Essays On Horology

A brief timeline of waterproof watches

In 1927 Miss Mercedes Gleitze successfully swam across the English Channel. It was her eighth attempt. However, a rumour began that another woman had swam it first. So she attempted it a ninth time, but failed due to the cold. Rolex had asked her if she would carry their new Oyster watch. Which she agreed to do. And after the occasion Rolex advertised that their watch survived the swim across the English Channel. Rolex always did have a flair for marketing.

Miss Mercedes Gleitze on her ninth swim across the English Channel in 1927

And so began a race for the world’s most waterproof watch.

A brief timeline of early waterproof watches 1850-1960

1851 Pettit & Co. A pocket watch was displayed in a glass globe filled with water.

1851 Pettit & Co pocket watch displayed in water from 1 May and 11 October in Hyde Park. And was visited by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert.

1891 François Borgel patented a water resistant wrist watch case. Later tested by David Boettcher and found to be waterproof for the time.

Borgel waterproof case. 1. Screw down bezel. 2. Hand set push pin. 3. A spring keeps the crown tight against the stem tube.

1915 Tavannes released the Submarine (sold by Brooke & Son). A watch that was dust and waterproof.

The Horological Journal, December 1917, marks that it is water-tight, non-magnetic, and has a legible dial with luminous figures on a black face and luminous second hand.

1926 Rolex released the Oyster. A watch with a hermetically sealed case.

Rolex Oyster. Able to resist water, but not at any depth.

1932 Omega released the Marine. Which had a second case surrounding the watch to seal out water.

Omega Marine was sunk to a depth of 73 meters in lake Geneva. Then tested to 135 meters in 1937 by the Swiss Laboratory for Horology.

1934 Mido released the Multifort. Which had a sealed waterproof crown and was shockproof, anti-magnetic, waterproof and automatic. Notable that it was an improvement to the Borgel case design released in 1891.

Mido Multifort was tested to a depth of 120 meters and an elevation of 16,600 meters and temperature range of 50°C to -40°C by New York Electrical Testing Laboratories Inc in 1933.

1938 Panerai released the Radiomir. Which used radium based paint which gave off a blue glow in the dark making the dial legible for divers.

1938 Panerai Radiomir. Used by Italian and German forces their Navies required that the lugs be reinforced by the 1940s.

1950 Panerai released the Luminor. Which used a large crown guard, plexiglass, and tritium for the loom.

Panerai Luminor. The surrounding crown guard was patented in 1956.

1953 Blancpain released the Fifty-Fathoms. Which used a rotating bezel and had water resistance to 300ft (50 Fathoms).

Developed under commission for French Ministry of Defence, Captain Robert Maloubier and Lieutenant Claude Riffaud.

1953 Zodiac released the Sea Wolf. Which used a steel rotating bezel and had a 150m water resistance (82 fathoms).

Released almost immediately after the Blancpain Fifty-Fathoms.

1954 Rolex released the Submariner. Which used the rotating bezel and the screw-down crown. Rolex held the patent for the screw-down crown.

1954 Rolex Submariner

1957 Omega released the Seamaster 300. Rated to 200 meters.

1957 Omega Seamaster used a crown system that was pushed in by water pressure. However, when in shallow water it was notorious for leaking in small amounts.

1959 Mido released the Ocean Star. Which used an innovative solid case back design, the cork-sealed crown, a pressure fitted crystal and had a water resistance of 300 meters. They issued various dial varieties of this model. The most famous and significant is the one with the colourful decompression scale.

1959 Mido Ocean Star Powerwind ref 5907. At different depths you could see how long you could remain there before you would have to do decompression.

The innovation of waterproof watches continued well into the 1970s. The period of time from 1850-1960 marked two world wars and a significant advance of technology. Watches went from being utterly defenceless to water to being useful tools at depth. It was an age of deep sea marvel. And set the stage for the emerging watersport and skin-diver enthusiasts of the 1960s and beyond.

By Jonathan Whiting

I enjoy sharing what I am learning and hopefully it's of interest and help to you. I live in Canada with my wife. Follow me on Twitter.

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