Time for a Change? Technological Persistence in the British Watchmaking Industry

The commercial and technical achievements of classic British watchmaking were impressive. At the end of the eighteenth century Britain produced about half of the world's output of watches and had a thriving export market. The complex technology embodied in the chronometer represented perhaps the greatest achievement of any handcraft industry. Simultaneously, at the bottom end of the market, thousands of rural clockmakers crafted the simple, cheap, reliable clocks which were among the first consumer durables.

What led to the decline of the once-mighty British watch industry? From a dominant position in the late eighteenth century when English watchmakers supplied half of the world's demand, to a low point in the pre-World War I period, foreign producers at first challenged domestic British manufacturers in foreign markets, then virtually drove them out of their home market. The persistence of old technologies in the English watchmaking centres of London, Prescot, Birmingham and Coventry led to this terminal decline. Resistance to change was fuelled by economic, social and cultural factors. By failing both to adopt technological innovations developed in Switzerland and the United States and to adapt to changing market conditions, the sophisticated but outdated technology of Great Britain doomed itself to extinction.

Source: Center for digital scholarship journals