The application of the spiral balance spring (spiral hairspring) for watches ushered in a new era of accuracy for portable timekeepers, similar to that which the pendulum had introduced for clocks.

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Wristwatches were first worn by military men towards the end of the 19th century, when the importance of synchronizing maneuvers during war, without potentially revealing the plan to the enemy through signaling, was increasingly recognized.

The Garstin Company of London patented a "Watch Wristlet" design in 1893, but they were probably producing similar designs from the 1880s.

Various extra features, called "complications", such as moon-phase displays and the different types of tourbillon, are sometimes included.

Modern watches often display the day, date, month and year, and electronic watches may have many other functions.

They generally incorporate timekeeping functions, but these are only a small subset of the smartwatch's facilities. Watches evolved from portable spring-driven clocks, which first appeared in 15th century Europe.

Watches were not widely worn in pockets until the 17th century.

Today most watches that are inexpensive and medium-priced, used mainly for timekeeping, have quartz movements.

Expensive collectible watches, valued more for their elaborate craftsmanship, aesthetic appeal and glamorous design than for simple timekeeping, often have traditional mechanical movements, even though they are less accurate and more expensive than electronic ones.

The company Mappin & Webb began production of their successful "campaign watch" for soldiers during the campaign at Sudan in 1898 and accelerated production for the Second Boer War a few years later.