These days, planes are just another form of transport when little more than a century has passed since the first flying machines juddered into the air, and the first cameras recorded the unsteady progress of these “magnificent men” in their bid for fame and glory. In these early days of flight, when Alberto Santos-Dumont took to the skies in a powered machine (1906), pilots brushed with death, hoping their guardian angel had wings enough for two.
Santos-Dumont – him again – was first to give serious consideration to time during flight. What we forget is that when he asked Louis Cartier to make him a wristwatch, the Franco-Brazilian, a regular at Maxim’s, had risen to fame in an airship (he was the winner of the Deutsch de la Meurthe Prize), and had yet to turn his attention to airplanes, still in their infancy. In a word, it would appear that the Santos watch was made for aerostats rather than planes whose pilots were too focused on the steering lever to worry about flight times. Even so, everyone knew that these adventurers, like the sailors almost two centuries earlier (1736), would soon strike out in search of a new world, and that like the navigators before them, they would need the help of a timepiece to follow their route across the open skies, without a landmark to guide them.
Watchmakers enter the race
Come on, haven’t watchmakers always been at the forefront of progress? As true as that may be, aviation developed so quickly, they struggled to keep pace. In 1906, a 200-metre flight was already an achievement. On July 25th 1909, Louis Blériot succeeded in crossing the English Channel from Sangatte to Dover, a distance of 40 kilometres. What is little more than a hop and a jump today was fraught with risk, particularly given Blériot’s past record as “le roi de la casse” – the “crash king”. The flight’s 37-minute duration was measured by a Zenith watch, which Blériot described thus in a letter dated March 19th 1912: “I am extremely satisfied with the Zenith watch, which I use regularly, and cannot recommend it highly enough to people in search of precision.” It wasn’t long before aircraft were taking off with a Zenith Montre d’Aéronef Type 20 attached to the instrument panel; the Caudron and, apparently, certain Dewoitine D520 from 1939 were equipped with it.
The First World War was an opportunity for pilots to demonstrate how these new machines could change the very nature of conflict. Aviation was the new “weapon”, with its very own heroes. Pilots quickly realised the importance of taking to the skies with a timepiece that could provide them with valuable information during their mission. Wristwatches became part of their kit, and more so the very first wrist chronographs. Longines was one of the first to show an interest in an area which, like the technology of the airplanes themselves, would witness spectacular development. The First World War left no doubt as to the strategic importance of a nation’s air force, as a means of reconnaissance that could rapidly penetrate enemy territory with the fire of war.
Aviation became a part of warfare, and of civilian life too. Companies such as Breguet, Latécoère and Aéropostale had no trouble seducing adventurers who were willing to risk all for the simple pleasure of flying and improving this new technology. National pride was at stake, and technologically advanced countries spared no effort in their attempts to stay ahead in the race to conquer the skies.
During the 1920s and 1930s, progress in aeronautics was down to a handful of heroes. We remember Nungesser and Coli (disappeared in 1927), Charles Lindbergh who flew non-stop from New York to Paris in 1927, Jean Mermoz who disappeared in 1936, and Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, shot down on July 31st 1944 on a reconnaissance mission above southern France.
The origins of the Hour Angle
During these same decades, Longines established a fruitful collaboration with Captain Philip Van Horn Weems, a United States Navy officer who in 1927 had developed a navigational system suitable for modern timepieces. The two partners filed a patent in 1935 for a wristwatch that could complete information provided by the pilot’s chronometer. A godsend in an age when goniometry was the only means of measuring an angle, this new watch could be synchronised to the minute beeps that were broadcast by radio. This was done by rotating the graduated bezel or the central dial and maintained to-the-second accuracy.
Longines went on to add a rotating time-setting function to certain of its watches with a centre seconds hand. The idea was reprised by Charles A. Lindbergh, a student of Weems, to enhance the functionalities of his Hour Angle watch. Ninety years after his exploit, Lindbergh is still remembered as the man who made the first non-stop transatlantic flight in a single-engine monoplane in 33 hours and 30 minutes, on May 21st 1927. He also worked with Longines, which since 1919 had been the official supplier to the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale, to develop a watch that would help pilots, and why not sailors too, keep their bearings.
Having seen for himself during his transatlantic flight how essential it was for a pilot to be able to determine his position in the fewest possible stages, Lindbergh sketched his idea for an onboard instrument that would facilitate air and sea navigation. He based his design on the patent filed by Captain P.V.H. Weems in collaboration with Longines, and it was with Longines, holder of the patent rights, that the aviation hero created a watch which enables its wearer to calculate longitude based on GMT.
This Hour Angle watch, to give it its name, recently reissued to mark the 90th anniversary of Lindbergh’s historic flight, featured a rotating bezel graduated in degrees (like a sextant) and a simple mechanism for rotating a graduated disc so that the watch could be synchronised to the second from a radio time signal.