Eleven years after the Wright brothers took flight on December 17th 1903, World War I began. Technology had matured so rapidly that aeroplanes had become a normal and essential part of warfare. But before we get ahead of ourselves, let us wind back to 1904.
All over the world, attempts were made to achieve controlled, sustained flight and one of the early pioneers in Europe was the Brazilian national Alberto Santos-Dumont, whose family wealth had enabled him to live in Paris and dedicate his life to aviation.
Legend has it that during a conversation with his close friend and jeweller Louis Cartier, Santos discussed the trouble he had checking the time on his pocket watch while airborne. Cartier went back to his workshop to create a wristwatch durable and large enough to solve Santos’ problem. The aviator watch was born.
Santos liked the watch so much that he wore it regularly, and given his celebrity status at the time, that wristwatch didn’t go unnoticed. At the time, it was common for women to wear wristwatches, and men to carry pocket watches. Santos changed all that, much to the delight of Cartier. He was able to ride the wave of interest from the aviation community, but also from anyone whose imagination had been captured by those new airborne heroes.
The Cartier Santos model still exists today, albeit in a variety of sizes, movements and materials. It is however easy to see the resemblance between the very first and the present-day models.
Another brand that grew to fame in those days was Zenith when one Louis Blériot did what was considered impossible: crossing the English Channel by plane. The year was 1909, just six years after the Wright brothers took off, and flight technology had already matured to a level where a 20-mile long flight over water was possible.
No mean feat and the achievement won him £1,000 from the Daily Mail in exchange for the exclusive story – an opportunity he (ab)used to sing the praises of his Zenith watch.
While aviation pioneers all over the world risked their lives to continuously improve the technology, the military started to pay attention. Imagine the possibilities if you had an eye in the sky, allowing you to monitor every step your enemy took? Not to mention the potential capability to accurately drop a payload of bombs on a specific target...
It seems unlikely that men like the Wright brothers, Santos or Blériot had warfare in mind when they took to the skies.
Intentional or not, the aeroplane made its debut in armed conflict when WWI broke out in 1914. Thousands of pilots were trained and deployed and with them followed various watch technologies to help them keep track of time.
The period witnessed a number of different form factors. Pocket watches that would fit into a gap on the instrument panel of the plane, alongside further developments of the Santos Cartier wristwatch. At that stage, a watch helped time coordinated attacks as radio communication was as yet unavailable.
Another invention to emerge from the wartime workshop was luminous hands, which allowed the aviator to better read his watch during night time.
The rapidly growing market for aviation timepieces attracted the usual suspects in the shape of Omega, Zenith but also Longines. The latter was the official Olympic time-keeper during those years but soon made a name for itself with an attractive range of aviation watches.
So good were the Longines watches that Charles Lindbergh wore one during his famous Atlantic crossing in 1927 in the purpose-built Spirit of St. Louis plane.
It is still a mystery how Lindbergh managed to keep himself awake for the 33 hours the crossing took, especially when you consider that he had very little sleep in the days leading up to the flight.
Lindbergh became an overnight sensation and one of the most famous Americans ever as he rose to fortune in the wake of the achievement. His high profile made him a target and in 1932 his infant son Charles Jr. was kidnapped and later found dead. The event is described in the famous book and film ‘Murder on the Orient Express’ by Agatha Christie.
The watch was an essential part of an aviator's navigation equipment. Time was the primary way of determining an aeroplane’s location since the ocean offered no landmarks. By knowing their speed and direction the time would give them an approximate idea of where they were. A way of navigating also known as dead reckoning.
In the 1930s the aeroplane had gone from a novel toy for the wealthy to mainstream. Both when it came to civil aviation and military purposes. The roaring 1920s were over and what followed was a decade of depression and financial uncertainty. The tough times created an environment in which Adolf Hitler and his ideology could thrive. Just as Germany was showing signs of recovery from WWI the Great Depression struck in the aftermath of the Wall Street crash in 1929. Hitler seized the opportunity and soon forced his way to power in Europe’s largest country. In 1935 he instructed Hermann Göring to re-establish the Luftwaffe – an early sign of what was to come - and primed German manufacturers for pretty much everything needed for armed conflict. Including the watch industry.
