The Rise of the Second Hand A History of Watches

The Rise of the Second Hand A History of Watches

, Von Benjamin Davis, 4 min Lesezeit

The addition of the second hand was a pivotal innovation in the evolution of timekeeping and wristwatches. Early portable timepieces like pocket watches did not have second hands. It was not until the late 18th century that watchmakers began adding them to their designs.

The first pocket watches with second hands appeared in the 1780s. These were innovative new mechanisms that allowed for greater precision in time measurement. The increased accuracy was driven by scientific and industrial needs in the late 18th century. As manufacturing, transportation, and communication systems became more complex, precise time coordination became critical.

In 1783, Abraham-Louis Breguet invented the “gong spring”, an improvement to balance springs that stabilised the oscillation rate and allowed pocket watches to keep time accurate to the second. Breguet was one of the leading horologists of his era and his innovations in timekeeping helped popularise watches with second hands.

By 1800, second hands were common features on quality pocket watches. To accommodate the second hand, dials had to be redesigned with separate subdials for the seconds. This created the traditional two-dial design with minutes in the large central dial and a smaller seconds subdial along the bottom.

However, reading the tiny seconds dial could be inconvenient. It was much easier to tell the time at a glance when the seconds were on the central axis. So watchmakers began experimenting with ways to make the second hand more prominent.

Around 1815, some pocket watches began incorporating a central seconds hand on the main dial. This style is known as “deadbeat seconds” because the second-hand jumps from second to second rather than sweeping smoothly. However, the deadbeat mechanism only had a brief popularity.

In the 1820s, watchmaker Joseph Winnerl created the precursor to modern sweep seconds by using a friction spring mechanism to produce a smoother motion for the central second's hand. This innovation, later perfected by Adrien Philippe in the 1840s, led to the sweeping second's hand as we know it.

By the late 19th century, the second hand was an expected element of most quality pocket watches. But reading a pocket watch still required pulling it out and opening the case to examine the dial. The advent of wristwatches changed that dynamic.

Wristwatches were initially small unprotected devices worn like bracelets without glass covers or cases. The very earliest examples from the late 1860s and 1870s did not feature second hands due to their tiny dials. But as wristwatches evolved into larger, more sophisticated timepieces, second hands became standard. See more about the history of the minute hand in our other recent article.

The first true wristwatches with glass faces and leather straps emerged around the turn of the 20th century. These included small-second versions with a subdial for the seconds hand. The integral seconds wristwatch with the larger centred seconds hand became popular after World War I. By the 1930s, it was the dominant wristwatch design.

With a wristwatch clearly displaying the seconds on the central axis, time telling became more instantaneous. No longer was it necessary to retrieve a pocket watch and flip open the lid – a mere glance at the wrist allowed the time to be read accurately right down to the second.

This new capability changed people’s relationships and perception of time. It facilitated faster-paced lifestyles, tighter scheduling, and greater punctuality. The steady sweeping motion of the seconds hand became a ubiquitous reminder that time is always slipping away.

While digital watches and smartphones have replaced wristwatches as primary timekeeping devices, the traditional analog watch with seconds hand remains popular today. The iconic design is deeply ingrained in culture and popular media. The sweeping seconds hand continues to be an evocative symbol of the relentless passage of time.

In conclusion, the evolution of the seconds hand from early pocket watches to modern wristwatches fundamentally changed portable timekeeping and our relationship with time. The addition of the sweeping seconds hand to wristwatches in the early 20th century provided unprecedented convenience and accuracy in time-telling. It remains an essential design element in analog watches and an enduring symbol of our perpetual race against the clock.


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