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Submarine Commander's watch

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Blog: The Submarine Commanders' Watch

Date: 22 October 2015

Copyright © David Boettcher 2005 - 2024 all rights reserved.

I make additions and corrections to this web site frequently, but because they are buried somewhere on one of the pages the changes are not very noticeable, so I decided to create this blog section to highlight new material. Here below you will find part of one of the pages that I have recently either changed or added to significantly.

The section reproduced here is from my page about The evolution of the waterproof watch.

A longer version of this article was published in the NAWCC Watch & Clock Bulletin in 2014. Articles in the Watch & Clock Bulletin are NAWCC copyright and usually only members can see them, either in the physical Bulletin or on the NAWCC web site, but the editor of the NAWCC Bulletin has made this article publicly available and it can now be read or downloaded by clicking on this this link: DOWNLOAD.

Please note that at the time of writing the article I didn't know about the connection with Brook and Son of Edinburgh who evidently commissioned the watches from the Swiss watchmakers Tavannes. This is discussed below.

If you have any questions or comments, please don't hesitate to get in touch via my Contact Me page.

The Submarine Wristwatch

In December 1917 at the height of World War One (World War 1, WW1) the following brief article appeared in the British Horological Institute's "Horological Journal". It reports a waterproof wristwatch created at the request of two British submarine commanders. I think it is rather fascinating so I have transcribed it here in full.

In fact, the Horological Journal was rather late in reporting this watch, because there is evidence that the “Submarine” wristwatch had been in use since October 1915, or over two years, before the time the article appeared.

Reproduced below is the entire article as it appeared in the Horological Journal, there are no more details about the watch or the manufacturer, or unfortunately about the two submarine commanders mentioned in the article and who apparently caused these wristwatches to be made.

From The Horological Journal, December 1917.


The war has led not only to new inventions, but to the development and improvement of things previously known. In the latter category may be included the wristlet watch, little used by the sterner sex before the war, but now to be seen on the wrist of nearly every man in uniform and of many men in civilian attire. The first wristlet watch was naturally a small pocket watch fitted into a leather holder and strapped on the wrist. This was soon improved by soldering to the sides "knuckles" or loops, through which the strap was passed. But such a watch worn on the wrist was so open to dust, and so much exposed to the effects of the weather, that it quickly became dirty. To obviate this the case was next made in one piece, into which the works were screwed; but this device was found to have certain disadvantages. With the advent of war a great demand arose for a watch that would stand the hard wear incidental to "service" use, and it is claimed that the demand has now been adequately met. Two submarine commanders approached a certain firm, and asked them to consider the construction of a special watch suitable for their work. It was explained that it must fulfil certain conditions. (1) It must be water-tight; for even when a submarine is on the surface the deck is always more or less awash. (2) It must be non-magnetic; for under water the submarine is driven by electricity, and in such a limited space watches made of magnetic materials are necessarily affected. (3) As, for the same reason, a compensation balance of the ordinary kind is impossible, the balance must be of some material which shows a minimum of expansion and contraction with variations in temperature. This condition is met by the employment of an alloy of iron and nickel, which expands and contracts so little that this factor may be disregarded. (4) The face must be quite legible at any time, and as the usual yellow luminous figures, when placed on a white dial, are not really discernible in moonlight, twilight, or subdued artificial light, a black dial is used, thus making it easy to read the exact hour in any light. A watch fulfilling every one of these conditions, and fitted in addition with a small luminous seconds-hand, has now been on the market for some months, and appears to have before it a distinctive sphere of usefulness.

Submarine Watch
Submarine Watch: Made by Tavannes, Sold by Brook & Son
Click image to enlarge
Submarine watch advert
Submarine Watch Advert May 1916

One of these Submarine wristwatches is in the possession of a good friend of mine, Richard Edwards, and the pictures of the watch further down the page are reproduced with Richard's kind permission. I now also have one of these Submarine watches which is shown in the photograph here. It is in unrestored condition. The hands are black painted brass, presumably steel hands were not used because the watch had to be anti-magnetic. Unlike Richard's watch, this one still has Brook & Son Edinburgh faintly visible in grey enamel paint on the dial.

The Submarine watch is made water tight by having a screw back and screw bezel fitted with gaskets, and a waterproof gland seal in the pendant, the tube on the side of the case where the stem, the shaft connected to the crown, enters the case. This is the area that watchmakers found most difficult to seal. In the Submarine watch this seal was effected by a gland that was compressed against a smooth section of the stem by a gland nut.

