The modern watch has over 500 years of history, and with that history comes many fun facts. In this post I will highlight five of them that I find the most interesting.
The 10:10 face
Have you ever noticed that most watches displayed in person or online have their time set to around 10:10? This time (and less often 1:50) is called “Happy Time” because the hands on the watch face resemble a smiley face. This marketing tactic has been shown to subconsciously raise the customer’s mood, which subliminally encourages them to make a purchase. Next time you’re in a store, look out for these smiling watches!
The rotating bezels found on dive watches can only rotate counterclockwise. At first, I thought that maybe this “feature” was only on cheaper watches, but I later learned that even the highest-quality dive watches have this due to safety reasons. The uni-directional bezels turn counterclockwise only so that if a scuba diver accidentally hits his watch against an object while diving, the bezel will not move clockwise. Since this rotating bezel is used to keep track of a diver’s dive time (which in relation to the maximum depth achieved reduce risk of decompression sickness for the diver), an accidental clockwise move would mean that elapsed dive time indicated on the watch would be less than the actual elapsed time, which could cause the diver to think he has been underwater for less time than in reality. On the other hand, an accidental clockwise move in the bezel would err on the side of caution and make the diver think he’s been diving for longer.
The origin of digital watches
In the 1968 sci-fi movie “2001: A Space Odyssey”, Stanley Kubrick commissioned the Hamilton Watch Company to design a futuristic (but non-functioning) digital timepiece to show in the movie. John Bergey, who was the head of Hamilton’s Pulsar division at the time, was inspired by this gadget to create the world’s first digital watch several years later. The Pulsar LED prototype was ready in 1970 and was developed jointly by Hamilton and Electro-Data, and two years later, the product was ready for market as an 18-carat gold digital watch with a red LED display that cost $2,100 ($12,500 in 2017 dollars).
From pocket watches to wristwatches
Pocket watches, while still classy and great timepieces, are no longer as popular today as they were in the 19th and early 20th centuries. On Jomashop, one of today’s largest online grey market dealers for watches, searching “pocket watch” only comes up with 8 results, with the Tissot above being the most popular. Why is that? During WWI it was common for men to wear watches on their wrists rather than on a chain around their neck because this simple change made it easier for men to tell the time in battle without moving their hand. Then, the pocket watch was more or less killed off during WWII when military men were actually forbidden to use anything but a wristwatch, in an effort to keep them safe and focused, by using both hands for their weapon. On the bright side, if you want to get a pocket watch nowadays, they are priced much lower than their wristwatch counterparts (except for vintage ones) and you can purchase one at a great deal.
IIII = 4?
This is my favorite fun fact about watches that many people don’t notice. When I got my Maurice Lacroix watch last year, I noticed that the number 4 was represented as “IIII” in Roman numerals and I thought it was a mistake until I did more research. Turns out many watches still use this convention, although no one is 100% sure why. Here are a few of the popular theories:
- In ancient Rome, Jupiter was the king of Gods and his name was spelled as IVPPITER in Latin. Since people were hesitant to put part of the god’s name on a sundial or in accounting books, IIII became the preferred representation of four.
- Some believe that subtractive notation (where IV, instead of IIII, represents 4) didn’t become the standard until well after the fall of the Western Roman Empire and it was before its use that the first timepieces were created.
- A logical explanation shows how using IIII may have also made work much easier for certain clock makers. If you’re making a clock where the numerals are cut from metal using a mold, using IIII means you’ll need 20 I’s, 4 V’s, and 4 X’s. That perfectly divides into a mold with 5 I’s, 1 V and 1 X cast 4 times. However, if you used IV, you’d need 17 I’s, 5 V’s, and 4 X’s, which is much more difficult to divide into molds.
- Another plausible reason to use IIII for 4 is that it creates more visual symmetry with the VIII opposite it on the clock face than IV does. Using IIII also creates radial symmetry, because only I is seen the first four hour markings on a watch, then V is only seen in the next four markings, and X is only seen in the last four markings.
Let me know what other watch facts you find interesting that I might have missed above!