The wristwatch was initially viewed as a silly fad, unlikely to catch on. But it was thanks to a World War that it did.

The concept goes back at least as far as the 19th century with Guinness World Records reporting that the first wristwatch was made for Countess Koscowicz of Hungary by the Swiss watch manufacturer Patek Philippe in 1868 (although the origins are somewhat disputed with some claiming the idea goes back as far as the 16th century - Queen Elizabeth I was apparently presented with an "arm watch" in 1571).


The wristwatch. PICTURE: Bradley Ziffer/Unsplash

But, when-ever the first one was made, it is beyond doubt that the wristwatch was initially generally seen as a fashion accessory for women, often called a watch on a bracelet (men, on the other hand, tended to carry pocket watches, which came in an increasing variety of shapes and sizes and, as well as telling the time, was also seen as a wise - and redeemable - investment).

Their adoption as an item men could wear came through the military when soldiers and sailors of various nationalities, were looking for quick, easy and one-handed access to the time while operating weaponry and machinery, leading many to adapt pocket watches by simply adding a strap. An officer in German Imperial Navy, for example, put together his own so he could more easily accurately time bombardments and the success of his watch led the navy to commission watchmaker Girard-Perregaux to create its own version in what is said to be the first mass production of the item.

Other watchmakers were also taking note of the trend and by the dawn of the 20th century were advertising "wristlet watches" for men. The idea didn't immediately take hold, however, and it wasn't until World War I that mass adoption began. This was thanks in part to the precision timing required to ensure artillery barrages didn't affect advancing infantry. Pilots also found them easy to use when in the air and such was the popularity of the item that by 1917, the British War Department began issuing them.

Alexis McCrossen, a history professor at Southern Methodist University and the author of Marking Modern Times: A History of Clocks, Watches, and Other Timekeepers in American Life, told The Atlantic that by the war's end, watch manufacturers were designing wristwatches “for men with the promise that this watch could make a man more soldierlike, more martial, more masculine".

Further innovations were to follow with the first self-winding version invented by John Harwood in 1923, the first watchproof watch in 1926, and the revolutionary quartz watch in the late 1960s which used battery-powered oscillator circuit using digital counters to drive the watch as opposed to the traditional balance wheel (the first digital electronic watch with an LED display was released in 1970).

In more recent years, smart watches have followed but in this age of digital technology, the future of the humble wristwatch remains somewhat uncertain thanks to the growth in use of personal gadgets - from smart phones to fitness monitoring devices - all of which perform that most basic function of telling the time.