A Short History of the Wristwatch

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No element of men’s style inspires such fascination and devotion as the wristwatch. Up until the late 19th century the wristwatch was considered a piece of jewelry exclusively for women. Men preferred the pocket watch for some very practical reasons. At the time, watches were extremely susceptible to the elements. Moisture, cold, heat, and dust could easily ruin the intricate gears and springs within a watch, causing it to lose its accuracy. Men were more likely to face these elements as they held positions in the military, business, and government that made accurate timekeeping a paramount concern. Care had to be taken to protect their timepieces and keep themselves on schedule. Function superseded fashion, so into the pocket men’s watches went, only to be taken out when needed.

As with most things in men’s style, it would take a war for things to change and for the watch to leave a man’s pocket and be placed on his wrist. In the tumult of battle, a man needed all the hands he could get. So soldiers began improvising wristwatches by strapping their pocket watches on their arm with leather.

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In 1880 Kaiser Wilhelm I commissioned watchmaker Girard-Perregaux to produce a wristwatch for his German Naval officers.

Two thousand watches were manufactured with its characteristic protective grille.  This is probably the first large series of wristwatches ever made.  But the product did not become popular with the general male public and was discontinued.

Soon after this wristwatches showed up with British soldiers fighting in the Burma and Boer Wars in the late 19th century. Called “wristlets,” these leather straps had a cup to hold their pocket watch. By the 1890s, a few companies started manufacturing leather wristlets for soldiers and even made improvements to them, like adding a compass on the strap for navigation. They were often marketed as “Campaign” or “Service” watches. Soon watchmakers took note of the subtle shift in social conventions. One vendor in England advertised that the “wristlet watch” had been used at the legendary Battle of Omdurman in Sudan in 1898 and again during the Boer War, pointing out that “desert-experience is the severest test a watch can have.” The implicit message was a notable one in a period of more precise time: A wristwatch’s reliability, rather than its aesthetics, was what mattered most.

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Then in 1906 pioneer aviator Alberto Santos-Dumont complained to his friend Louis Cartier about the difficulty of checking his pocket watch while flying. He needed to keep his hands on the plane’s controls, but instead kept having to fumble for the pocket watch. Louis Cartier made a wristwatch for his friend affixed by a comfortable leather strap and secured with a small buckle. Santos-Dumont who wore it every time he flew. Alberto was a celebrity throughout Europe, and with his flamboyant personality, his Cartier watch became equally famous.

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All these trends cascaded to warfare as World War I soldiers and aviators strapped on wristwatches en masse. The development conjured scenes like the one described by the English war correspondent Philip Gibbs in Belgium:

The watch hands [on the officers’ wrists] pointed to the second which had been given for the assault to begin, and instantly, to the tick, the guns lifted and made a curtain of fire round the Chateau of Hooge, beyond the Menin road, six hundred yards away. “Time!”  The company officers blew their whistles, and there was a sudden clatter from trench-spades slung to rifle-barrels, and from men girdled with hand-grenades, as the advancing companies deployed and made their first rush forward.

By the end of the war, watch manufacturers were designing wristwatches “for men with the promise that this watch could make a man more soldier like, more martial, more masculine,” Alexis McCrossen, a history professor at Southern Methodist University said. “And they don’t just have some random soldiers out in Africa, they now have the most modern of all heroes of World War I—the aviator—[wearing wristwatches]. … By the 1920s, you have aviation, you have automobiles. The pocket watch was really intimately associated with the railroad. And so it seems very antiquated, it’s like something your dad wore. A modern man’s going to wear a wristwatch.” By the Great Depression, wristwatch production had eclipsed pocket-watch production; by World War II, the pocket watch was obsolete. The Great War, as one U.S. paper put it in 1919, had “made the world safe for men who wear wrist-watches.”

In recent times there have been those who believed the watch had finally met its demise in the smartphone, and would fade away with other male fashions such as monocles and sock garters. And yet the popularity of the wristwatch persists. To understand why, we need to understand the history of this timepiece, how its past continues to inform its present.

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In The Golden Age of Aviation – Longines Were King

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Since its invention, the watch has been associated with mankind’s greatest endeavors, and the conquest of the skies is no exception. Like the sailors, who almost two centuries before the invention of flight, would strike out in search of the new world, aviators would need the help of a timepiece to follow their route across open skies without a landmark to guide them.

As aviation entered into its Golden Age between the two World Wars, watchmakers would become essential partners with these new adventurers and the Longines watch company would become aviation’s associated partner.

