What are Mechanical Watches? History and operation

What are Mechanical Watches? Just like many others you are also probably looking to know about mechanical watches, their history, and their way of working.

Since their invention back in the 14th century, mechanical watches have evolved a lot, reducing their size until they can be worn on the wrist.

A mechanical watch can be defined as one that works thanks to a mechanical system of springs and gears, without depending on batteries or any other electronic device. Therefore, both automatic and wind-up watches fall into this group.

Today mechanical watches are considered authentic works of art, a precision instrument whose operation is a spectacle of moving parts for those who know how to appreciate it.

If you want to know more details about the history and operation of this micro-engineering masterpiece, we are going to discuss Mechanical Watches, their working style, and their history in this post.

✚ Mechanical watches and their history

Inspired by the intricate Chinese water clocks and Arabic clockwork, the first mechanical clocks appeared in Europe during the second half of the 14th century. In those days they were great machines that occupied a prominent place in some of the tallest towers in Italy and Great Britain.

Mechanical watches

These were simple watches that used large gears driven by weights and regulated by Foliot-type mechanisms that at best deviated half an hour a day.

Despite being imprecise and breaking easily, these mechanisms were quite an advance at the time and in fact, for more than 300 years it would be the predominant system, although with some updates.

➤ From the weights to the spring

Changes like those introduced by Peter Henlein, a German locksmith from Nuremberg who swapped out the weights for winding springs sometime between 1504 and 1508.

This considerably reduced the size of the mechanisms and allowed the appearance of the first portable mechanical watches.

Designs that soon became very popular among the richest since they could be hung on the wall, on a table, or even worn around the neck.

Although these clocks were egg-shaped, they only had hour hands and no crystal, a feature that would not come onto the scene until the 17th century.

➤ The invention of the pendulum

In 1656, the Dutch scientist Christiaan Huygens invented the first clock regulated by an oscillating pendulum mechanism, although the idea is also attributed to Galileo Galilei, who had already studied the pendulum movement in 1582.

The invention of the pendulum

Although Galileo’s designs for a pendulum clock never came to fruition, at least while he was alive.

Huygens continued to refine his automatic watches and over the next few years managed to achieve a precision of fewer than 10 seconds per day.

In fact, his 1675 balance wheel spring design can still be seen on some wristwatches today.

Huygens’ clock was the starting point for a race for precision that led to numerous advances, leading pendulum clocks to dominate timekeeping standards until the invention of the quartz clock in 1927.

➤ The mechanical pocket watch

In parallel, Heinlein’s portable watches continued to evolve and in 1550, thanks to the use of screws, they were able to take the flat shape of the current pocket watch.

Although it would not be until the year 1675 that these mechanical devices would be small enough to be carried in a pocket and not as a pendant.

It is believed that Charles II of Spain himself was the one who popularized this new way of transporting watches in Europe and North America.

It is at this time that the first designs with glass protection appear and soon become luxury items, receiving great attention from designers and fashion experts.

Mechanical Pocket watches

Although all these watches had a big problem, their lack of precision, was something that the English watchmaker Thomas Mudge solved in 1755 by inventing the lever escapement.

Thanks to this ingenuity, the mechanisms went from deviating several hours a day to just one or two minutes, which was a revolution in the watchmaking industry.

Therefore, it is not surprising that after 1820 lever escapement was already present in most mechanical watches around the world, and in fact, it is still used today.

In 1857, the first mass-produced pocket watches with standardized parts appeared, driven by the industrial revolution, allowing everyone to have access to cheap and reliable watches.

The first designs used a key-winding system to wind the mechanism, but in 1860 the crown began to be used to power the watch.

After the outbreak of World War II in 1914, wristwatches became fashionable and pocket designs became history.

Read Our Guide On Mechanical vs Automatic vs Quartz Watches: Which Type of Watch is Best for You?

➤ Mechanical wristwatches

Many claims that the first wristwatch was designed by Abraham-Louis Breguet in 1810 as a gift to Caroline Murat (Queen of Naples), although there is also evidence of an arm watch, a gift from Robert Dudley to Queen Elizabeth I in 1571.

Regardless of which was the first, the truth is that before the First World War, they were only considered jewel-type bracelets for women.

Mechanical wristwatches

But the pocket watch was not made for the battlefield and the war highlighted the need for soldiers to carry a more practical instrument for combat.

In fact, the first bracelet designs were nothing more than pocket watches modified with a leather strap so that they could be attached to the wrist.

