Deconstructing The Watch: What’s In A Name

by Randy Murray on October 6, 2014

It amuses me to read and hear so much about products like Apple’s new watch (called the “Apple Watch”). It’s a product that won’t be released for some time and we don’t really know much about it. And yet so many are staking out their ground. “I won’t buy or wear one!” “It’s the end of human interaction!” “It’s too big/clunky/requires an iPhone/doesn’t do enough” — ad infinitum.

Yes, initially it amused me, but now it’s beginning to bore and annoy me. Speculation can only go so far. I have very little to say about it because I haven’t touched a real production model and won’t for months.

What is more interesting, I think, is to look deep into what watches are and why we wear them before we leap forward into what they might become.

Let’s start with the name. What is a “watch?”

The word watch has deep roots. It means, in its most basic form, to pay careful attention. We watch TV. We watch the kids. We watch our weight. We tell others to “watch out!”

And for the last couple of thousand years people, often sentries, have “stood watches.” In this usage a watch was a period of time where one was required to stand guard—to watch over an area. Eventually this type of watch became to mean a fixed period when one would do specific work, not just on sentry duty.

The term “watch” came into full usage during the age of fighting sail, especially with the English Royal Navy. Sailors and marines worked watches, which were timed by using an hour glass. “Strike the bell and turn the glass,” became a regular refrain, and all aboard ship measured time by how many bells they had last heard. The connection between the word watch and measuring time became even more closely connected as naval navigation wrestled with the problem of figuring out precisely where they were upon the vast oceans of the planet and began the search for a solution to determining their current longitude. They quickly figured out that a solution could be based upon knowing the precise time as set by clocks at the Naval Observatory at Greenwich, England. The building of accurate clocks was an significant problem, made much more complex by putting these primitive clocks on heaving, wet, and variably temperatured ships.

John Harrison managed to solve the problem, first with intricate, beautiful clocks the size of console televisions, but quickly miniaturized into a pocketable form (if you had BIG pockets).

And these were all first used on ships. So while a big device kept in the Captain’s cabin might be a clock (or better yet, a chronometer), a small device that you kept in your pocket and used up on deck quickly became a “watch.”

We do not wear wrist clocks. Clocks measure time. We wear and carry watches. We call them that because of deep history, but the words still matter. We use them to pay attention, to stay attentive, to work for a specific period of time.

Let’s start with that difference. We do not wear a device on our wrists to measure time alone. We wear them to pay attention.

With that in mind, what else can we, should we, pay attention to? And that’s an excellent place to start the discussion about the future of watches.

Deconstructing The Watch: What’s In A Name by Randy Murray, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

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