A History of the Military Dive Watch, Part 1

Photo Courtesy of James Dowling
Photo Courtesy of James Dowling

We’ve been on a bit of a dive watch jag here the last several posts. In researching those pieces, I discovered some interesting things about dive watches in general, and military divers in particular.

First off, until very recently (with the advent of cell phones) the wrist watch has always been a necessary personal tool for telling time. And some people need to know the time (accurately, I might add) more than others. Pilots and divers primary among them.

We’ll look at pilot watches in due time. For now, let’s take a look at the history of the diver.

When you talk about dive watches the first requirement is, of course, a good bit of water resistance. The second requirement is legibility.

Back in the day, the term was ‘waterproof.’ However, in 1990 the International Standards Organization (ISO) got involved and mandated the term be modified to ‘water resistant’ with their ISO 2281, a standard for recreational watches, because nothing is absolute. The ISO followed ISO 2281 with ISO 6425, a standard for diver’s watches, in 1996.

Several companies, Rolex chief among them, were working on water-tight cases as early as the 1910s. In fact, Rolex had several less than successful attempts before acquiring the rights to a 1925 patent which had been filed by Paul Perregaux and Georges Peret in Switzerland in 1926.

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What followed from that was the Oyster case, and Hans Wilsdorf and the boys in Geneva put it to the test right away, dangling around the neck of one Miss Mercedes Gleitze as she swam the English Channel in 1927. While Miss Gleitze didn’t quite make it across the Channel (it would have been her second crossing), the watch performed flawlessly.

However, swimming and water sports aside, there was very little recreational diving to significant depths in those days. SCUBA (Self Containted Underwater Breathing Apparatus) was still years away.

The earliest true needs for highly water resistant watches were for military actions. Industrial soon followed, but clandestine missions before and during World War II were where the need for knowing the exact time while under water first appeared.

The Italian Regia Marina teamed with Panerai, who teamed with Rolex, to produce a Panerai-signed version of Rolex’s pocket watch ref. 3646 (itself a derivative of Rolex ref. 2533), modified to accept a wrist strap. This was the Panerai Radiomir, which first saw the light of day or, perhaps more accurately, the dark, wet, hostile depths, in 1936. The name ‘Radiomir’ came from the radium that Panerai used to lume the dial (remember, legibility was the second big requirement for a dive watch).

PaneraiRadiomir

Panerai Radiomir (photo courtesy of James Dowling)

We’ll stop here for today. Tomorrow, we’ll explore Great Britain’s response to the Italian military tactics that brought about the need for the Panerai Radiomir. And we’ll follow the evolution of the military diver up through modern times.

 

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