If anyone knows the importance of time, it’s a military service member. Formations, meetings, training events, combat synchronization — our life is literally controlled by the clock.
But while you’re standing in formation trying to count down the seconds until your first sergeant finally shuts up and you’re released for the weekend, have you ever wondered how the military watch came to be?
When did the military begin to use timepieces?
In 1735, the British Royal Navy was one of the largest and most powerful standing military forces in the world. Her ships cruised the entire globe in every ocean and climate. But there was an issue with navigation during that time: ships were able to accurately determine their latitude (east-west lines for you land-nav-challenged types) through observation of the sun and stars, but determining the longitude (the north-south lines), on the other hand, was still impossible. That meant ships on the open ocean had to estimate how far they’d traveled in a day and could easily misjudge their location by hundreds of miles. Imagine being dropped in the middle of the ocean and having to guess your way home. When the only freshwater available was in barrels on your ship, a mistake like that could be fatal.
Scientists and navigators had known for hundreds of years that if they could accurately keep track of the time at a fixed location, then compare the time at high-noon to an onboard clock, they could accurately pinpoint their location anywhere on the planet. The problem was that the most accurate clocks of the day used pendulums. These were tools created when some smart guy, who spent way too much time watching something go back and forth, figured out the mathematical relationship between the length of the pendulum and time, and eventually synched that to a second hand. While great for use on land, the design was useless in a moving boat on the open ocean.
The invention of the chronometer in the late 18th century finally solved the issue by using a balance wheel and mechanisms not affected by motion or gravity. The design exploded across the globe, and by 1825 the Royal Navy had outfitted all her vessels with the timepieces, thus creating the first ‘military clock.’ Not only could military vessels now tell time, but they could also navigate with far more precision, like a 19th century GPS.
Are clocks a recent invention?
Absolutely not. Since the beginning of recorded history, humans have been obsessed with time. Elaborate temples and massive stone structures can be found on almost every continent devoted to studying the movement of the sun, moon, stars, and planets. However, those celestial markers didn’t have a lot of practical use for daily life. Sunrise, sunset, and high-noon were the only definite periods, and even then, they varied based on the time of year, latitude, and so on. It’s tough to make plans when all you can say is “meet me when the sun is peaking.”
Measuring passage of intervals for centuries was done by water clocks, which were surprisingly accurate when refilled at a set time, determined by a sundial, and re-calibrated every day. The designs ranged from a series of cups and spigots to the complex Greek clepsydra, a spiraled column with time increments, and a marker that would rise as water flowed into a reservoir at a fixed rate.
Unfortunately, water clocks were not portable. With the development of the spring-powered mechanism in the late 15th century, timepieces became smaller, albeit still expensive. They were seen more associated with rich European women’s fashion than thought of for practical use. Synchronization was also impossible as the custom-made clocks would lose accuracy when their springs began to wind down, the rate of which depended on the quality of construction.
What is the difference between a watch and a clock?
A watch is simply a portable clock. Opinions differ, but most believe that the term first came from the timepieces used by night watchmen (called woecce) in English towns during the 16th century. They were typically large, heavy, and worn on a neck chain, but by the 1800s, the designs had become more compact and reliable.
Eventually, pocket watches began to enter widespread use around the mid-19th century. At the same time, the world began to enter a new period of conflict. The Crimean War, the First and Second Afghan Wars, the American Civil War, and a host of other skirmishes saw militaries begin to take advantage of the improved timekeeping technology. Now, instead of orders stating “attack at dawn,” commanders could synchronize their actions on the battlefield to precise times based on a real strategic plan. A flanking movement planned for 3:17 could now be coordinated by commanders dozens of miles away. The introduction of the accurate pocket watch had suddenly created strategy options for military leaders that were impossible just a few decades before.
At the same time military leaders began to see the value of accurate, portable timepieces, combat troops also quickly learned that the standard pocket watch chain and shiny casings were hazardous to their health in a war zone. Having a snazzy new watch doesn’t do you much good if you’re shining your location to your enemy. So, as early as the 1880s, soldiers had begun dulling the metal and swapping the chains of their timepieces for custom-made straps to avoid snags. And so, the first modern wristwatches were born.
What made the modern watch really catch on?
In 1914, the Great War began. Millions of soldiers poured into trenches and battlefields across the world. Artillery, used before in conjunction with infantry attacks, now truly became the King of Battle, responsible for a majority of combat deaths during the conflict. The ability to synchronize barrages down to the minute spread out over dozens or even hundreds of miles could mean the difference between victory or defeat. Attacking soldiers would advance as close as possible behind the falling shells, timing their watches to the steel rain falling on the enemy, ideally reaching the enemy trenches within seconds of the explosions stopping.
Watches were also critical for pilots fighting high above No-Man’s Land, who had even more stringent requirements. Pilots in thick sheepskin coats and large gloves needed accurate timepieces that they could strap to their arms, with mechanisms that were impervious to the cold at high altitudes, and visible in low light conditions so they could coordinate with other pilots and calculate remaining flight time in an age before wireless communication.
As the war dragged on, the demand for these cheap, rugged, and accurate watches exploded. While before they were carried mostly by wealthy officers, by 1918 wristwatches were worn by privates and generals alike, with many countries creating their own standard-issued models. When the guns finally stopped, and millions of veterans returned home, they brought their love of the wristwatch with them.
Military watches today
Military watches have continually improved since their main debut in the trenches and skies of Europe. The tactical requirements of the first World War forced most of the standard features we now take for granted: durable water-resistant straps, illuminated dials, shatter-proof glass faces, and accurate mechanisms able to handle the rough demands of troops in combat.
Since then, we’ve seen the addition of battery-powered quartz oscillation, atomic synchronization, and computer-like smartwatches. However, some things haven’t changed. From the foxholes of Syria to the frozen passes of the India-Pakistan border to the jungles of central Africa, service members around the world still wear the same basic design sported in 1918. Digital or analog, the combat wristwatch has become an integral part of a soldier’s kit.
There is no one item or accessory that makes a watch a ’military watch.’ Durable, accurate, and subdued, if it’s good enough for a soldier to wear in combat, then it’s good enough to be called a military timepiece.
Some of the highest quality watches come from the team at veteran-owned ADVOLAT North America, who have carried on that legacy, creating a line of watches field-tested to the same standards of excellence first established over a hundred years ago. Much like the watches worn by the airmen flying over the trenches in World War I, service members and civilians alike need a watch that’s ready for duty no matter what the situation calls for.
ADVOLAT is now offering 10% off your first watch order with code TASK with financing options available. The hardest working Americans no longer have to break the bank to own the hardest-working watches. Additionally, for every watch sold they will be donating $10 to the Headstrong Project to better service Post-9/11 veterans who are seeking mental healthcare.