How an American Pilot Watch Made Its Way Back West on One of the Darkest Days in History

The Longines-Wittnauer Second Setting was arguably the first true pilot's watch, allowing pilots to instantly correct minor aberrations in timekeeping that can throw off navigation calculations.  The American invention also may have played an important role on one of the darkest military days in US history.

Glancing out of cockpit canopy, Lincoln Ellsworth spotted a mountain range that did not appear in the notes of any previous antarctic explorers. His plane, the Polar Star, soared above the frosty crags; it was the first time any human had laid eyes on the range.

Ellsworth had discovered what is now known as Antarctica's  Ellsworth Mountain range. He named a prominent peak in the range Mt. Weems, after the man responsible for keeping him on the right course during his perilous voyage, Philip Van Horn Weems.

Weems  was extraordinary in his own right — he earned a bronze star for his service as a convoy commander during the darkest days of World War II; he developed Star Altitude Curves, a new navigation technique employed by the Army Air Corps; he even taught Charles Lindbergh navigation techniques.

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But to the horological community, he’s best known for the development of the Longines-Wittnauer Second Setting watch. Arguably the first true pilot's watch, it allowed pilots to instantly correct minor aberrations in timekeeping that can throw off navigation calculations. A minor error in a watch’s accuracy could mean major miscalculations in fuel consumption, time to arrival and positioning.

Weems was brought in by Wittnauer to tackle this problem, and the Naval officer offered a pragmatic solution: create a moveable dial that could be adjusted quickly. Constantly fiddling with the balance wheel and hacking the movement would only damage it, but a moveable dial allowed for virtually zero additional wear on the movement. The pilot would listen to radio beeps and adjust the dial to the exact second on the fly using a large, easy to grip crown that turned an inner dial. The hour and minute hands would function like any standard watch, but the seconds would be read against an inner dial adjusted right down to the second. This revolutionized navigation, making the watch in high demand amongst aviators around the world. A patent for this technology was filed in 1929 and finally awarded in 1935.

At the time,  this American brand started by a Swiss immigrant was riding high on the bevy of innovations that it had brought forth. Amelia Earhart relied on Wittnauer instruments during her 1932 first solo crossing of the Atlantic. Jimmie Mattern wore a Wittnauer All-Proof on his failed 1933 attempt to circumnavigate the globe in his Century of Progress airplane.

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The A-3, as the watch became known, was a tool in demand. It started production in 1932 and did not end until 1943. Its popularity grew with the rise of American aviation, earning a solid reputation as a reliable timepiece. Our friends in the East had placed an order with Wittnauer to produce the Type A-3 watches for the Imperial Japanese Navy Air Service. The production run of these watches started in 1936.

The watches pictured bear the markings “Army Air” and the serial number, although the delivery date is unknown — Longines doesn’t have the record from the Wittnauer brand.

A passage in Martin E. Whitney’s 1992 book, Military Timepieces posits that on December 7, 1941, the Wittnauer watches delivered to the IJNAS were worn by pilots in the units led by Mitsuo Fuchida, who led the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, drawing the US into war. Ironically, the watches may have reached the skies above their country of origin on that ill-fated day.

All photos courtesy of the author.

Cole Pennington
Cole Pennington

After spending half a decade exploring the far-flung corners of Asia as a travel writer, Cole returned to New York City where he’s currently enrolled at Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism. He writes about horology, classic motoring, exploration, and aviation. You’ll find funky and chunky ‘60s divers and far out ‘70s chronos on his wrist, and a modified '74 Datsun Z-car in his garage.

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