How travel transformed timekeeping
The way we keep track of time has changed considerably over the course of human history. From the use of sundials and water clocks, transitioning to mechanical timekeepers and later electrical timers regulated by satellites. Travel on a local, and later a global scale, has been a key driving force behind these changes and innovations. As our means of travelling became more efficient and our world got increasingly smaller, our methods of telling time needed to keep up.
We decided to dive a little deeper into the relationship between travel and time, to see quite how far it goes; from the first marine chronometer, all the way up to the space age, taking one small step for man. Every advancement in transportation seems to have heralded a similar advance in horology.
These days, where travel has been severely restricted for many of us, we thought this would be an opportunity for a little escapism, to let the mind travel, even if we can’t ourselves. Most of these timekeeping devices – be it the GMT watches worn by Pan Am pilots or World Timers used by a lucky few airline travellers – have become far removed from their original function. However, they remain imbued with the romanticism of their initial purpose, which is why we think they are worth delving into and understanding, especially in times such as these.
Expanding empires need accurate timing
The age of exploration was an exciting time in history, as we began to expand our horizons beyond the distance a horse could carry us. As empires took shape and superpowers claimed land in all four corners of the globe, they were doing so using, what we would now consider, very rudimentary forms of navigation. The sextant was the tool that every would-be captain and first mate had to master, using the position of the sun and certain stars to ascertain their rough location.
For generations, local solar time was how time was kept in every city, town and village, with each being slightly different to the last, due to different longitude positions. So, travelling from London to Bristol would mean being on a different time at your destination than when you left. While this might not have been too much of an issue for those making the trip on horseback, for those who began to move between continents and discover the new world, these time differences mattered, as they moved between multiple degrees of longitude.
As sailors increasingly traversed the open seas, they were able to establish their longitude by using the sextant helpfully paired with an accurate chronometer, to tell the position of the sun at exactly noon. While the sextant had been used for centuries and was reliable at sea, the chronometers were less so. The first significant leap forwards in determining longitude thanks to a timekeeping device came from Christiaan Huygens and his pendulum clocks. The best of these clocks kept time to within 10 seconds a day, so could determine local longitude with relative accuracy. However, Huygens’ wish was for these to make navigation at sea easier. As anyone who has been on a ship during any type of weather will be able to guess, pendulum clocks don’t fare well on the ocean. However, these innovative tools from Huygens would go on to help change the world of astrology, allowing for accurate timings of events in the cosmos, down from the ground.
This challenge of accurate timekeeping while at sea was a serious issue. So serious, in fact, that it led to the founding of the Observatory at Greenwich with the first Astronomer Royal, John Flamsteed, tasked with cataloguing the stars. The hope was that this would lead to more accurate readings in the future. While this process started in 1675, we have to wait for another century and an act of Parliament for the Longitude problem to finally be solved. In 1714, the Longitude Act was passed, providing an incentive to those able to solve the issue, with the promise of either £10,000 or £20,000, depending on how accurate their solution was.
Enter the Yorkshireman, John Harrison. A carpenter and a clockmaker, he would set about solving the matter at hand with more vigour than most. He would produce, in fairly quick succession, four chronometers that he thought could take on the challenge. The first three either didn’t meet the requirements or didn’t make it onto a boat for a test run, but H4 was different. Smaller in size, and similar in shape to a large pocket watch, it was mounted into a wooden box. The key distinguishing factor of the H4 was the rapid ticking noise it made. Inside, was a large balance wheel, that beat five times a second and had larger oscillations than the standard pocket watch escapement. In 1761, William, John’s son, was granted the right to test H4 on a trip to Jamaica, in which it performed exceedingly well. The new chronometer managed to predict an earlier landfall at Madeira than the crew were expecting.
You would think this to be the end of the matter, and that Harrison would be awarded the prize money. However, the board put in charge of the 1714 Act did not consider this sufficient evidence to prove the precision of Harrison’s clock. So, another test was arranged, where the H4 would be pitted against a lunar approach, as well as another method, where longitude was calculated through the position of Jupiter’s satellites. This would be done on a trip to Barbados in 1764. When the board met again, in February of 1765, it declared Harrison and H4 the winner, first awarding him £10,000, only granting him the other half of the prize once it could be proven that other clockmakers could produce the same results. It would be no good to them if H4 was a one off.
This need for accurate positioning on a global scale led to a major advancement in the world of horology. As we will see later in this article, international competition, which was prevalent during this era, can be a major driving factor behind innovation. On this occasion, it was the competition between the English and the French, as they both expanded their respective empires, that would bring about change.
Railways force the issue of time zones
The next leap forward in timekeeping is less technological than the last, but still profound in its impact. As we mentioned earlier, local solar time was how every city, town and village had kept track of time since about the 14th century. However, even in a relatively small country like Great Britain, there were discrepancies in the solar time. After all, the sun won’t rise in Norfolk at the same time that it does in Cornwall.