The Submarine watch was made by Tavannes and advertised for sale during World War One by Brook and Son, Edinburgh's foremost jewellers at the time who, in the 1916/17 Edinburgh & Leith Post Office Directory announced that they were “Goldsmiths to H.M. The King, H.R.H. Princess Louise, The King's Bodyguard for Scotland (the Royal Company of Archers), watch and clock makers, ...”

The advert by Brook and Son reproduced here for one of these Submarine wristwatches is from May 1916 in the middle of World War One. No details of the manufacturer are given. This is one of the earliest adverts I have found for the Submarine wristwatch, and the first with a picture of the watch. The earliest advert I have seen is dated 15 April 1916. Brook and Son advertised that they were the sole agents for the watch. However, there is evidence that the first Submarine watches were delivered in 1915.

The article in the Horological Journal December 1917 said that the watches had been on the market for “some months.” In fact, the Submarine watch was made and sold much earlier than this, in 1915. The Scotsman newspaper of 6 April 1916 contains an advertisement by Brook & Son as follows:

The Scotsman: 6 April 1916

Naval Officer writes : — “The ‘SUBMARINE’ wristwatch purchased six months ago has been a great success.” The “Submarine” is the only water-tight Wrist Watch made.

Brook & Son, 87 George Street, Edinburgh.

This must surely be from one of the submarine commanders who originally ordered the watch, and “great success” must mean that it had been in use in wet conditions on a submarine, being the specific conditions for which the watch was ordered. The date of the advert, at the beginning of April 1916, and the six months elapsed period suggests that the submarine commander took delivery of his watch in October 1915.

At the outbreak of World War One, the British Royal Navy Submarine Service was rather looked down upon by regular sailors in surface ships. The first Royal Navy submarine had been taken into service in 1901. The designs of the boats (submarines are always called boats) had been slowly developed before the war, but they were limited in endurance and capability. It required particularly resilient individuals to sail these underdeveloped and unproven machines on the high seas, plunging below the cold waters of the North Sea or the Atlantic, or even under the warmer but no less dangerous waters of the Mediterranean.

During the Gallipoli campaign British submarines carried out operations in the Sea of Marmara after having run the treacherous and heavily mined Dardanelles straits. HMSub E14 remains the only vessel in the history of the Royal Navy to have had two separate commanders awarded the Victoria Cross, Lieutenant Commander Courtney Boyle and Lieutenant Commander Geoffrey White (posthumously). E14 was followed into the Sea of Marmara by the even more famous E11, commanded by Lieutenant-Commander Martin Nasmith, who was also awarded the Victoria Cross after the first of three sorties and later promoted to Commander.

It seems that two (currently unknown) members of this tough, resourceful and determined class of men sauntered into Brook and Son's shop on Edinburgh's George Street some time in the spring or summer of 1915 and inquired about the possibility of obtaining waterproof wristwatches for their wet and dangerous work. They must have had some clout, because it appears that Brook and Son wasted no time in exploring the possibility with Swiss manufacturers. It is easy to imagine that the two submarine commanders were most likely well known, and probably well connected, members of Scottish society and regular customers of Brook & Son.

The premises of Brook & Sons at 87 George Street, the “spiritual home” of the Submarine watch, were taken over in the 1950s by Hamilton & Inches, who are still at the same address today, Warrant Holders to Her Majesty the Queen and Scotland's leading jewellery and luxury goods store.

Submarine Commander's watch
Submarine Commander's watch
Submarine Commander's watch
Images by permission © Richard Edwards

The Submarine Wristwatch

The Submarine wristwatch is made water tight by having a screw-on back and screw-on bezel, which are both fitted with compressible gaskets to improve their water tightness, and a waterproof compressed gland seal in the stem tube to prevent water entering the case through the hole where the winding stem enters.

All the Submarine wristwatch cases that I have seen carry the same number 3305913 and a shorter three of four digit number. The number 3305913 appears to be a case design reference number, the shorter number seems to be a serial number for the specific watch. The case measures a shade under 35mm diameter, about 34.8mm. This is a typical case size for a World War One era wristwatch with a 13 ligne Swiss movement.

