Do you know what time it is? Chances are good that you used a computer or a cell phone to answer that question. The time on your phone is about as accurate as chronometry gets these days. That’s because cell networks are timed from satellites, which are in turn timed from atomic clocks. And these days, it may be that atomic clocks are the only clocks that matter.
Before this modern era of quartz and atomic accuracy, though, timepieces were mechanical. Clocks were driven by heavy weights that made them impractical for travel. It wasn’t until the mainspring-driven movement came along that timekeeping could even begin to become portable.
But while the invention of the mainspring made portable timepieces possible, it hurt their accuracy. That’s because the driving force of a tightly wound spring isn’t constant like that of an inert, solid weight. So pocket watches weren’t exactly an overnight success. Early pieces were largely ornamental, and only told the hour. Worst of all, they would slow down throughout the day as the mainspring unwound, becoming useless unless wound several times a day. The mainspring wasn’t the only problem plaguing pocket watches, but it was the among the most obvious.