Being the official timer of the Olympics, Longines was a well-respected time keeper and a name that people knew. In 1927 when Charles Lindbergh flew his famed non-stop, solo Atlantic crossing, it was Longines that timed the event; total time was 33 hours and 30 minutes. When Lindbergh left Roosevelt Field in Long Island, NY and landed at Le Bourget Field in Paris, France he became an international sensation and a true celebrity.  Imagine flying all that way across the ocean and keeping your bearings. Over the ocean there is just water, sky and clouds. For ships as well as for planes, determining longitude at sea is the trick, and Lindberg and Longines would rise to the navigational challenge.

Together they would produce a navigation watch that enabled calculating a precise location despite the accuracy shortcomings of the time.  But before Lindbergh collaborated with Longines, there was P. V. H. Weems.  In 1929, Navy Captain Phillip Van Horn Weems developed the Weems Second-Setting Watch for nautical navigation. The watch also quickly became an aeronautical tool. Given the turbulent cockpits and the thick gloves needed for altitude flying, the Weems was typically oversized. This 48mm watch’s distinguishing characteristic was its rotating center seconds dial. Pilots could listen to the minute beeps over the radio and adjust the dial, which maintained accuracy. The rotating inner dial displayed the correct minutes and graphically showed the margin of error from the original set time.

Lindbergh set out to update and improve the Weems watch based on his experience of flying over the Atlantic. He explained to Longines what he needed from a navigational watch, and the watchmakers went to work, with Charles Lindbergh giving his stamp of approval on the final product. In 1931, the Lindbergh Hour Angle watch was born. With Lindbergh’s global notoriety; it was a huge PR boon for Longines, and they sold the watch to working pilots and the adoring public alike.

The updated watch allowed pilots more easily to determine the Hour Angle, the watch’s namesake, which is a technical description of finding longitude based on the Greenwich Mean Time. Lindbergh’s watch aided navigation with the addition of markings to dial and bezel that made the hour angle calculation easier. A pilot could now confidently determine his position even over miles of open water.

Lindberg’s personal Hour Angle Watch is now part of the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum in Washington D.C.

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Today, vintage Hour Angle watches are relatively rare, although they come up for auction on occasion.  In 1987 Longines first produced a commemorative edition of the Hour Angle watch to celebrate the 60th anniversary of Lindbergh’s flight.

 

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A Slice of “American Pie” for a Mere 1.2 Million!

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“A long, long, time ago…” Those five words, when uttered or sung, make Baby Boomers immediately think of Don McLean’s pop masterpiece “American Pie”. There has never been a popular song quite like it. For more than 40 years, its lyrics have been an enigma wrapped in an eight-and-a-half minute long rock ‘n’ roll puzzle.  Argued over by generations of fans, deciphered and re-deciphered by code-breaking rock nerds it is considered to be a poetic reflection on mid-20th century U.S. social history. And this week its lyrics, hand-written in 1971 by the folk singer, were sold at auction by Christie’s in New York for $1,205,000 million dollars

That’s a lot of money for 16 sheets of paper, albeit with a lost seventh verse. But, in this age when song lyrics have all but become meaningless, American Pie illustrates, in a series of images, metaphors, and allusions, just what can be done within the frame of a melodically straightforward pop song.”Don McLean’s manuscript of ‘American Pie’ achieved the 3rd highest auction price for an American literary manuscript, a fitting tribute to one the foremost singer-songwriters of his generation,” Christie’s Tom Lecky said in a statement.

Since debuting on the airwaves in 1971, Don McLean’s “American Pie” has stood as one of the most important icons of twentieth-century American music. The song, composed in Pennsylvania and at McLean’s Victorian cottage in Cold Spring, New York, was recorded in May 1971. The single achieved number-one status in January 1972 and remains the longest track to ever hold such a distinction.

The lyrics to “American Pie” that have continued to enthrall successive generations of audiences. “People ask me if I left the lyrics open to ambiguity,” McLean said. “Of course I did. I wanted to make a whole series of complex statements. The lyrics had to do with the state of society at the time.” From a reference to February 3rd, 1959—the “day the music died”—when the musicians Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and J.P “The Big Bopper” Richardson died in a plane crash, “American Pie” follows the social, cultural, and political trajectories of the 1950s and 1960s. The song comes to mourn and mythologize the hopes and aspirations of American popular music. Shifting national mores, Vietnam, the Beatles, and even the violent 1969 Altamont Free Concert are, like underpainting on canvas, among the many influences that harbingered McLean’s sprawling opus of joy and loss.

“American Pie” has been inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame and was named a “Song of the Century” by the Recording Industry Association of America and the National Endowment for the Arts. The popularity of the song also earned Don McLean an induction into the Songwriters Hall of Fame and the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards Lifetime Achievement Award.

The draft that was auctioned is 16 pages: 237 lines of manuscript and 26 lines of typed text, according to Christie’s. It includes lines that didn’t make the final version as well as extensive notes — all of which should be revealing, McLean said.

The record for a popular music manuscript is held by Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone,” which sold for $2 million in June.

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