This difference in local time was only a mild inconvenience until travel across the country was accelerated thanks to the expansion of the railways. Trying to construct a timetable when every station runs on a slightly different time would have been nightmarish, which is why, in 1840, Great Western Railway were the first to adopt a standard time across all of their stations. Known as Greenwich Mean Time, this was one of the first steps towards a time zone being introduced. However, it wouldn’t be until 1880 that the Definition of Time Act came into law in the United Kingdom, bringing all the country together under one, single time zone.
If the United Kingdom was struggling with this, you can only imagine the trouble caused in America and Canada, where vastly more landmass was governed under one system. The various rail companies that criss-crossed America in the 1800s each ran off their own times. So, if you were switching trains at Detroit and going from one company’s train to another, you would have to know what time both companies were on, as well as the difference between the two, in order to not miss your transfer. Not exactly the easiest system.
It’s understood that Britain suggested that the world adopt GMT, with no variation dependent upon longitude – an idea quickly dismissed for obvious reasons. In 1878, the Canadian engineer and inventor, Sir Sandford Fleming, proposed a system of 24 zones, separated by 15° longitude each. This suggestion was actually adopted by the American Railroad companies in 1883, which in turn led to the International Prime Meridian Conference held at Washington D.C. the following year. This is where it was agreed that Fleming’s model would be adopted around the world, with Greenwich being the location for the prime meridian line. The supposed reasoning behind this was Britain’s nautical dominance, both physically and in terms of the knowledge that had been gathered by the Greenwich Observatory, such as its maps and advanced chronological data.
This now meant that wherever you were, your local solar time was never more than half an hour off the standard time zone you were in. While the whole of the United States was quick to adopt these zones, the city of Detroit clung onto their solar time for a few more years and didn’t join the rest of the United States until 1905. The last country to subscribe to these standards was Nepal, who finally agreed to a GMT+ 5 hours 45 minutes in 1986.
This standardisation of time around the world not only eased countless issues, but also demonstrated how people at the time were thinking more globally. Business was starting to be carried out in multiple countries at the same time, with inventions such as the telephone allowing instant, long-distance communication. Suddenly, you could be everywhere at once. Now, a business owner could have a store in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles and not struggle with knowing what time each of them opened.
The first wristwatches help man take flight
As the world began to think more internationally, we needed a fast way to get from coast to coast. Trains and boats were reliable, but not nearly fast enough. Enter the pioneers of the early 20th century who attempted to make manned flight a reality. Chief among them were the Wright brothers and Alberto Santos-Dumont.
Those who follow Cartier’s history closely will be familiar with the story of the Santos watch and how it came into existence. The Brazilian inventor and early aviation pioneer attempted to take to the skies in his powered machines, in the late 19th and early 20th century. One problem he kept coming up against was that the controls of his flying devices were very hands-on. However, in order to record his flights, he needed to be able to check his watch.
All that was available during this era were pocket watches, which would require him to take a hand off his controls to check the time. Luckily, Santos-Dumont was good friends with a certain jeweller and watchmaker by the name of Louis Cartier, who set about to solve this problem. His solution was a square-cased wristwatch, which was clear enough that at a glance Santos-Dumont was able to tell how long he had been in the air, yet stylish enough that he could slip it under the cuff of his suit, while back on the ground. After all, Santos-Dumont, the heir of a wealthy family of coffee producers, remained a refined, albeit eccentric, individual. And so, the first pilot’s watch was born.
Since then, the archetypal design of a pilot’s watch has evolved significantly. Cased in yellow gold, with black roman numerals on a crisp, white dial, this was not the hardiest of watch designs. However, it was very Cartier. Needing a more precise and robust timing device while in the air, the preferred style moved towards a matte black dial, oversized numerals and lume-filled hands.
This more utilitarian aesthetic was the one chosen by the allied air forces during World War II and delivered towards the end of the conflict, when they were laying out the requirements for what would later become the Dirty Dozen. They pushed a group of watch manufacturers, from Longines to IWC, to create timepieces that could withstand the demanding conditions of a cockpit in action; from being legible enough to read in a nighttime dogfight to water resistant enough to survive a pilot parachuting out over the Channel. These early wristwatches had to be accurate, in order to ensure that pilots and their navigators were able to make it to their mission and safely home again. While these were only used at the very end of the War, their general aesthetic was carried on and the tough requirements that pilot’s watches had to meet only got tougher, with the likes of the IWC Mark XI taking these to another level.
