The first watches used by any military entity were undoubtedly pocket watches, as the earliest wristwatches were designed exclusively for women. But pocket watches were awkward in battle, and often required both hands to access—imagine trying to consult a pocket watch while under fire or on horseback. The solution was the wristwatch.
The earliest military wristwatches were actually crudely adapted pocket watches, fixed to the wrist in a cupped leather strap. While the actual stories behind the earliest military wristwatches cannot be rigorously verified, they do serve to place their early evolution in context. The history of the military watch is in many ways the history of the wristwatch.
One story about the first military wristwatch claims that the German Imperial Navy equipped its seamen with watches that could be strapped to the wrist as early as 1880. Another possibility is that first wristwatches were worn by the British Empire’s military forces as early as 1885. Still another account is that Japanese soldiers were the first to wear wristwatches in the Sino-Japanese War 1894-95.
Regardless of which implementation of the military watch was actually the ‘first,’ one thing is certain: sailors and soldiers needed an easy way to access their watches on the battlefield, and pocket watches were adapted to the task. The military wristwatch was born.
The Influence of the Boer Wars on Wristwatches
During the Boer Wars of 1899-1900, the use of crude, strapped-to-the-wrist timepieces became relatively commonplace. Marketed as ‘reliable timekeepers in the roughest conditions,’ early military watches manufactured by Mappin & Webb and Goldsmith were specifically designed for use at the war’s front.
One model offered was cased in cheaper, rugged steel, making it both practical and affordable. As the Boers knew the local area well and were able to move quickly, British forces were only able to defeat them by carefully coordinated attacks, requiring precise timing. Reliable and accurate watches were now essential military equipment.
Having proven themselves vital to military success, watches were soon adopted by other military forces, and the market for military watches grew enough to support specific manufacture by the early part of the 20th century. The German Imperial Army commissioned wristwatches from Swiss watchmaker Girard-Perregaux, and in 1903, Dimier Freres & Cie patented a wristwatch with wire lugs, designed specifically for military use.
Early Aeronautical Wristwatches
Not long after the Wright Brother’s success at Kitty Hawk in 1903, the military implications of flight were made apparent, and the first aviation watches were made. In 1904, Cartier created the first aviation wristwatch for Brazilian aviator Alberto Santos-Dumont, with integrated lugs and a leather strap fastened with a small buckle. Named “The Santos,” this watch was not only a precise timepiece, but it could also be used to calculate fuel consumption and airspeed.
Santos-Dumont’s regular presence among the elites of Paris helped the wristwatch gain acceptance with the social elite of the day, and its popularity soared. Other aviation watches soon followed, including a model produced by Zenith that was worn by Louis Bleriot when he completed his famous crossing of the English channel in 1909.
World War I & Trench Watches
The military watch really came into its own during World War I. The lessons of the Boer Wars were firmly in place—the huge scale of the new conflict required organization and coordination on a level previously unknown. Battlefield tactics were increasingly carefully timed, and soldiers needed a reliable and easily accessible timepiece to execute them. Sophisticated coordination between fighter pilots and ground forces required precise timing, not only for proper execution, but also to limit the possibility of so-called ‘friendly fire’ casualties.
At the war’s beginning, pocket watches were still standard issue for British troops, but by 1916 the British officer’s kit included a “luminous wristwatch with unbreakable glass.” The realities of trench warfare necessitated a watch that could withstand the rigors of crawling through a trench at night, and “luminous watches” were developed. Watchmakers painted the hands and numerals with radium to make them glow in the dark.
Goldsmith’s “Military Luminous Watch” was created in 1915, aimed specifically at military personnel. S. Smith & Son offered their “Allies Watch” and Harrod’s department store created their own “Harrod’s Luminous Watch.” For American military officers, the Waltham company of Massachusetts provided early wrist/pocket watches for use in the trenches.
Unbreakable crystals were also developed toward the end of the war, though earlier models had metal guards that could be placed across the face to protect the glass from damage. Watchmakers like Borgel, Dennison, and Baumgartner designed watches specifically resistant to the water and dust of trench warfare.
Airpower came into play for the first time during World War I, requiring accurate aeronautical wristwatches. Pilots were supplied with watches that had radium dials for flying at night, and specific ‘cockpit watches’ were developed by companies like Omega, Zenith, and Electa, with housings that could be fitted into the instrument panel, serving as auxillary gauge.
Troops returning home to Great Britain and the United States after the war were welcomed as heroes, and many of them came home with their wristwatches, helping to win acceptance for the new style. During the interwar years, wristwatches became the norm for men, displacing the pocket watch and setting a new standard.
World War II & Aviator Watches
Before the war, Lindberg’s flight across the Atlantic in 1929 marked the first use of the rotating bezel. Lindberg’s watch took its inspiration from a navigational watch developed by Professor Philip Weems of the US Navy. Manufactured by Longines, the timepiece featured an inner rotating dial that was set before take-off. Regular radio signals then allowed the pilot to easily adjust the watch, compensating for small errors in time.
The beginning of the war in Europe saw the German Luftwaffe pilots using Beobachtungs-uhren wristwatches, (known as B-Uhr watches), a further development of Lindberg’s watch. Manufactured by A. Lange & Sohne, Wempe, and others, over 1200 B-Uhr watches were made in 1942 alone, and have inspired aviation watches to this day.
In 1935, Italian manufacturer Panerai was commissioned to make a waterproof watch for the Italian navy. Using its patented Radiomir paste, (a luminous blend of radium bromide and zinc sulphide), the Panerai Radiomir saw active service as early as 1940. Its superior accuracy and luminosity proved critical to the successes of Italian divers.
The British military established a standard for its military watches, known as the W. W. W. (Watches Wristlet Waterproof), which included a “Broad Arrow” engraved on the case back and dial. Featuring an accurate 15 jewel movement, these watches had black luminous faces and were manufactured by many watchmakers, including Omega and Lemania. Expensive to produce, these watches saw limited production and were not widely issued.
The US military established its own demanding standards, known simply as MIL-SPEC. The most famous MIL-SPEC WW II watch is the iconic A-11, “the watch that won the war.” The A-11 was not simply a watch model, but rather a production standard. Manufactured by a Elgin, Waltham, and Bulova, the A-11 featured a black dial with white hands, and hour numbers from one to twelve, with smaller minute numbers on the outside of the dial. This simple, mass produced watch exists in a number of versions, and was a staple of the allied air forces.
Post World War II Military Watches
While there were many developments in watchmaking, the A-11 really represented the zenith of the military watch. Wristwatches were still necessary, but by the time of the war in Vietnam, mass produced MIL-SPEC watches were considered disposable, with stainless steel cases and plastic crystals. Radium and tritium coatings for visibility were replaced by micro gaseous light with tradenames like Luminox, Nite, and Traser.
Eventually, soldiers were no longer required to wear wristwatches, and even though some MIL-SPEC multi-function watches are made, many soldiers today choose non MIL-SPEC certified watches like the G-Shock and the Suunto Vector.
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