The Lost Origins of the Stopwatch: A Story of Racehorses and Scrappy Startups

Stopwatch. No big deal. You've got one on your wrist, or even on your phone. But it didn't used to be like that. It took a very fast horse and an enterprising company to bring the super-accurate timepiece to America.

It all started in 1855, when horse racing was a very big deal in the U.S. Tensions between the North and South were playing out on the track. Lexington was a middle-state star with a few successes under his belt when he accepted a challenge to run against the clock. After a series of faster than average loops, Lexington crossed the finish line just 7 minutes, 19 and three-quarter seconds. He had won a battle with a European-imported timepiece, which confirmed a world speed record that would last two decades.

It was literally the fastest thing anyone had ever seen. So when Lexington blazed around the track and then through the papers, the instrument that gave him his record (timed to the quarter second) also got national
interest.

The American Watch Company wanted to tap that enthusiasm. They didn't make the stopwatch that timed Lexington - until then stopwatches were made one at a time by hand. But the company was first in the world to produce machine-made timepieces of the non-stopwatch variety. To change the way the watch was made, they had to completely change the watch. It was classic case of small start up taking on the establishment. And if they could do it with any old time keeper, why not a watch that measures the seconds on demand?

They became the first to mass-produce the stopwatch, and put out 200 of them between 1859 and 1861. The American Watch Company called it the "sporting watch," and it sold for $50 - up to $300 less than fancy imported models.

The machine-made stopwatch was patented in 1859 and it was small, about two inches in diameter. "The dial was distinctive," explains the Smithsonian National Museum of American History curator Carlene Stephens. "The center hand circled the dial once in four minutes. The smaller hand at the foot of the dial circled once in four seconds, and each beat of the watch marked a quarter second." A regular watch sat in a circle at the top of the face.

But the mechanics were a little funky. The first push of a button on the case's side would send both the center and seconds hands to zero. A second push launched the timer into action, but the third would stop the entire timepiece, including the regular clock.

It didn't get much play. It wasn't until the early 20th century that the stopwatch gained any sort of popularity in the United States.

A workplace trend brought to-the-second timekeeping into vogue. The popularity of scientific management-a theory that focused on labor productivity and efficient workflow-required precise measuring tools. The stopwatch was a favorite of the theory's developer, Frederick Taylor, who hovered over workers and timed their actions in order to break each movement into discrete chunks for analysis. Fun for management, not so much for the workers.

Although the work theory was short-lived, the stopwatch persevered.

By the 1970s, the timepiece got a major upgrade when time technology starting relying on quartz instead of mechanics. The regular vibrations of quartz in an electric circuit meant watches only fell out of time one second for every ten years, which upped the accuracy of precise moment to moment time-keeping.

For both of their early achievements, Lexington the horse and the machine-made stopwatch that followed him wound up at the Smithsonian. But the city of Lexington, Kentucky recently took the record-holder back after a long lobby for the return of their namesake horse.