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My adventure with diving watches led me to write a book on this subject in 2018. Currently, the book is translated into English (title – “Time to breathe – history of diving watches). It's a little piece of first chapter. I will be very grateful for your opinions.

I. Development of waterproof watches at the brink of the 19th and 20th century


It took several decades before watches became the practical equipment of scuba divers and during this time their design evolved towards ever better tightness. These developments created grounds for the first diving watches in the 30s.

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Development of waterproof watches was a gradual and long-term process. However the word “process” does not fully reflect this phenomenon, since it was not pre-planned and had no pre-defined final result. It would seem that “evolution” would be a better term, as it resulted from a mix of historical cultural and economic factors. In the 17th and 18th century watches were a thing of the rich and were quite rarely used under difficult circumstances. Watches of that time were not regularly exposed to dust nor moisture, therefore tightness was not the most important factor for their design.

The situation changed with the advent of the industrial revolution of the 19th century, when watches became common goods. They were used by many professional groups, including railway workers and miners, where they constituted a practical working tool. Better tightness of the case soon became an evident need. Ensuring effective protection against dust and moisture not only extended the life expectancy of a watch between subsequent maintenance but also reduced its use costs.
One should bear in mind that pockets watches are being deliberated here. Since they were mainly kept in a jacket pocket, they had very limited exposure to atmospheric conditions. Despite this fact, already at the time manufacturers started to notice the need to ensure better protection for the watch movement.

1. Waterproof pocket watches

1851 W. Pettit & Co watch


So which timepiece earned the name of the first waterproof watch? Based on the research of David Boettcher, this name should be given to the watch manufactured by the London company W. Pettit & Co.

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Photograph 1.1. 1851 W. Pettit & Co pocket watch by Pettit and Trappett. Photograph David Boettcher, Vintage Watch Straps


The watch was supposed to be presented during the 1851 Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations in London
[1]. It was placed in a round aquarium filled with water and complete with two fish to raise interest. This fact was recorded in the Exhibition’s official catalogue and the creators of the watch, Pettit and Trappett were considered inventors. The watch received quite an enigmatic description, which barely stated “[...] resistant to the passage of time, impact of moisture, seawater and rust”. Because the patent could not be located, as it had probably never been registered, it’s difficult to determine what exact solutions were applied to ensure that the case is waterproof. One may only assume that those consisted in impregnated leather gaskets, which were popular in the second half of the 19th century.
According to the information available, W. Pettit & Co imported goods into the United Kingdom. This particular piece was a Swiss pocket watch in a double bottom silver case, quite typical of that period. What made it unique was the water resistance being put to a practical test.

Aaron Dennison’s waterproof cases

This American watchmaker and inventor, who was born in 1812, was an important person for this period of the development of waterproof watches. He is also considered the pioneer of mass production of watch spare parts in the United States, referred to as the American system of watchmaking
[2]. Aaron Dennison died in 1895. During his long career he also patented a number of watch design solutions and methods for making watches waterproof[ii].

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Fig. 1.2. Aaron Dennison’s portrait. By Henry Abbott


According to some researchers, in 1871 Aaron Dennison invented the screw-down crown
[3]. However there are still many uncertainties about this topic. First of all, there is no irrefutable proof in the form of an actual watch nor an indisputable source of information. It seems that Ezra Fitch could rather be the creator of this design and his work from 1881 will be discussed further on in the chapter. Whereas Dennison was the author of the water resistant case, which is described in detail in the patent documents for the patent no. 356 from 3 February 1872.

Figure 1.3 depicts a cross-section of a watch with a front glass frame (b) that was threaded at the outer edge. This allowed it to be screwed onto the case (d), which was also threaded. Also the rear cover was provided with an internal thread. The small screw, marked as g² in the diagram, was only a connecting element, allowing the cover to be firmly screwed onto the case. At the time milled edges, which allowed a firm grip without using tools, were not yet in use. According to the attached documentation, this solution ensured resistance to weather and water, and was recognized as such by the UK patent office
[iii].

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Fig. 1.3. A. Dennison’s 1872 patent no. 356 Photograph David Boettcher, Vintage Watch Straps Aaron Dennison was probably not the author of the first concept for applying a screw down crown. Irrespective of this, by introducing a number of innovations in terms of ensuring tightness of the case, he contributed to the development of waterproof watches.

Explorers Watches Screw down crown cover patent

Another important stage that led to the creation of fully water resistant watches were the English Explorers Watches
[4]. They constitute a perfect rendition of the spirit of the second half of the 19th century, filled with exploration and the urge to discover unknown areas of our planet. Their design was unique, but also very characteristic. Explorers Watches were built according to a similar concept as the above-mentioned cases developed by Dennison. They were waterproofed by using a screw down bezel and a back using the same technology. Appropriately impregnated, wide leather gaskets were placed in notches on the case.

The most easily recognizable element of those watches was the high, cylindrical cover, screwed down onto the base of the crown. It was connected to the case by means of a silver chain, which prevented loosing the element. Another leather gasket was placed at the junction between the cover and the base
[iv].

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Photograph 1.4. Watch used at the beginning of the 20th century by Sir Ernest Shackleton. Photograph courtesy of
Willis Henry Auctions Inc./
liveauctioneers.com.

Explorers Watches originate from the United Kingdom. They featured relatively simple movements, manufactured in Lancashire, and assembled by employees of the famous watchmakers Usher and Cole. Cases were manufactured by Phillip Woodman’s company, located in Clerkenwell, London.
The most famous watches were made for the Royal Geographical Society of Great Britain, which purchased approximately 40 watches over several decades, starting from 1878. These were used for expeditions exploring such areas as tropical jungles and polar regions, so where extreme weather conditions were to be expected. All the watches ordered belonged to the Society and the explorers borrowed them for the duration of their expedition to constitute part of their gear[v]. Probably their most famous user was Robert Falcon Scott, who was accompanied by one of these watches during his tragic Terra Nova expedition[5]. Scott did not return from the South Pole, however his watch could be recovered and is now displayed at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich. An Explorers Watch was also used by Sir Ernest Shackleton (Photograph 1.4), another famous explorer of the Antarctica[vi].

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Thank you for your time. Matthew


Sources:

[1] The Exhibition organized at the Crystal Palace was actually the first world fair.

[2] A system devised by Dennison and his associates, which consisted in developing machines able to mass-produce precise and fully replaceable parts for watches.

[3] This thesis was put forward by Donald de Carle in his “Practical Watch Repairing”.


[4] Another term used for these watches are Travelers’ Watches.

[5] A failed scientific expedition that was pursued between 1910 and 1913. It claimed the lives of Robert F. Scott and four of his members.


David Boettcher, The evolution of the waterproof watch, http://www.vintagewatchstraps.com/waterproof.php (accessed on 3.01.2018).

[ii] Dennison History, http://dennisonwatches.com/history/ (accessed on 6.01.2018).

[iii] David Boettcher, Aaron Dennison and the Dennison Watch Case Co, http://www.vintagewatchstraps.com/dennison.php (accessed on 7.01.2018).

[iv] Willis Henry Auctions, https://www.willishenryauctions.com/catalogs/military-timepieces-collection-auction-march-18-2017/lot-14-very-fine-explorers-watch/ (accessed on 9.01.2018).

[v] David Boettcher, The evolution of the waterproof watch, http://www.vintagewatchstraps.com/waterproof.php (accessed on 9-10.01.2018).

[vi] Ernest Shackleton, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ernest_Shackleton (accessed on 13.01.2018).
 

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Seems a fantastic work of research, can't wait to see the book. Love the picture of Shackleton watch. When the book will be available?
 
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