Soon after, numerous manufacturers such as Louis Cartier and Wilsdorf & Davis (later Rolex) began making wristwatches designed especially for the wrist.

In this way, what began as a passing fad for men ended up becoming a revolution in the world of watchmaking, so much so that by 1930 wristwatches already outnumbered pocket watches 50 to 1.

➤ From mechanical to automatic

In 1770 the Swiss watchmaker Abraham-Louis Perrelet devised a system of oscillating counterweights that allowed the watch to be wound automatically while its wearer walked.

In fact, it was advertised as being effective enough to power the mechanism for 8 days with just a 15-minute walk.

For this reason, Perrelet has always been considered the father of the automatic watch, although for historians there is no record of what type of movement he created and they also point to the watchmaker Hubert Sarton, whose sketches and descriptions of the automatic mechanism date from 1778.

Although the automatic design would not succeed until after World War I when industrialization allowed small automatic wristwatches to be made.

Automatic Mechanical watches

The first watchmaker to produce watches of this type was John Harwood whose Swiss-made automatic designs had the capacity to store up to 12 hours of power.

Designs that would soon be adopted and improved by legendary companies such as Rolex, with a system of weights that could move more freely and accumulate up to 35 hours of energy, or Eterna with the introduction of bearings to maintain the structural integrity of the mechanism against shocks, or any other type of external force.

Currently, most of the mechanical wristwatches that are manufactured use automatic mechanisms, and only a few, mainly for collectors, continue to use manual winding.

✚ How does a mechanical watch work?

The mechanical watch works thanks to several moving parts that interact in an orderly way inside to move the hands without the need for batteries or electronic components.

This mechanism known as movement or caliber works thanks to 5 components, present in all mechanical watches:

  • Mainspring: It is the part where the mechanical energy that makes the mechanism work is accumulated. Generally a flat spring with a spiral shape.
  • Balance or balance wheel: it is the part that is in charge of timing. A weighted wheel that sways at a constant pace, thus marking the passage of time.
  • Gear train: It is responsible for transmitting the movement from the main spring to the balance wheel and also for adding each of its oscillations to convert them into hours, minutes and seconds.
  • Keyless work: A set of gears separated from the rest that allow the mainspring to be wound by turning the crown. They are also used to set the clock.
  • Escapement mechanism: Its function is to make the gears escape or advance a certain number of times with each balance wheel swing. These stops are what produce the characteristic tick-tock of mechanical watches.

By turning the crown of the watch, the keyless work winds the mainspring, charging it with mechanical energy, which in turn is transferred by the gear train to the balance wheel.

The balance wheel swings at a constant rate and each time it does so it unlocks the lever of the escapement mechanism, which releases a tooth from its gear and causes the hands of the clock to always move at the same speed and in the correct direction.

Additionally, when the escapement gear rotates it again pushes the lever, which in turn strikes the balance wheel and propels it back into motion.

In the case of automatic mechanical watches, a system of rotating weights automatically winds the mainspring with each movement of the wrist.

Obviously, this is a simple description of the operation of a mechanical watch that, in addition to telling the time, can have many other functions called complications, such as a calendar, an alarm, or a chronograph, among many others that have been added over centuries of evolution.

✚ The best quality/price mechanical watches

In its beginnings, mechanical watches were only available to a few, but today anyone can get a quality watch at a good price.

Below are some of the mechanical watches that currently offer the best quality/price ratio:

➤ Seagull 1963

classic Seagull 1963 watch

The Seagull 1963 is a classic watch steeped in history, but also a great engineering feat thanks to its intricate column-wheel bi-beat mechanical winding movement.

It is nothing less than the first Chinese wristwatch chronograph, manufactured for the country’s air forces in the 1960s and reissued today with the same mechanics as before.

A very appreciated watch by collectors, especially those who have just started, since it can be obtained at a fairly reasonable price.

