The wristwatch will rise again

If you've got the time, read why a new era of wristwatches is at hand

The Timberland HT2 wristwatch gives you the time in several time zones, your altitude, the temperature and barometer readings, a stopwatch and even a compass.

The Timberland HT2 wristwatch gives you the time in several time zones, your altitude, the temperature and barometer readings, a stopwatch and even a compass.

Conventional wisdom says people don't wear wristwatches anymore -- especially young people. The story goes that because we now have cell phones, we no longer need to lash anything to our wrists.

But that's not what's going on. Wristwatches have been coming in and out of fashion for centuries -- a trend driven by technology. And soon, technology will bring the wristwatch back to an arm near you.

Why people think the wristwatch is dead

High school and college students don't wear wristwatches anymore. In fact, something called the Beloit College Mindset List for the Class of 2014, which each year lists "cultural touchstones that shape the lives of students entering college," identified a small cultural difference between incoming college freshmen and those of us over the age of, say, 25.

Young people don't recognize the pointing-to-the-wrist gesture as having anything to do with time, as sign language for "what time is it?" Because young people grew up with cell phones as timepieces rather than wristwatches, they don't associate the wrist with the time.

Much has been made of this cultural difference, prompting some even to declare that the wristwatch is dead.

Even among people over the age of 25, the trending is definitely away from the wearing wristwatches.

And it seems to make sense. After all, you're carrying a cell phone anyway -- and all cell phones tell the time -- so why lash another clock to your wrist?

I'll tell you why in a minute, but first let me explain why all these naked wrists are part of a back-and-forth cycle rather than a one-way trend leading to the end of the wristwatch.

The watch wars

The watch was arguably the world's first mobile consumer gadget when it hit in the 16th century. The first watches were worn around the neck or attached to clothing, as they were too large for pockets or wrists. (Oddly, this is not unlike the clocks worn by rapper and reality TV star, Flavor Flav.)

But in the 1670s, the vest came into fashion. By then the process of miniaturization had advanced to the point where watches could be placed into a vest pocket.

The process of miniaturization, and all kinds of innovation, enabled the wristwatch, which was first used by the German navy in the 1880s. From then until the present day, the use of wristwatches by sailors and soldiers during war has been constant.

But by the early 1900s, the pocket watch remained the dominant fashion for civilian men, while women increasingly wore wristwatches. Of course, men wore wristwatches when they needed to, for example while flying an airplane.

However, so many men were involved in World War I, where mechanized warfare demanded wristwatches, that returning soldiers created the consumer trend of wearing wristwatches all the time. By then, technology had advanced enough to produce wristwatches that were small, accurate and durable.

An entire industry sprang up to provide wristwatches of every description to every type of consumer, from Mickey Mouse watches for children, to diamond encrusted fashion accessories, to the nerdy calculator watches of the 1980s.

The wristwatch reigned supreme, and formed a standard part of the wardrobes of both men and women from the 1930s until around 2000. By then, cell phones, and later smartphones, would become ubiquitous, and wristwatches have been losing ground for a decade.

But from a timekeeping perspective, what is a smartphone? It's a pocket watch. Without anybody noticing, the pendulum had swung back to the pocket watch era. If you think about it, the habit of checking the time by reaching into the pocket, pulling out a bulky device, clicking on something to expose the clock, clicking again and returning it to the pocket is a throwback to the Victorian era.

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Mike Elgan

Computerworld (US)
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