Where’s the first place you look when you need to tell the time?
Nowadays, most people are likely to respond by saying they first look at their phones. Technology has changed so much in the past 50 years that it’s hard to blame people for always keeping their phones close. After all, they are incredible technological achievements, and they do tell the time.
Now, we’re not here to convince you to stop checking your phone and get a watch to tell the time — if you’re here, you’re probably already a watch person. What we are here to do is tell you about the crucial role watches played throughout history — especially during times of war.
In wartime, it is essential that all soldiers are on the same exact time down to the very second. You see this a lot in old spy movies when secret agents would sync their watches up with one another so that the mission goes perfectly. In real life, pilots actually would all sync up their watches and race to their planes, all running at the exact same time.
As you can imagine, this means the functionality and durability of watches were extremely important, especially for soldiers during WWII. More than being able to tell the time, watches were essential for soldiers to be able to tell where they are as well as operating at the same time, but we’ll get into that in a bit.
In this Custer & Wolfe article, we’re going to dive into the history of watches and how they came to be such an integral tool for soldiers in WWII.
A Beginner’s Guide To Military Watches
Watches haven’t always been tools you could rely on to tell the time.
In the 1500s, watches served no practical purpose beyond decoration. Peter Heinlein, a Nuremberg-based clockmaker, is credited to have created the first watch, and it was common for people to carry one of these as a pendant or accessory. To accurately display the time, the hands of such watches were wound using a rudimentary spring mechanism.
Watches weren't commonly seen as an accurate timekeeping tool until the 17th century when men started carrying them in their pockets, hence the coinage of the term “pocket watch.” These antique pocket watches were eye-catching accessories, but many people didn’t use them to keep track of time due to their unreliability.
Over the course of many years, watchmakers continued making improvements to the watch's inner workings.
Watches in Wartime
Even though we’re the only people making these incredible Military Edition watches, we’re not the first ones to make a pocket watch work on the wrist.
Legend has it that in the late 19th century, a German naval officer couldn't check the time on his pocket watch because he needed both hands to fire his machine gun. He fixed this by securing a pocket watch to his wrist with a leather webbed hat. This gave rise to the very first "wristwatch."
The wristwatch quickly replaced the pocket watch as the preferred timepiece. Leather straps were found to be the most accommodating overall for any situation. As World War II began, military timepieces were upgraded to include features like illuminating numbers and large, easy-to-read displays.
Side note: The illuminated numbers and hands of WWII-era military wristwatches were painted with radium and are still radioactive today. If you think you may have one of these watches, do not open it because the dust from the paint could cause significant health issues.
The Development of the Army Air Corps Pocket Watch
Since aircraft were quickly becoming an integral part of the war during WWII, pilots needed an accurate and reliable way to tell the time and know where other pilots were during a mission. This growing need is precisely what led to the invention of the very pocket watch that Vortic uses to craft the Military Edition.
“The government commissioned all the watch companies of the time — we call them the Great American Watch companies — and they said, Can you make us the most accurate timepiece possible for the navigators on the bombers? Again, this is 1941. We did not have GPS. We did not have [modern] technology. The only way to tell the time when you're in the sky on a bomber aircraft is with this timepiece. Three companies answered that call from the government: Hamilton, Elgin, and Waltham.” - R.T. Custer
Between these three companies, less than 150,000 of these watches were made between 1941 and 1950. However, there are far fewer than that number still around today. Suffice it to say that these watches are extremely rare, in addition to being beautiful to look at.
Interestingly, these commissioned watches by the government were required to have a “hacking” feature that allowed the wearer to pull the crown out and stop the second hand from moving, effectively turning the wristwatch into a stopwatch.
The Role Time Zones and GCT Play with the Military Edition Watch
The letters GCT appear on most of the dials of our Military Edition watches, but what does that mean? GCT was actually what we called the universal time zone during WWII, so these letters were used to indicate the time according to the universal time zone.
