History of Timepieces History of Aviation and Horology

Watches and aviation

August 19th is National Aviation Day, celebrating the development of aviation. The holiday was established in 1939 by United States President, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The day was picked as a celebration of Orville Wright’s birthday. Wright was alive at the time and lived for another nine years to see the day celebrated, unfortunately his brother, Wilbur, did not live to see the holiday.

Advent of Aviation

People have always had a curiosity towards flight and the sky. From kite flying in China several hundred years BC to Leonardo da Vinci’s designs in the 15th century and the invention of the hydrogen balloon in the 18th century. The hydrogen balloon would provide the lift and was able to support the weight of the structure and eventually people.

Davinci and Hot Air balloons

The French government also began using both free-flying and tethered balloons during the French Revolution in the 18th century. In 1863, the term aviation was coined. It combines the Latin avis (bird) with -ation. The French Army made another advance in aviation in 1884 when the first fully controlled free-flight was made in an electric powered airship.

Blimps emerged from these airships and were more successful in flight. Brazilian Alberto Santos-Dumont combined a balloon with an internal engine and flew in 1901 in Paris. At this time, experiments with blimps provided the influence for modern developments. Rigid airships were being developed and were pioneered by the German Count, Ferdinand von Zepplin. These airships were used in World War I and II and can still be seen in flight today; most famously is the Good Year Blimp.

collection of blimps and airships

Groundbreaking advances were made in the 20th century with “heavier-than-air craft” which would end up overshadowing the blimps and Zepplin.

Heavier-Than-Air Craft

Inventors have always had an idea of people being able to fly. From winged people to fixed gliders, many were unsuccessful in lifting a person. It wasn’t until the 19th century that the first modern aircraft was developed. Many people during this time experimented with fixed wings, propellers and different ways to lift the aircraft.

Samuel Pierport Langley was a published researcher on Aerodynamics and made a successful sustained flight of an unpiloted engine-driven aircraft in 1896, launched by catapult. He built a full size version to successfully carry a pilot but his efforts failed. Nine days after his second abortive launch, the Wright brothers successfully flew their Flyer.


Wright Brothers

The Wright brothers used glider experiments and built their own wind tunnel to test 200 different wing designs. According to the Smithsonian, the brothers were able to make the first sustained, controlled, powered heavier-than-air manned flight in North Carolina on December 17th, 1903. They floe for a combined 1 minute 11 seconds, in two different flights. What made the brothers the most successful were their public flights and them being well documented. They were witnessed by three coastal lifesaving crewmen, a local business man and a boy from the village.


Not only did Alberto Santos-Dumont fly a hot air balloon around pairs, he also experimented with heavier-than-air craft and successfully flew the first powered flight in Europe in 1906. His Paris flight few about 60 meters (197 ft) with a height of five meters (16 ft). Santos-Dumont continued his designs and created the Demoiselles which used bamboo booms and a tricycle landing gear to be used. He was so enthusiastic about aviation that he made drawings of this final aircraft available free of charge.

Santos Dumont and cartier

Santos-Dumont was friends with Louis Cartier, the watchmaker. While celebrating a flight, he complained that there was difficulty checking his pocket watch to time his performance. He asked Cartier to develop an alternative to allow for tracking time while keeping hands on the time. Cartier developed a watch with a leather band and small buckle that would be worn on the wrist. The watch is not like most pilot watches. It features Roman numerals and a curved dial in a rectangular case. The watch was an important part of the evolution of pilot’s watches.

To this day, the manufacture still produces watches named after Santos-Dumont, honoring their partnership in the early 20th century and advances in flight.

The Evolution of Pilot’s Watches

Since the advances from the Wright brothers and Santos-Dumont, aviation has continued to evolve. World War I brought along the mounting of machine guns to planes, developing further fighter planes and then leading to passenger planes in the post World War II era. Commercial aviation grew rapidly using ex-military planes to transport both people and cargo. The Jet Age took off with the first transatlantic flight and even expanded to the Space Race.

While all the advancements in flight from the 18th trough to the early 20th century, watchmakers needed to continue to evolve to meet the needs of aviation pioneers. With the changes in piloting, technology and needs of the pilots, watches continued to advance and even use the cockpits as an influence in design.


Shortly after Cartier produced the wristwatch for Santos-Dumont and his Parisian flight, Zenith was recognized as producing pilot’s watches. This fame came in 1909 when Louis Bleriot became the first man to fly across the English Channel. He said “I am very satisfied with the Zenith watch, which I usually use, and I cannot recommend it too highly to people who are looking for precision.” This publicity helped propel Zenith into pilot’s watches and navigation instruments.

Louis Bleriot and Zenith

These early pilot’s watches feature black enamel dials, large Arabic numerals and typically feature a large onion-shaped crown. This high contrast dial would make it easy to ready just with one glance while the oversized crown made for easy adjustment while wearing gloves.

