The time between the two wars was known as ‘The Golden Age of Flight’ and the world, mainly led by America, went aviation crazy. The aeroplane became established as part of popular culture and flying became a household topic. It’s incredible to think that just 12 years earlier the world was astounded when Santos-Dumont managed to fly 235 yards.
During the 1920’s, surviving WW1 pilots became ‘Barnstormers’, wowing the crowds with daredevil airborne stunts. In the USA, farmers had their crops sprayed by ‘Dusters’ and they even began to deliver the mail by air! The most famous of the flying postmen was a young man in his early ‘20s called Charles Augustus Lindbergh – but we’ll come back to him later…
Although it was obviously a big deal to Santos Dumont back in 1906, I’m not sure just how important his wristwatch actually was to him – there was after all not a great deal of navigation to be done on a 21 second flight. However, once people started routinely flying over relatively long distances then there was a real need for improved navigational accuracy – enter U.S. Navy officer (then) Captain Philip Van Horn Weems. While serving above the Atlantic in 1919, Weems was constantly developing a new method of air navigation using the stars and a navigational horizon visible to the pilot.
At the time, Weems said: “It may be remarked that there is no disgrace in being lost in the air. This happens to the best navigators. The important thing is to reduce the periods of being lost or uncertain of position to the lowest limit humanly possible.”
The method of navigation that WW1 pilots had been using was rudimentary and relied on the accuracy of watches that weren’t actually all that accurate. While we all get in a dither these days about COSC spec and the like, a few seconds here or there actually makes no difference whatsoever to you and me (apologies reader if you are a Navy SEAL). However, if you’re a pilot relying on his watch as an essential navigational tool then because of the distance you’re travelling and the speed you’re travelling at, even a 30 second error could put you off course by miles.
Weems’ solution to the problem was to design the first watch with a rotating bezel, or a rotating central seconds dial. The seconds were printed on a disc that could be turned using a second crown (as with Bremont, Breitling and other pilot’s watches today). The navigator would then listen to a beep on the radio each second, adjusting the bezel as he went along. Rather than making the watch more accurate, instead Weems’ brilliant invention accepted the inaccuracy as inevitable and gave the navigator a way to compensate for it.
To quote Weems again: “Strange to say, keeping the watches running correctly is one of the most difficult matters in navigation.”
Nevertheless, he was as happy as could be with his ‘Second-Setting Watch’ so he filed for several patents and finally developed it in conjunction with Longines and Wittnauer in 1929 – Longines still make a version of the watch today to special order only.
So let’s just go back a little bit to this Postman.
Charles Augustus ‘Daredevil’ Lindbergh had been a Barnstormer for much of 1923 and 1924 before joining the United States Army Air Service, graduating first in his class in March 1925 as a 2nd Lieutenant in the Air Service Reserve Corps.
As a reservist, Lindbergh wasn’t needed by the Corps so he went back to do some barnstorming before the advent of Air Mail blew fortune his way. Later in 1925 he landed the job as a Chief Pilot for the Robinson Aircraft Corporation, flying the mail between St Louis and Chicago – all very exciting but there was MUCH more to come for young Lindbergh.
Although the first non-stop transatlantic flight was completed in 1919 by an English bomber crew, it was between Newfoundland and Ireland and at a ‘mere’ 1,890 miles, wasn’t quite good enough for the Aero Club of America. They approached New York Hotelier Raymond Orteig shortly afterwards, encouraging him to put up $25,000 as a prize for the first non-stop transatlantic flight specifically between New York (his home) and Paris (his birthplace).
After struggling to raise the money and helping design his Ryan ‘plane himself, on May 20th 1927, Lindbergh flew The Spirit of St Louis from Roosevelt Field in Long Island, New York to Le Bourget Field in Paris. In doing so he claimed the $25,000 Orteig Prize and secured his place in history as the first person to fly non-stop from New York to Paris, connecting the two continents forever. He was just 25 years old.
As the official timekeeper of the Olympics, Longines were already a well known brand and they timed Lindbergh’s 33 hours and 30 minute crossing.
Incredibly, Lindbergh wasn’t actually trained in celestial navigation. Instead, he navigated the Atlantic using ‘Dead Reckoning’, a somewhat ‘seat of the pants’ system that he knew he couldn’t continue to use. And so it was in 1928 that Lindbergh was introduced to now Lt. Cmdr. Weems of ‘Second-setting’ fame with whom he spent two weeks in 1928 learning Weems’ system of celestial navigation.
Clearly an extraordinary young man, Lindbergh needed a special watch for his future adventures so he decided to design one. Collaborating with the people at Longines whom he had met in 1927, he updated and improved the Weems Second-Setting watch, helping the watchmakers to make significant horological advances. The method used by navigators to find longitude based on Greenwich Mean Time is called the ‘Hour Angle Method’ and it is this calculation that the Lindbergh / Longines watch simplified – hence the new watch was called the ‘Lindbergh Hour Angle’.
Longines released the Lindbergh Hour Angle in 1931 to incredible public response. It’s hard to overestimate the fame, popularity and instant celebrity that Lindbergh ‘enjoyed’ at the time so it’s fair to say that there has probably never been a more successful watch endorsee. Longines were inundated with orders both from pilots and the general public and cemented their reputation as world renowned watchmakers that remains today – And they still make the Lindbergh Hour Angle too.
Our next instalment takes us back to wartime again and the next stage in the development of the Pilot’s watch – 1939-1945