We Checked Watches Obsessively Before Phones

Pessimists Archive
2 min readOct 21, 2020
Image via Bucardo

Obsessively checking information on a pocket device is seen as a very 21st century dysfunction, but a 1665 diary entry hints it isn’t such a unique phenomenon. 355 years ago Samuel Pepys lamented his obsessive watch checking habit in his diary:

“But, Lord! to see how much of my old folly and childishnesse hangs upon me still that I cannot forbear carrying my watch in my hand in the coach all this afternoon, and seeing what o’clock it is one hundred times; and am apt to think with myself, how could I be so long without one; though I remember since, I had one, and found it a trouble, and resolved to carry one no more about me while I lived.” — Samuel Pepys, Saturday 13 May 1665

He even admits doing the 1665 equivalent of ‘no phone’ by refusing to carry a watch. Turns out, as soon as we had useful, interesting dynamic information within arms reach at all times, we reached for it regularly. 224 years after Samuel Pepys entry, in 1889, a similar sentiment was written about in England, referring to ‘the watch mania’, meaning the proliferation of miniature time pieces:

“We give ourselves no time to think nowadays. life is such a rush and drive, else we might not be so anxious to place thus constantly before our eye.”

Besides the vernacular, this could be a line from an article written today about smartphones, the default watch of modern times. Three and a half centuries later Apple Watch is pitched as a device to reduce our obsessive phone checking habits, apparently checking a watch can’t possible be a modern sin since watches are so old. This the perfect example of what Amy Orban calls ‘the Sisyphean cycle of technology panics.’

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Props to @RumpoleBayou for highlighting the Samuel Pepys diary entry on Twitter.