History of Military Watches
How Wars and the Military Have Developed the Wristwatch
Clocks or watches that may be worn on the wrist are not an entirely modern phenomenon. There is some evidence that women’s jewellery dating back as far as the sixteenth century included rudimentary timepieces which may be worn in that way. However, wristwatches for men are a comparatively modern innovation and their development has, to a great extent, been linked to wars and military action since the end of the nineteenth century.
The earliest evidence of wristwatches or wristlets worn by men is certainly linked to the military. These were pocket watches placed in cupped leather straps and worn on the wrist to free up the hands for firing a gun or other activity. It is possible that they were issued to members of the Imperial German Navy as early as the 1880s and there is photographic evidence of British Empire military forces wearing watches on their wrists from 1885. [i]
The Boer War (1899-1902)
By the time the Second Boer War was being fought in South Africa, between the British Army and the Boers (farmers of Dutch heritage), the wristwatch was apparently more commonplace in military usage. Watches, such as Mappin and Webb’s Campaign watch, were being advertised for this purpose. These were very much still in the style of a pocket watch with a wrist strap, but one variant had a cheaper steel case, which would have made it more practical and widely affordable. Not only could these watches be sent directly to the Front, they were marketed as being ‘a reliable timekeeper in the roughest conditions’. Goldsmith’s, another watch maker, marketed a Company watch, which, from the advertisement, appears to be a pocket watch. However, ‘an unsolicited testimonial’ reads:
“… I wore it continually in South Africa on my wrist for 3 ½ months. It kept most excellent time, and never failed me.—Faithfully yours, Capt. North Staffs. Regt.” [ii]
Assuming that this is a genuine testimonial, then these watches were certainly being worn on the wrist in on the front in South Africa. Commanding officers in the British Army had discovered how essential reliable and accurate timekeeping was on the battle front because the Boers were able to move quickly and knew the local area well. It had only really been possible to defeat them by co-ordinating British troops using precise timing.
In 1904, the first pilot’s watch, the Santos, was created by Cartier on request of Albert Santos Dumont, an aviation pioneer. As well as being a precise timepiece, it could also be used to calculate fuel consumption, air speed and lift.[iii] By 1909, other watchmakers were making aeronautical watches. When Louis Bleriot completed his famous cross channel flight, he was happy to endorse his watch made by Zenith:
I am very satisfied with the Zenith watch, which I usually use, and I cannot recommend it too highly to people who are looking for precision.[iv]
From 1906, the aeronautical watch, in common with wristwatches developed for all other purposes, benefitted from the expandable, flexible watch strap and metal loops or lugs attached to the watches to make it easier to attach these new straps.
The Great War/World War 1 (1914-1918)
By the later years of World War One having learnt the lesson of the Boer War, that accurate timekeeping was essential in combat, the wristwatch was indispensable to the military. At the beginning of the war pocket watches were standard issue to British troops, but by 1916, “luminous wristwatch with unbreakable glass” was the first item on the list of a British officer’s kit and the British military issued a small number of wristwatches from 1917. [v]Trench conditions had prompted the development of ‘luminous watches’, which could be easily read when crawling through a trench or at night. The watchmakers would simply paint the numerals and hands on the watch with radium paint, which would make them glow in the dark. [vi] Unbreakable glass crystals had also been developed in response to military demand by 1916, but prior to this, watchmakers attached a metal guard which could be placed across the face of the watch to protect the glass. These were pierced so that the time could still be read and known as ‘shrapnel guards’, making their military usage clear.
One of the earliest examples of a luminous wristwatch was made by Goldsmith’s and advertised from February 1915 as the ‘Military’ Luminous Watch. Many other companies offered similar ‘service’ watches aimed at a military clientele. S Smith & Son, watchmakers to the Admiralty brought out the Smith’s Allies Watch and even the Harrods department store entered the market with the eponymous Harrods Luminous Watch. Outside of Britain, wristwatches were also made by American companies such as Waltham of Massachusetts. The service watches and trench watches, a kind of cross between a wrist watch and a pocket watch[vii] were clearly used in the trenches by serving military officers, because there are surviving examples engraved for their owners, such as:
Presented to Capt. Thorpe with best wishes from No 6 Reserve Bgde RFA(T) for Auld Lang Syne 1917.[viii]
The final years of World War One saw other improvements to the wristwatch. Baumgartner, Borgel and Dennison all designed watches which were more suitable for trench conditions, including resistance to water and dust. However, the first truly waterproof wristwatch, the Rolex Oyster did not appear until 1926.[ix]
The Great War saw aeroplanes brought into combat for the first time. The pilots needed reliable and accurate aeronautical wristwatches and the war years saw significant developments in the technology. Like the watches used by the army, wristwatches used by pilots were given radium dials to aid night flying missions. Cockpit watches were also used in the aeroplanes of the time. These had a long crown housing so that they could be fitted into the instrument panel of the cockpit and used as another instrument or gauge to aid the pilot.[x] Manufacturers of the cockpit watch included Zenith, Omega, Doxa and Electa.