During World War One, Tavannes supplied watches to Birch & Gaydon who were one of the premier jewellers in London at the time, later acquired by Asprey. The Langbourne has a screw back and bezel case similar to the Submarine watch. The Langbourne case is not waterproof; it does not have the gland in the stem tube or recesses for waxed cotton gasket in the screw back and bezel that the Submarine case watch has. Langbourne cases all carry a reference number 3305910, only three digits short of the reference number 3305913 seen in all Submarine watch cases. This suggests that these numbers are Tavannes case design reference numbers, and that the fully waterproof case of the Submarine watch was a development of the Langbourne case.

The first picture shows the black dial with luminous hands and numerals as described in the Horological Journal article. To make the numbers and hands easily visible in low light and in the dark they were painted with radioactive luminous paint, a clear varnish that acted as a binder containing radium and a fluorescent material, doped zinc sulphide, which glowed all the time. The numerals have lost their radium paint over the years, a common occurrence because the varnish is degraded over time by the radiation.

It is interesting to note that someone has thought carefully about making the numbers on this dial as visible as possible in low light conditions, . Watches with black dials either have the numerals outlined in skeleton form on an overall black dial, relying on infill paint to make them visible, or blocked out in white as this watch. Block white numerals such as this give the greatest contrast to the black of the dial and are clearly visible even when the paint is missing. The white background of the numbers ensured that light emitted backwards from the luminous material was reflected forward, maximising the luminous effect, rather than being absorbed in the dial as it would be with a black background. The hands are skeletonised to carry luminous paint, and unusually for a watch dial of this period, the seconds hand is also skeletonised and carries luminous paint, as described in the Horological Journal article. It is usually only the hour and minute hand that carry luminous paint and the seconds hand is a simple unadorned baton.

The next picture shows the means of sealing the winding stem. There is a gland or packing ring in the stem tube, secured and compressed by a round brass nut which is externally threaded and screws into the end of the stem tube. The original gland was oiled leather and has been replaced with one of modern rubber. The gland is compressed by the nut onto a perfectly smooth section of stem and gives a very effective seal. In this picture you can also see the threads on the middle part of the case for the screw bezel and screw back. The case back and the bezel have milling around their edges, just visible in the picture of the face of the watch above, to grip whilst turning to screw them on and off.

The next picture shows the case back, which carries the Glasgow Assay Office town mark for imported wares, two block letters F opposed and prone, the date letter "u" for the Glasgow hallmarking year 1917 to 1918, and the 925 of Sterling silver. The sponsor's mark JW appears to have been registered by James Weir of Glasgow. There is also reference (Brevet +) to a Swiss patent, but unfortunately no patent number. The recess machined into the case back inside the screw threads carries a sealing gasket. This was originally a plaited washer impregnated with either grease or wax.

Submarine Commander's watch

A longer version of this article was published in the NAWCC Watch & Clock Bulletin in 2014. At the time of writing I didn't know about the connection with Brook and Son of Edinburgh discussed on this page.
Click this link to DOWNLOAD the article in full! D10979

The movement was made by the Tavannes Watch Co. It is a Tavannes 13 ligne 3B calibre fitted with a special balance spring and balance.

The balance is solid white metal and the balance spring is a white metal, rather than the cut bimetallic compensation balance and blued carbon steel balance spring usually seen in these movements. I have tested with a demagnetiser and the balance spring does not respond to the magnetic field at all. I have not tested it for response to temperature, but I think it is safe to say that the balance spring is made from the "low expansion non-magnetic" alloy described in the Horological Journal article.

This was a fairly early use of temperature compensating alloys and throws light on another interesting area of horological development. During my research into the Rolex screw crown I tried to find out more about the two inventors of the screw down crown whose patent Hans Wilsdorf purchased, Perregaux and Perret. In the course of these investigations I came across one Paul Perret (1854 - 1903), and what a very interesting fellow he was.

Paul Perret was a Swiss watch timer, experimenter and inventor. He took out the very first Swiss patent, No. CH 1, in 1888. When Charles Édouard Guillaume announced the discovery of Invar, an iron-nickel alloy with very low temperature coefficient of expansion, Perret immediately requested a sample of the material which he made into a balance spring.

When Perret tested a watch fitted with the balance spring made of this new material, he found that rather than going more slowly as the temperature increased, the watch actually gained. This must have surprised Perret; he had discovered that Invar has a positive temperature coefficient of elasticity. Unlike a normal carbon steel balance spring that got weaker as it got hotter, a balance spring made from Invar got stronger as it got hotter.