The German way
RLM (Reichs-Luftfahrtministerium, or Reich’s Ministry of Air Transport) was looking for a standard issue watch for the bomber crews. The design was a bit similar to the Lindbergh watch with the hour angle indication, but the new B-Uhr (Beobachtungsuhr or Observation watch in English) introduced a very distinctive design. It became so iconic that it is a template for any aviation watch today.
The B-Uhr became standard issue, but the watches were owned by Luftwaffe, not the pilots, who had to return them after each mission. Measuring 55mm these watches were massive, even by today’s standard. There were two different types – The type A and B, with the former being made for less than one year. Type A sports a classic dial with numerals 1 to 11 and the triangle with two dots at 12. Type B went into production in January 1941 and differs only from Type A in the dial design. With big minute numerals from 5 to 55 and a small inner circle with numerals for hours.
In the case of the B-Uhr, no single manufacturer was able to meet the volume requirements on their own, so purchasing was spread across many watch factories in order to be able to make up the total numbers needed.
Five companies ended up manufacturing the B-Uhr: A. Lange & Söhne, Wempe, Lacher & Company/Durowe (Laco), and Walter Storz (Stowa). Wempe and Stowa used Swiss movements. Prominent brands like Patek Philippe, Wempe, and IWC also submitted watches for approval.
The B-Uhr is a big deal today with Laco and Stowa still offering a wide range of both Type A and B models in various sizes and colours. Laco even has a watch named Erbstück (‘inheritance piece’ in English), which is made to look like a watch which has actually seen wartime action.
The American way
Whilst the Germans had the B-uhr the Americans had the A-11. More of a standard than an actual watch, the A-11 became the timepiece that millions of officers, engineers, pilots, sailors and soldiers came to rely on during WWII. The huge quantities required kept homegrown companies like Waltham, Elgin and Bulova very busy.
Even by today’s standards the A-11 specs were quite rigorous: dust and waterproof casing, robust movements with accuracy requirements of +/- 30 seconds per day and a 30 – 56 hour power reserve, as well as extreme temperature resistance.
The British way
British watchmakers were more focused on building naval and aviation instruments, rather than wristwatches so the British Ministry of Defence had to turn to neutral Swiss watchmakers to fulfill the need for their military spec watch known as WWW, short for Wrist Watch Waterproof. What later became known as the ‘Dirty Dozen’, a group of 12 companies all produced an implementation of the required specification: Buren, Cyma, Eterna, Grana, Jaeger-LeCoultre, Lemania, Longines, IWC, Omega, Record, Timor and Vertex.
Some of these brands are long gone today, others are still going strong.
Not all the RAF pilots were happy with their watches. Many of them were buying Rolex watches to replace what they considered inferior standard-issue timepieces. However, when captured and sent to POW camps, their watches were confiscated.
Rolex founder Hans Wilsdorf learned about this and offered to replace all watches that had been confiscated. He would not require payment until the end of the war. All that was required was for the officers to write to Rolex and explain the circumstances of their loss, and obviously where they were being held.
Wilsdorf was personally in charge of the scheme, and as a result of this, an estimated 3,000 Rolex watches were ordered by British officers in the Oflag VII B POW camp in Bavaria alone. This move raised the morale among the allied prisoners of war because it suggested that Wilsdorf did not believe that the Germans would win the war.
American servicemen heard about this when stationed in Europe during the war and took this fantastic story with them back to America. Needless to say, this significantly helped Rolex sales efforts after the war.
After WWII the Jet Age arrived, and with the rising speeds of aircraft, watches had to be more and more accurate. We will address that period in The Aviators Watch; a history – Part 2.