Unlike the British and American troops, the Germans were issued with comparatively ‘primitive’ pocket watch style timepieces. It has been argued that the use of wristwatches by the military during the Great War influenced their adoption by men in wider society. Prior to the conflict, wristwatches had been seen as a gadget for ladies. However, the returning servicemen in countries such as Britain and America were regarded as war heroes, men to be emulated rather than ridiculed as ‘feminine’. [xi] For the Americans, it was particularly significant that military aviators wore wristwatches as they were “the most modern of all heroes”. [xii] During the interwar years, the wristwatch rapidly became more popular than the pocket watch amongst men.
The Early Rotating Bezel
The first incarnation of the rotating bezel was developed by Longines for Charles Lindbergh’s historic flight across the Atlantic in 1927. It was meant for navigational purposes as there were no landmarks in the Atlantic Ocean to guide the pilot. The bezel, in the form of a rotating inner dial was set by the pilot before take-off using a series of beeps sent over the radio.[xiii] This may be the same model of watch as the ‘Seconds Setting’ watch specifically developed for pilots by Professor Philip Weems of the US Naval Academy and manufactured by Longines, which required synchronisation of the second hand before take-off, assisting in navigation.[xiv]
World War Two (1939-1945)
When war broke out in Europe in 1939, Hitler’s Luftwaffe pilots were using Beobachtungs-uhren wristwatches (Observation watches known as B-Uhr). The B-Uhr watches were a development of Lindbergh’s watch in their ability to use the rotating bezel as an hour indication. Those companies tasked with producing the B-Uhr were A. Lange & Söhne, Wempe, Lacher & Company/Durowe (Laco), and Walter Storz (Stowa). [xv] In 1942 alone, 1,200 B-Uhr watches were produced and the watch has inspired many of the aviation watches around the world to this day.[xvi]
Meanwhile, in Italy, the most famous wristwatch developments were for naval personnel. In 1935, the Italian firm Panerai had been asked by the military to develop luminous waterproof men’s watches, using their patented Radiomir paste (consisting of radium bromide and zinc sulphide). Thus the Panerai Radiomir watch, with its “superior luminescence” was conceived and prototypes were issued the following year. After consultation with the divers themselves, the watch was pressed into active service in 1940. The accuracy and luminosity of these watches were crucially important to the Italian naval frogmen, who took part in the Raid on Alexandria in December 1941, torpedoing British battleships. The success of their mission caused the British to become very nervous and, it has been noted, could have changed the course of the war.[xvii]
The British Government set a watch standard for its military watches. This became known as the W.W.W. (Watches Wristlet Waterproof).These watches had to have a black luminous face and a very accurate 15 jewel movement. Manufactured by several watchmakers, including Buren, Cyma, Eterna, Grana, JLC, Lemania, Longines, IWC, Omega, Record, Timor and Vertex, the watches were comparatively expensive to produce so were only actually issued to those servicemen who needed to consult their watches all the time such as the radio operators. [xviii]
The A-11 watch became known as “the wristwatch that won World War 2”. Such a grand claim was attributed to it because of the sheer number of Allied military organisation which adopted it. It was worn by the United States Army, Air Force and Marine Corps, the British Royal Air Force, The Royal Canadian Air Force and even, surprisingly, the Soviet Air Force. The variants of the A-11 watch were produced by Bulova, Elgin and Waltham and all had black dials with clear numbers on them. They were also the first examples of good quality, mass produced watches: a trend that continued after the war.[xix]
In the years after 1945, technological developments connected with the wristwatch continued. Further development of the rotating bezel watch concept was prompted by requests from diving units of military organisations in several countries. In 1953 Rolex launched its Submariner Watch and Blancpain brought its Fifty Fathoms watch to the market. The latter had been created in collaboration with Bob Maloubier, the commander of a French combat divers unit. Many other watchmakers including Panerai and Omega.[xx] This was just another example of how the military and wars have been linked to technological advances in the wristwatch since the pocket watch that could be worn on the wrist first appeared.
