It’s hard to imagine life before we were able to know the time in a glance.
But for most of human history, this is how it was. Only recently, during the medieval period, did clocks begin to have an impact on how we live and how society functions.
It all began with church bells ringing every hour to give villagers an idea of the pace of the day. But when they first really became integrated into everyday life was when Peter Henlein, a locksmith from Nuremberg, Germany, invented the pocket watch.
To be more accurate, the pocket watch actually came out of one of Henlein’s early inventions, the Nuremberg egg. But pocket watches were portable and way more popular, and so they are considered the point from which time began shaping and building society. They’re also the principal roots of wristwatches, the incredibly influential and stylish timekeeping devices we use everyday.
It’s surprising how many industries rely on timekeeping.
Modern-day agriculture, for instance, could simply not function without it. Farmers need to be able to accurately measure time to know everything from when to sow and when to harvest to how long a journey to the city takes and how long until crops will be spoiled.
As it is based on a complex network of vehicles and carting groups of us humans around, the transport industry also depends heavily on accurate timekeeping. It was the invention of pocket watches that first allowed workers to design efficient systems and conductors to keep to strict schedules.
And when talking about coordinating hoards of people, you can’t not mention voting. Before pocket watches, it was impossible to not just get people together at the same time, but to agree on when polls had closed and thus establish a fair and just system.
It may sound a tad facetious, but before being able to keep accurate time on your person with a pocket watch, having a relationship outside of your marriage was a completely different affair.
For one, it was difficult for lovers to arrange to meet at any given time. As you can imagine, this would make for a higher chance of getting caught, which might make it more or less fun depending on how you look at it.
Second, there was less opportunity to pursue relationships with others and allow them to develop into something more. Today, with phones and Facebook, we take this for granted, but back then, with no time other than the town clock and no way of communicating other than letters and messengers, you may meet your future partner one day and then never see them again.
We associate keeping good time with good manners and morals. And as they were so exclusive when they first came about, the pocket watch was thus the ultimate symbol of punctuality and, in turn, high status.
Pulling out a pocket watch was a sign you were reliable and a member of the upper class. In this way, it allowed aristocrats to separate themselves from the crowd of unreliable peasants, not only in appearance, but also in action — when you know what time is it, you can get much more done and be in much greater control of others.