Zenith also went on to produce cockpit instruments like altimeters and stopwatches, in addition to chronographs for use by pilots. The manufacture has continued with its interest in aviation even through to today creating historically influenced pilot’s watches and new aviation models.


Hamilton, a US watch manufacture now based in Switzerland, can date their aviation heritage to 1919 when the first US airmail service linked Washington and New York. The brand also became the official watch of commercial intercontinental airlines in the States. Hamilton was also called upon by the Army for aviation instruments in World War II and worked with the US and British Air Force. The watches combine design and functionality needed by pilots to record time. It is no surprise that these aviation pieces take influence from the military in color an style.

Hamilton watches 1942

Today, Hamilton continues their support of aviation, hosting international events, celebrations and working closely with leading pilots. Their Khaki Flight Timer was developed along side alpine rescue and transport company, Air Zermatt. In fact, Hamilton is constantly in communication with pilots to continue developing new, modern, pilot watches.


In looking at the dial on a modern Breitling, you can instantly see the connection of the brand to aviation. The logo references both their history in the sea and skies. Shortly after World War I, Leon Breitling’s grandson, Willy took over the company and pushed Breitling watches into the aviation industry.

The British Air Ministry was one of the first contracts secured in aviation. Breitling watches had various timing and conversion rulers available, making them suitable for pilots. These tools allowed the pilots to calculate in flight speed, distance and fuel.

Breitling Original Watches

To further advance the tools already used by pilots, Breitling introduced the slide rule bezel, which in turn made their models recognizable. The watches soon became used by commercial pilots and a specially commissioned Breitling Navitimer was worn on the Mercury Atlas 7 mission in space.

While the quartz movement slightly halted Breitling in the late 1970s, a pilot by the name of Ernest Schneider helped to take Breitling through the movement. Even today, Breitling has it’s own Jet Team traveling the world and participating in air shows.


Another modern watch manufacture producing pilot watches in the 1930s is IWC. In 1936, IWC developed their Special Pilot’s Watch which featured a rugged glass, rotating bezel and anti-magnetic escapement. Shortly after the release of their first model, the Big Pilot’s watch was released and the Pilot Mark XI was built for the Royal Air Force.

The Big Pilot, released in 1940, was an extra large model sizing in at 55mm. The watch was on an extra long strap with double loop and buckle to be worn over a flight suit. The construction of this model was especially important as the size and strap allowed pilots to easily wear and see the time.

IWC pilots watches over time

Continuing the tradition in aviation through to modern times, you’ll see that IWC continues to honor the developments in planes and flight. They have the IWC Spitfire and Top Gun collections and still style their watches with a pilot in mind. This is noticeable in the oversized crowns, military inspired straps and dial display.


The Oyster Perpetual GMT Master, part of the professional collection from Rolex, was designed in collaboration with Pan American Airways. The model was launched in 1954 and was for pilots and navigators for long-haul flights. The watch features a 24-hour display and 12-hour hand allowing crews to set the watch to GMT, or another time zone, while the bezel would be rotated to correct the offset of a second time zone.

GMT master featured on fratello

The iconic model from Rolex has a two-tone bezel to represent day and night hours for pilots to easily track the time differences. Over the years, the GMT Master has evolved into the GMT Master II and still famously houses a two-tone bezel. Bezels can be found in Red/Black (“Coke”), Red/Blue (“Pepsi”), Black/ Blue (“Batman”), Brown (“Rootbeer”) or solid black. The technology behind the watches have also developed from the first bezel made of bakelite to aluminum and modern versions using ceramic.

Apart from a few changes, the overall design of the GMT Master stays the same today and is still a popular wristwatch for aviation enthusiasts, world travelers and those looking for a daily wristwatch. You can read more about the GMT Master history on Fratello.

Bell & Ross

Just by looking at a Bell & Ross, their military and more specifically, their aviation influence is noticeable. As a modern brand, they wanted to re-engage the love of pilot watches from the 1950s and 60s. A team of designers and aircraft control specialists came together to create a watch perfectly suited for use.

bell and ross cockpit

Every detail in the watch has a purpose and they have been designed to be read easily. The BR 01 Instrument was released and designed to mimic an airplane clock and dashboard. Even their model names resonate with pilots. You’ll find models with the names Airborne, Radar, Turn Coordinator and even Horizon all of which take design influence from flying and cockpits.

Today, astronauts, pilots, divers and other professionals continue to use Bell & Ross watches as tools on their missions.

Throughout the years from the introduction of flight through to today’s modern advances in technology, watches have been on pilot’s wrists. Many brands have had a hand in the evolution and popularity of pilot watches and the history is not limited to the few outlined.

About Emily Smith
Emily loves the history of watches and loves learning how they work. Her watches of choice right now are her vintage Omega Ladymatic that is a mere 19mm and her 1973 Rolex Oyster with a navy dial. While she enjoys the look of vintage watches, she is excited to learn about new models and to build her collection.

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