THE JOURNAL

The Pallweber: The Original “Digital” Watch

We live in a digital age and an era of true revolution. But the actual word “digital” can apply to an innovative timepiece from the 1800's as well: The Original IWC Pallweber. 

Digital, at least when it comes to timekeeping devices, started in 1883. An Austrian inventor, Josef Pallweber, patented a new way to tell time at the age of 25.Pallweber granted the license to IWC, who then in turn granted it to the Swiss manufacturer Cortébert for the French and Belgian markets.

 

IWC in the 1880s quickly embraced the novel invention of a digital pocket watch. Rather than having a conventional dial with two hands pointing to minutes and hours — the analog approach — the 19th-century digital watch used rotating discs for hours and minutes. The digits showing the correct hour and minutes were revealed through two windows on the dial. Seconds were still shown through a small hand on a subdial.

IWC Pallweber II movement, 1884
— Movement Pallweber II, 1884
IWC catalogue advertising Pallweber watches, 1885
— IWC catalogue 1885 advertising Pallweber watches

Starting in summer 1884 and for the next few years, IWC produced many of these Pallweber pocket watches.  IWC’s sales records show that there were about 16,590 of these watches made and sold until the 1890s.

 

IWC Pallweber watches were intended to be heirlooms. They were cutting-edge by 19th century standards but still evoked the finest handcrafted traditions.

 

All these watches had two windows revealing the hour and minute digits.  But then the similarity ceased. The dials reflected numerous different languages for the words “hour” or “minutes”, since the watches were sold in numerous markets, from Russia to Portugal, France, the UK, Spain, and Germany among others.

Wearable works of art

Many of the Pallweber dials were elaborate with hand-painted designs on an enamel base. The digital windows on the dial allowed space for artistry. The artists often followed the 19th-century School of Naturalism, depicting mountains and iconic Swiss landscapes.  Other designs included cherubs or sometimes elaborate floral motifs.  Depending on the market, these dials were variously signed “International Watch Co., or “Patent Automatic Timekeeper” or “Pat. Feb. 24, 1885” without any company name.

 

The cases sometimes looked as elaborate as the dials. While most were unadorned silver, some had very intricate and even fanciful engravings. One early example, sold first in Bombay, India, had a repoussé case, which is a form of metalwork hammered into relief from the reverse side.  Because IWC sometimes sold only movements due to the large demand for these watches, different cases then were used.

IWC Lépine pocket watch with Pallweber III movement , 1887
— Pocket watch with a Pallweber III movement and a rare hand-painted dial, 1887
IWC Pallweber watches were intended to be heirlooms. They were cutting-edge by 19th century standards but still evoked the finest handcrafted traditions.
IWC Lépine pocket watch with a Pallweber III movement, 1887
— Pocket watch with a Pallweber III movement, 1887

The movements of these watches also were unique but still based on the classic Swiss watch movement design principles. The base for these movements was IWC’s “Elgin II” calibre from the 1880s, a durable design also used in “regular” analog IWC pocket watches. However, these new Pallweber watches did not have hands set on a canon pinion and, instead, the wheels of the Pallweber-patented mechanism caused two discs to revolve, one for hours and one for minutes.

 

These movements also are called “jump hour” since the hour and minute discs “jump” to the next setting as the hour or minute changes. The revolving discs and jumping required both extra power from the mainspring and precise setting to allow jumping at exactly the right time. These were beautiful movements, but perhaps a little fussy.  During this era, IWC continuously improved their movements, from Pallweber I to II to III.  Subsequent jump hour designs patented by other companies had improvements intended to increase the spring power of the movement, which permitted the discs to jump more easily.

The next chapter

IWC’s Pallweber pocket watches were distributed only from 1885 through the early 1890s.  While no other digital pocket watches were subsequently produced by IWC, other watch companies produced digital pocket watches until about 1910. Many of these later developments provided additional torque via spring designs, wheel tooth changes or a second barrel.

 

It’s anyone’s guess why IWC did not continue to produce these digital pocket watches after the 1880s. They were easily readable and innovative, and often with special dials and cases.  While they could be somewhat finicky in operation, they also were ahead of their time, at least until 2018. As part of its 150th Jubilee, in 2018 IWC successfully launched its Tribute to Pallweber wristwatch with a totally redesigned mechanism. A great concept deserves to live on.

 

IWC Hunter Pocket watch with Pallweber III movement, 1886
— Pocket watch with a Pallweber III movement, 14 ct Gold case, 1886

Michael Friedberg has been collecting watches, especially IWCs, for more than three decades. From 2001 through 2015 he was moderator of the IWC Collectors' Forum and has written extensively about IWC's  history and technical features.

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