“Most of these movements have GCT right on the dial, and that was part of the contract. GCT stands for Greenwich Civil Time, and that was the centralized European time zone of the time. It was what we call today UTC or the coordinated universal time. GCT back in the early 1940s was the centralized time zone for Great Britain based on the Royal Observatory and what time it was there. So everything was based on that, and that's why they put GCT at the front and center of all of these pocket watch movements.” - R.T. Custer
These watches use military time on their dials, so if you’re unfamiliar, it can be confusing at first. If you don’t know, the military tells time-based on all 24 hours in a day. That’s why soldiers say things like 22 hundred hours when they refer to the time. It is a more direct way to refer to a specific hour in the day as you never have to specify whether you’re talking about A.M. or P.M.
When you look at the face of these watches, the 12-noon location sits where we would normally place the 6 on an average watch, and 24 resides where we would normally look for the 12.
The Significance of the Black Dials on Army Air Corps Pocket Watches
Have you ever momentarily blinded yourself by accident when your watch catches the sun’s glare and reflects into your eyes?
Glare is quite an unpleasant side effect of wearing a watch on your wrist, but it was fatal for soldiers in aircraft during WWII because the glare would give away their position. It was vital to the safety of themselves and the success of their military efforts for pilots to remain undetected in the skies, so measures were taken to ensure their watches would not alert any enemies to their presence.
“If you had a white dial like most railroad pocket watches … it mattered a little bit less. But if you had a white dial and you are in an aircraft in the sky and it was sunny — the Americans did daylight bombing back then — this white dial could catch the light and someone looking for your aircraft might see the reflection of that light coming right back at them. You didn't want that attention in the sky. You didn't want anyone to know where you were, and that was potentially a giveaway. That's why they used the black matte finished dials so that it didn't reflect anything.” - R.T. Custer
It’s fascinating how such a small and seemingly insignificant change to a watch’s design can have major implications for the success of our military’s war efforts. A matte black dial certainly looks awesome on these watches, but when you get into the history, it actually kept our pilots safe during WWII!
Why We Do This - A Thank You To Our Veterans
History is fascinating, and the Military Edition watches are cool, but there’s so much more to why we do all of this.
These watches are pieces of history, and they tell the story of American freedom. At Vortic, we have the privilege of preserving part of this history and telling the stories of people that gave their lives for our freedom. If you are a veteran who has served our country, we want to extend a gracious thank you for your service.
As another way of showing our appreciation, we give a portion of the proceeds from the military editions to our friends at the Veteran’s Watchmaker Initiative.
Located in Odessa, Delaware, this institution is one of the only watchmaking schools in the country. They teach veterans how to become watchmakers and keep the craft of watchmaking alive today. Because of this, we hope to help veterans learn the unique skill of watchmaking and help us preserve this history with our donations.
Take Home a Piece of History With the 4th Annual Military Edition Watches From Vortic Watch Company
Thanks for joining us for this episode of Custer and Wolfe: Building a Watch Company. After reading this, you might be asking, How do I learn more? How do I buy this thing? It's really cool! (We also have a special edition with a white dial this year!)
Our website is where you can find all the information you need about this year’s military edition watches, as well as images of past watches that we've made. We only release the 50-piece Military Edition every year on Veteran's Day, November 11th, and it is available to everyone at 12 noon Mountain Time.
Head to our site any time before then to sign up for the waiting list, where we send all kinds of emails and more information on how to make sure that you get alerted of the sale going on. (If you’re reading this after the 11th, you can always sign up to get ready for next year’s watch!)
Also, be sure to follow us on Instagram to see our featured watch of the day, and make sure to subscribe to our newsletter to get email notifications. Our watches don’t stick around for long!And if you’re looking for more historic watch information, subscribe to Custer & Wolfe's YouTube channel. There, we'll share everything that's happening with us, including watch highlights, our warehouse growth, production process, and ideas for creating an impactful business!