument to continuously measure time. The sundial, in essence, indicates the time of day by tracing the shadow cast by the motion of the sun. When sunlight hits the gnomon, it casts a shadow onto the dial, which is indicated with hour markers, to tell the time of day.

Even after the emergence of antediluvian clocks, the sundial maintained its importance for a long period of time due to the former’s unreliability and inaccuracy. It is, however, not without drawbacks. The sundial tells solar time, also known as local time, and it varies accordingly as influenced by longitude, latitude and our planet’s own orbit and axis. Therefore, correction must be made when designing a sundial destined for a particular geography.

Water Clocks

Water Clock_Cortina Watch

A diagram showing Su Sung’s water clock (credit: Cambridge University Press)

Water is one of the essential elements of life. Thanks to its ubiquity, as well as molecular stability and the energy arisen from its flow, water too could be repurposed into both a regulating organ of sorts like the balance spring and the power plant like the hairspring of the modern mechanical wristwatch. The earliest description of the clepsydra can be traced back to an Egyptian tomb circa 1500 BC.

The application of water was brought to life in imperial China when polymath Su Song erected a water-powered astronomical clock tower in 1088. It was an improvement upon centuries of Chinese clepsydras, where the oldest reference of water clocks used in China dates back to 6 BC. His creation was a complex feat of engineering, featuring a water tank, waterwheel, escapement mechanism, and the first-known example of the endless chain drive mechanism to power an armillary sphere and 113 striking clock jacks.

Astronomical Clocks

Astronomical Clocks_Cortina Watch

The astronomical dial of Prague’s astronomical clock is remarkably rich in detail (credit: BRC Sign / Pexels)

A precursor to modern grand complications that showcase a wealth of astronomical information, such as sidereal time, equation of time, moon phases and more, the astronomical clock ventures beyond the time of day and into celestial realms. One of the best-known examples still preserved and functioning flawlessly today is the Prague astronomical clock. First installed in 1410 and mounted on Prague’s Old Town Hall, it is the world’s third-oldest astronomical clock and the oldest still in operation. Unlike Su Song’s hydro-powered creation, Prague’s monument is mechanically driven.

Inspired by astrolabes, the tripartite clock tower comprises apostles’ statuettes, an astronomical dial and a calendar plate. It was the epitome of sophistication ahead of its time when it was unveiled to the public. The astronomical dial is capable of displaying a cornucopia of information, including the local view of the sky, Central European Time, the position of the Sun on the ecliptic, the position of the vernal equinox, sidereal time, Old Czech Time, time of sunrise and sunset, moon phases and more.

Atomic Clocks

Atomic Clocks_Cortina Watch

The atomic clock pushes the boundaries of our understanding of physics (Credit: Eric Long / National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution)

As technology progressed, there was an increased desire for greater precision. Modern conveniences such as GPS rely on satellite-based atomic clocks, whose timing accuracy is pivotal to the measurement of distance in order to pinpoint the exact location. Not unlike a mechanical wristwatch that depends on the predetermined frequency of its balance to achieve stable precision, the atomic clock makes use of a quartz crystal oscillator with an ensemble of atoms to achieve extraordinary stability. The atoms of choice are mostly either caesium or rubidium, with the higher-frequency caesium favoured as the primary frequency standard.

After multiple conceptualisations and demonstrations in the preceding years by various physicists, the first practical caesium atomic clock was built in 1955 at the National Physical Laboratory in the UK. A paragon of modern atomic clocks, the NIST-F2 acts as the US’ primary time and frequency standard today. It is said that thanks to its extraordinary performance, the cesium fountain atomic clock will not stray for even a second for at least 300 million years.

Speaking Clocks

Speaking Clocks_Cortina Watch

The speaking clock is also known as the talking clock for a self-explanatory reason (credit: Telstra)

“Hello operators, what is the time right now?”

Long before everyone could glance at their wristwatches or perhaps, they needed a reference to set their own, they could tap into the speaking clock. It is not a traditional clock per se, but rather, it is transmitted via human voice, either live or later automated as the caller is informed via the telephone of the correct time.

The first telephone-speaking clock service went live on 14 February 1933, in France, in association with the Paris Observatory. As time would have passed between the caller’s request and the provider’s answer, to prevent such a discrepancy, the operator typically would set an interval, such as at the third stroke, before announcing the time. Once automation became prevalent, human operators were phased out for mechanical speaking clocks. The machine featured rotating discs containing pre-recorded voices. While its popularity has waned in modern times, some countries continue to maintain the service.

Longcase Clocks

Longcase Clocks_Cortina Watch

The longcase clock is also famous for the mellifluous chime and fancy carvings (credit: National Gallery of Art / Rawpixel)

A marvellous sight at an antique store, the longcase clock, also endearingly called the grandfather clock, has a long history. The advent of the longcase clock is said to be the result of Robert Hooke’s innovation circa 1658. The anchor escapement enabled a tighter pendulum swing, which would allow for the pendulum to better fit into a slender compartment such as the case of a longcase clock. His breakthrough was an immediate improvement on the older verge escapement mechanism, which induced a large 80-to-100-degree pendulum swing.

Furthermore, thanks to the reduced travel, clockmakers could fit a longer pendulum, which consumed less energy to sway back and forth, culminating in a clock that could run longer in between windings and be more accurate owing to less friction. The increased accuracy made possible by the anchor escapement led to the subsequent development of a minute hand on the longcase clock, which hitherto only featured a single-hour hand.


Chronographs_Cortina Watch

Nicolas Rieussec’s chronograph has an equestrian provenance (credit: Dominique Cohas / Fondation de la Haute Horlogerie)

The original chronograph created by Nicolas Mathieu Rieussec looks nothing like the wrist chronograph that we are accustomed to today. Although Louis Moinet is now regarded as the earliest inventor of the chronograph, Rieussec’s 1821 version was the first marketable chronograph. As a royal watchmaker to King Louis XVIII, who was into horse racing, Rieussec was commissioned to come up with a contraption capable of timing the finish of the winning horse, as well as the trailing pack, down to a second.

Understanding his device was large and cumbersome to be easily transported, since his triumph, he made numerous attempts to simplify, downsize or even modify the mechanism, to permit the seamless incorporation of the chronograph into small watches. Rieussec’s incontrovertible legacy in the development of modern chronographs is immortalised in Montblanc’s Star Legacy Nicolas Rieussec collection.

Pocket Watches

OMEGA_Pocket Watch_Cortina Watch - featured image

A modern rendering of OMEGA’s vintage open-face pocket watch

The pocket watch marks the transitional bridge between clocks and wristwatches. Early development took place in Europe around the 16th century when timepieces were designed to be wearable, often in a medley of shapes and forms. Towards the 17th century, clock watches began to evolve into pocket watches when men began to slip their watches inside their pockets. It necessitated a shift in design philosophy and soon pocket watches adopted a rounded shape. There were two types of pocket watches: open-face and hunter case. The latter was enhanced with a metal lid to keep the crystal atop the dial from scratches and other hazards.

The popularity of pocket watches suffered on the outbreak of World War I, as men, the predominant users of pocket watches who were enlisted for military service, found wristwatches offered greater mobility and convenience. Pocket watches, nevertheless, are continued to be produced today, especially for commemorative reasons. Remarkable contemporary examples include Parmigiani Fleurier’s L’Armoriale, which was unveiled on the 73rd birthday of founder Michel Parmigiani.

Discover more brands and collections at Cortina Watch boutiques, or online