Bestseller No. 1
Tissot Men's Heritage 316L Stainless Steel case Swiss Mechanical Watch with Leather Strap, Brown, 20 (Model: T1194051603701)
25 Reviews
Tissot Men's Heritage 316L Stainless Steel case Swiss Mechanical Watch with Leather Strap, Brown, 20 (Model: T1194051603701)
  • Case Size: 42.00 mm, Band Width: 20, Case Thickness: 11.35 mm
  • Swiss mechanical movement, 316L stainless steel case, Arabic dial type
  • Leather strap, butterfly clasp with push-buttons closure
  • Water-resistant up to a pressure of 5 bar (50 m / 165 ft): suitable for short periods of recreational swimming and showering, but no diving or snorkeling.
  • 2 Year International Warranty
Bestseller No. 2
Khaki Field Mechanical
47 Reviews
Khaki Field Mechanical
  • Featuring a Grey Band, Black PVD Case, Scratch Resistant Sapphire Crystal
SaleBestseller No. 3
Fossil Men's Townsman Automatic Stainless Steel and Leather Two-Hand Skeleton Watch, Color: Silver, Brown (Model: ME3110)
2,878 Reviews
Fossil Men's Townsman Automatic Stainless Steel and Leather Two-Hand Skeleton Watch, Color: Silver, Brown (Model: ME3110)
  • Fossil has always been inspired by American creativity and ingenuity. Since 1984, we’ve strived to bring new life into the industry by making quality, fashionable watches and accessories that were both fun and accessible.
  • Transparently cool-Townsman reveals the inner workings of the watch with a innovative see-through dial. Whether dressing for the office or weekend, this timepiece has the mark of distinction.
  • Case size: 44mm; Band size: 22mm; automatic mechanical movement with analog display; skeleton dial reveals the intricate, hand-assembled inner workings of the watch; self-winding; hardened mineral crystal lens resists scratches; imported
  • Stainless steel case with blue dial; genuine brown leather band with adjustable buckle closure; interchangeable with all 22mm Fossil watch straps
  • Water resistant to 50m (165ft): suitable for short periods of recreational swimming and showering, but not diving or snorkeling; 5 ATM
Bestseller No. 4
Seiko Men's Japanese Mechanical Automatic Watch
900 Reviews
Seiko Men's Japanese Mechanical Automatic Watch
  • Seiko's 4R35 mechanical movement beats at a frequency of 21,600 vibrations per hour with manual and automatic winding capabilities and a power reserve of 41 hours
  • Case Diameter: 39.9mm
  • Minimalist black dial with sunray finish, gold accents, and date calendar
  • Stainless steel case and bracelet with tri-fold push button release clasp
  • Water-resistant to 10 bar, 100 meters (330 feet)
Bestseller No. 5
Khaki Field Mechanical
83 Reviews
Khaki Field Mechanical
  • Featuring a Green Band, Silver-tone Case, Scratch Resistant Sapphire Crystal
SaleBestseller No. 6
Tissot Mens T-Race 316L Stainless Steel case with Black PVD Coating Swiss Automatic Chronograph Watch, Black, Rubber, 22 (T1154272703100)
59 Reviews
Tissot Mens T-Race 316L Stainless Steel case with Black PVD Coating Swiss Automatic Chronograph Watch, Black, Rubber, 22 (T1154272703100)
  • Case Size: 45.00 mm, Band Width: 22, Case Thickness: 16.58 mm
  • Swiss Tissot automatic chronograph movement, 316L stainless steel case with black PVD coating, Index dial type, Date
  • Rubber strap, standard buckle closure
  • Water-resistant up to a pressure of 10 bar (100 m / 330 ft): suitable for short periods of recreational swimming and showering, but no diving or snorkeling.
  • 2 Year International Warranty
Bestseller No. 7
Hamilton Khaki Field Mechanical White Dial Men's Watch H69439411
48 Reviews
Hamilton Khaki Field Mechanical White Dial Men's Watch H69439411
  • Featuring a Green Band, Silver-tone Case, Scratch Resistant Sapphire Crystal
Bestseller No. 9
Tissot Men's Heritage 316L Stainless Steel case Swiss Mechanical Watch with Leather Strap, Black, 20 (Model: T1194051603700)
45 Reviews
Tissot Men's Heritage 316L Stainless Steel case Swiss Mechanical Watch with Leather Strap, Black, 20 (Model: T1194051603700)
  • Case Size: 42.00 mm, Band Width: 20, Case Thickness: 11.35 mm
  • Swiss mechanical movement, 316L stainless steel case, Arabic dial type
  • Leather strap, butterfly clasp with push-buttons closure
  • Water-resistant up to a pressure of 5 bar (50 m / 165 ft): suitable for short periods of recreational swimming and showering, but no diving or snorkeling.
  • 2 Year International Warranty
Bestseller No. 10
Khaki Field Mechanical
30 Reviews
Khaki Field Mechanical
  • Featuring a Brown Band, Silver-tone Case, Scratch Resistant Sapphire Crystal

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