The Pocket Watch Was the World’s First Wearable Tech Game Changer

SMU History Professor Alexis McCrossen, author of Marking Modern Times: Clocks, Watches and Other Timekeepers in American Life, talks about time pieces and the new watch technology.

By Clive Thompson
Smithsonian Magazine

Would you wear a computer on your wrist?

It’s a new high-tech debate, as “wearable” computers begin to go on sale. We’ve long grown accustomed to carrying a computer in our pockets—but now tech firms are betting we’d rather have one on our wrist, showing us our messages, social-networking pings, maybe some Google searches. Already, over 400,000 people bought Pebble smartwatches last year, and Google’s head-mounted Glass computer was released to over 10,000 early adopters. Apple is widely rumored to be putting out a smartwatch later this year.

For many, wearables seem like a final, crazed step in information overload: Tweets on your wrist! Supporters, however, claim that a smartwatch might actually be less annoying—because you can quickly glance at it.

This isn’t the first time we’ve run through this debate, though. To really understand how the wearable computer could change our lives, consider the impact of the original wearables—the pocket watch and the wristwatch. . .

Having a watch wasn’t just about keeping to the clock, though. It was a cultural marker—a performance of punctuality. Every time you pulled out your watch, conspicuously and in public, you signaled others that you were reliable.

“You were a modern person, a timekeeping person, a regular person,” says Alexis McCrossen, a professor of U.S. history at Southern Methodist University who wrote Marking Modern Times, a history of American timekeeping. A 1913 Hamilton watch ad explicitly described the device as a tool for moral improvement: “The Hamilton leads its owner to form desirable habits of promptness and precision.” Soon, the watch was a straightforward metaphor for having attained the middle class: Horatio Alger novels often showed the plucky protagonist had “arrived” when he got a watch. The technology even created a new compliment: If you were ambitious and hardworking, people called you a “stemwinder”—somebody who habitually wound his timepiece.

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