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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