[i] John E. Brozek: The History and Evolution of the Wristwatch http://www.qualitytyme.net/pages/rolex_articles/history_of_wristwatch.html
[ii] David Boettcher: The Evolution of the Wristwatch http://www.vintagewatchstraps.com/wristwatches.php
[iii] Jacek Siminski A Brief History of Pilots and Astronauts Wristwatches:
[iv] Zenith: Louis Bleriot http://www.zenith-watches.com/en_en/icones/louis-bleriot
Jacek Siminski A Brief History of Pilots and Astronauts Wristwatches:
[v] David Boettcher: Great War Trench Watches http://www.vintagewatchstraps.com/trenchwatches.php
[vi] Daven Hiskey: Glowing in the Dark: The Radium Girls http://www.todayifoundout.com/index.php/2014/06/five-women-caled-radium-girls-improved-factory-working-conditions/
[vii] Uri Friedman: A Brief History of the Wristwatch http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2015/05/history-wristwatch-apple-watch/391424/
[viii] David Boettcher: Great War Trench Watches http://www.vintagewatchstraps.com/trenchwatches.php
[ix] John E. Brozek: The History and Evolution of the Wristwatch http://www.qualitytyme.net/pages/rolex_articles/history_of_wristwatch.html
[x] Jacek Siminski A Brief History of Pilots and Astronauts Wristwatches:
Although the article is about wristwatches, all the references I can find appear to show the cockpit watch as a pocket watch. If it wasn’t a hybrid like the trench watch, delete if not relevant.
[xi] Wristwatches for Everyone: The History and Usage of the Wristwatch
[xii] Uri Friedman: A Brief History of the Wristwatch http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2015/05/history-wristwatch-apple-watch/391424/
[xiii] Jacek Siminski A Brief History of Pilots and Astronauts Wristwatches:
[xiv] CW: High Time: http://www.christopherward.co.uk/blog/high-time-a-brief-history-of-altimeters-and-aviation-watches-2/
[xv] Jacek Siminski A Brief History of Pilots and Astronauts Wristwatches:
[xvi] CW: High Time: http://www.christopherward.co.uk/blog/high-time-a-brief-history-of-altimeters-and-aviation-watches-2/
[xvii] Rebecca Doulton: Panerai watches: a definitive history of the cult watchmaker famous for its luminescent dive watches http://www.thejewelleryeditor.com/watches/panerai-watches-history-luminescent-diving-watches/
[xviii] First Class watches: Watches which helped win wars https://www.firstclasswatches.co.uk/blog/2015/04/watches-which-helped-win-wars/
[xix] First Class watches: Watches which helped win wars https://www.firstclasswatches.co.uk/blog/2015/04/watches-which-helped-win-wars/
[xx] Roger Ruegger: How the Rotating Bezel Landed on the Dive Watch http://www.watchtime.com/blog/dive-watch-wednesday-how-the-rotating-bezel-landed-on-the-dive-watch/
David Boettcher: The Evolution of the Wristwatch http://www.vintagewatchstraps.com/wristwatches.php
David Boettcher: Great War Trench Watches http://www.vintagewatchstraps.com/trenchwatches.php
John E. Brozek: The History and Evolution of the Wristwatch http://www.qualitytyme.net/pages/rolex_articles/history_of_wristwatch.html
Rebecca Doulton: Panerai watches: a definitive history of the cult watchmaker famous for its luminescent dive watches http://www.thejewelleryeditor.com/watches/panerai-watches-history-luminescent-diving-watches/
First Class watches: Watches which helped win wars https://www.firstclasswatches.co.uk/blog/2015/04/watches-which-helped-win-wars/
Uri Friedman: A Brief History of the Wristwatch http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2015/05/history-wristwatch-apple-watch/391424/
Daven Hiskey: Glowing in the Dark: The Radium Girls http://www.todayifoundout.com/index.php/2014/06/five-women-caled-radium-girls-improved-factory-working-conditions/
Roger Ruegger: How the Rotating Bezel Landed on the Dive Watch http://www.watchtime.com/blog/dive-watch-wednesday-how-the-rotating-bezel-landed-on-the-dive-watch/
Jacek Siminski A Brief History of Pilots and Astronauts Wristwatches http://theaviationist.com/2013/12/25/aviation-wrist-watches/
CW: High Time: http://www.christopherward.co.uk/blog/high-time-a-brief-history-of-altimeters-and-aviation-watches-2/
Wristwatches for Everyone: The History and Usage of the Wristwatch
Zenith: Louis Bleriot http://www.zenith-watches.com/en_en/icones/louis-bleriot