Both of these styles of watches – the refined square and robust mil-spec – have each developed their own cult following. It is all thanks to the first aviation pioneers, who took to the skies and were in need of a different form of watch. Whether they were purely tools or were styled elegantly enough to mingle in more refined circles, they marked another step forward in the way watches were built, worn and used.
Chronographs used to time racing laps
As we leave the 1940s behind, and enter the exhilarating ‘50s and ‘60s, leisure activities start to expand; from the rise of pursuits like recreational diving, and waterproof timers developed for it, to conquering new speeds on land. Not only was racing becoming a popular pass time, but the professional side of the sport was taking off, with the likes of Formula One, the Mille Miglia and the growing passion for the Le Mans 24-hour race. To get as accurate as possible timings for these various different races, an array of chronographs were developed, from those capturing the speed of a car over a mile drag strip to those taking split timings over multiple laps.
As cars became increasingly fast, the land speed record was broken multiple times in the 1960s, with Craig Breedlove finally breaking the 600mph mark in 1965. As top speeds were gradually increasing, the margin between winning and losing a race was getting smaller and smaller. More than ever, accurate timing systems were needed to keep track of these petrol-fuelled competitions. The golden age of the steel chronograph had arrived.
Conceived as true purpose-built tools, drivers could strap on their chronograph of choice, forget about it and have it ready to use whenever the occasion arose. A specific scale, known as the tachymeter, was also designed to aid race car drivers measure their average speed over a predetermined distance, normally one mile or one kilometre. The lure of chronographs and their association with racing, quickly expanded further, partially thanks to being featured on the silver screen. Whether it was Steve McQueen, with his square-cased Monaco, or Paul Newman’s eponymous Daytona, the influence of the chronograph appears inescapable.
For the serious racing driver, a wrist-worn chronograph was good, but a dashboard timer was better. Those made by Heuer were among the most coveted, with their track record of producing all sorts of stopwatches pushing them to pole position for racing enthusiasts. These timers sat alongside the mechanical speedometers and rev counters. Nowadays, they have become collectors’ items, often enjoyed as desk ornaments, but sometimes still used for their original purpose. In fact, Roger Smith, the English watchmaker and former apprentice of George Daniels, has one mounted in his Mini Cooper Racecar.
GMT and the Golden Age of travel
The first ever scheduled commercial flight took place in 1914, between the towns of St Petersburg and Tampa, in Florida. This “airboat line” was a long way from what many people consider the Golden Age of air travel in the 1950s and 1960s. The significant growth of passenger planes at this time led to commercial flying becoming a staple of certain people’s lives, with the ability to get from New York to Los Angeles in less than a day.
Those that found themselves regularly crossing these time zones, more often than anyone else, were the pilots; this newly created class of men, who could be spotted from the other side of a terminal, thanks to their well-pressed uniforms and luggage in tow. To assist them with this, a new type of watch needed to come into existence. Enter the GMT. The most recognisable of these watches is the Rolex GMT-Master, with the first model – the 6542 – coming onto the market in 1955. While watches had been issued to pilots and servicemen of the armed forces for decades by this point, issuing tool watches to a group of civilians was a fairly new concept. However, partnered with Pan American Airways, Rolex provided all of their pilots with their now iconic, Pepsi bezel watch.
Integrating a 24-hour bezel, as well as an additional hour hand, the GMT allowed these pilots to catch the time in the city they had just landed in and back home, with a single glance. This meant a perfectly timed call back to their family became much easier, with no need for quick mental arithmetic. While many seasoned travellers enjoyed their GMT watches, they remained utilitarian tools. Some frequent flyers seeking something more refined, had somewhere else to turn to for their go-to travel companion. Enter the World Timer by Patek Philippe.
You cannot mention the Patek Philippe World Timer without also mentioning Louis Cottier. The son of a watchmaker had been perfecting the art of telling the time in two different time zones, on the same dial, since the 1930s. He devised an ingenious, ultra-thin mechanism, which simultaneously displayed the correct hours across the world's time zones, through a rotating 24-hour ring, and local time. The technology was licensed to Patek Philippe, as well as Rolex and Vacheron Constantin, before Patek Philippe obtained a patent for Cottier's device. In 1953, they released the reference 2523, which has since come to be cemented as one of the manufacturer’s most iconic models.
At a time when international travel was already costly and limited to few, the 2523 was even more so. Indeed, the 2523 was exceedingly expensive at retail and, despite its cult status today, did not sell well back then – hence why only nine of them are known. Regardless, the World Timer provides the perfect counterbalance to the Rolex worn by Pan AM pilots. It embodies the golden age of aviation, and the refinement of early jet setters. Both designs were born from the same desire to tell the time in more than one place at once, yet they came to two very different conclusions.
Up into space
At last, we come to the final frontier. So far, innovations in timekeeping had helped us conquer the seas, land and the skies, and now they had to take on the stars. As many will undoubtedly be aware, the Omega Speedmaster was the first watch to make it to the Moon. As you may suspect, this journey wasn’t a straightforward one.
The task of finding a suitable watch was given to Jim Ragan, a Program Manager and Aerospace Engineer. This was the first task he handled while at the space agency. To make it on to the spaceship, the watch had to pass a series of tests, just like any other piece of equipment that the astronauts might use. Four brands submitted watches to be tested, although one, Hamilton, didn’t submit a wristwatch, which was what Ragan had specifically asked for, so in the end only three different watches were tested. These were not your normal COSC certification tests. They were far less forgiving and the margin of error far smaller. If one, single test failed, the watch was not allowed on board, simple as that. According to Ragan, two of the watches, a Rolex 6238 and a Longines-Wittnauer 235T, failed one of the very first tests, which was a thermal vacuum simulation.
While many of us might consider our watches essential pieces of kit, for Buzz Aldrin, Neil Armstrong and Michael Collins their Speedmasters were backups – a failsafe if their digital equipment went wrong. If a timer malfunctioned while on a spacewalk, they would need to know exactly how long they had left on the lunar surface, which is where the Speedmaster would come in, giving them something to fall back on if all else went wrong. Unfortunately, something did go wrong on the Apollo 13 mission, where a mid-flight explosion occurred and the Speedmasters proved invaluable.
To make sure that it could stand up to the harsh conditions of space, it was first heated to 71°C (160°F) for 48 hours, and then heated to a further 93°C (200°F) for an additional 30 minutes. If it survived the heat, it was then blasted with cold and taken down to a freezing-18°C (0°F) for four hours. Then, it was time for rapid temperature variation while in a near-vacuum (10-6 ATM) environment; going back and forth between 71°C (160°F) and -18°C (0°F) every 15 minutes, after first standing at these temperatures for 45 minutes each. After this, came a long humidity test of 250 hours at 95% humidity, at temperatures ranging from 20°C (68°F) to 71°C (160°F). As strenuous as you would expect.
It’s not just temperature that can damage a watch in space. It can get pretty rough up there, with severe shocks possible all the time. So, the Speedmaster was subjected to six 11ms 40g shocks from a variety of directions. There was also an acceleration test, where the watch went from 1 to 7.25 g within 333 seconds, as well as a vibration test of three 30-minute shakes between 5 and 2,000 Hz. The watch also had to withstand 130 dB, from 40 to 10,000 Hz for 30 minutes.
Something that would never be tested by COSC or the observatories was the functionality of watch in an oxygen rich environment, another way to ensure that the Speedmaster was fit for space. The watch was put into a 100% oxygen chamber at 0.35 ATM, with the temperature set at 71°C (160°F) for 48 hours. Finally, there was a pressure test where the Omega had to go through 10-6 ATM for 90 minutes at 71°C (160°F), again followed by 30 minutes at the same pressure but the temperature taken up to 93°C (200°F). Not quite there yet, it was then subjected to 1.6 ATM for an hour. The Speedmaster made it through all of these tests, and thanks to this stellar performance, ended-up on the spacecraft headed for the moon.
Of course, more watches than the Omega have now been into space, as well as a few watches before it as well. However, the fascination with space and the stars goes all the way back to some of the earliest conceptualisations of time, with sailors using astronomy to guide them through the vast seas, for example. As a natural extension of that tradition, space has always been an area of fascination for watchmakers. In fact, there are two particularly compelling pieces related to space, which might just be the polar opposite of the Omega Speedmaster. The Space Traveller I and II by George Daniels.
Both truly hand-crafted, the second watch contained an independent double-wheel escapement, allowing the watch to simultaneously show mean solar time and sidereal time, which is measured using the Earth’s rotation relative to fixed stars. The mechanism behind this watch was invented in 1974, with the help of the watchmaker’s friend Derek Pratt, and was used in both the Space Traveller I and II. It was refined in the latter with the help of a mathematician by the name of Prof. Daniels, from Cambridge.
The difference between solar and sidereal time is 3.555 minutes a day. This is precisely why Daniels envisioned someone taking this watch with them on their “package holiday to Mars… and when using the telephone for a long distance call you could switch the chronograph to sidereal time and cut your bills by 3.555 minutes a day.” As we seem to be approaching the day where a package holiday to Mars becomes a reality, we can only thank Daniels for creating a watch that will eventually save us some money.
It is clear that horology has come a long way from the 1700s to what it is today, with brands now creating watches made from materials that weren’t even around in Harrison’s day. While there are many factors that have driven this change, it is clear that the way we travel, has had a significant role in the way we tell the time. We wonder where we’ll go to next.
We would like to thank Prints Harry for, once again, building these small worlds to help us illustrate our articles.