Guillaume says that this was independently confirmed later by Marc Thury, but it was clearly Perret who made the discovery. Guillaume was only looking for a material that was dimensionally stable for his standards of length measurement, but Perret was trying to improve watch escapements and hence his interest in any new material such as Invar with properties that might be useful for balance springs.

After Perret had informed Guillaume of discovery the two agreed to collaborate on research into the elastic properties of nickel-steel alloys, which they did during the summer of 1897. The most accurate and convenient way of measuring the elastic modulus of these alloys at the time was to make them into balance springs and observe the rate of a watch fitted with them at different temperatures. Guillaume depended on Perret for this.

Paul Perret Balance Springs

On 6 May 1897 Perret registered in Switzerland a claim for a patent on an escapement with a balance spring whose strength increased with temperature sufficiently to compensate for the increase in moment of inertia of a plain (uncompensated) balance. This patent was published in Switzerland on January 15, 1898, as CH 14270, in Great Britain on February 5, 1898, as GB 25,142 and in the United States on March 12, 1901, as U.S. 669,763. Perret founded his own company to make these balance springs.

Perret balance springs
Paul Perret 1901 advert for nickel steel compensation balance springs. Click image to enlarge.

The advertisement from La Fédération horlogère suisse shown here is from September 1901. Under the title “Timing of watches” the ad says that “The best timing is obtained, especially for non-magnetic watches, with balance springs of nickel-steel, contact the manufacturer Paul Perret, Fleurier.”

Examples of changes in daily rate caused by increases in temperature are given and range from ordinary non-magnetic balance springs, which are said to vary from 15 to 18 seconds per degree centigrade, through to Paul Perret’s nickel-steel non-magnetic compensation balance spring, which is said to vary from 0 to 1 seconds per degree centigrade. The remark at the bottom of the ad says that the nickel-steel balance springs allow the elimination of the cut bimetallic balance and that balances made all of brass ("tout en laiton") give the best results.

Perret continued to work with Guillaume, and if he hadn't died in 1903 at age only 49 his name would be much better known today. After Perret's death his daughter Emma granted the rights to use Perret's patent to Spiraux Réunies.

Throughout his career Perret continued to work on compensating balance springs. In studies into balances and compensating balance springs that were published in 1905 after his death, one of the companies he mentioned working with was Tavannes. Tavannes was founded in 1891 by Henri-Frédéric Sandoz who was a talented and inventive watchmaker, designing his own calibres and the machines to make them. It is surely not a coincidence that it was Tavannes that made the Submarine watch.


The one question that puzzles me is why so little is known about these historically important watches that were waterproof, non-magnetic, and with auto compensation for temperatures effects? I have never seen them mentioned in any book or article. They were clearly fully waterproof more than ten years before the Rolex Oyster, which many people think of as the first waterproof watch, or at least the first waterproof wristwatch.

The Submarine watch was also remarkably practical compared to the Rolex Oyster - there is no need to unscrew the crown to wind or set the watch, and therefore no threads on the stem tube to wear. Thread wear was a major problem for the early Oysters before automatic winding was introduced. The Submarine watch also remained waterproof while either winding or setting the watch, which the Oyster didn't; there is no need to remember to screw down the crown after winding to make the watch waterproof again, a feature that has caused grief to many Rolex Oyster owners over the years. The compressed gasket sealing for the stem is not as ultimately waterproof as a screw down crown in withstanding water pressure at diving depths, but then Rolex didn't make any claims about this for the first Oysters and left the stage clear for Omega to make the claim of producing the first dive watch; the 1932 Omega Marine.

I suppose the answer could be found in the way the Submarine watch came about, during the depths of WW1 as the result of a request by two submarine commanders. The extra work involved in making the watch waterproof and anti magnetic would have made it more expensive. Was it regarded as too expensive to be commercially viable, or was it that no one involved saw that the public might want a waterproof watch? 1915 was long before recreational diving became popular following the invention in 1925 of Scuba diving by Commander Yves le Prieur.

The promotion of a waterproof watch as something for the average person to want or need seems to have been a particular vision of Hans Wilsdorf, similar to the way that Steve Jobs had a vision for the iPod and iPad and almost single handedly created markets for portable mp3 players and tablet computers. But without such a visionary to champion its cause this watch faded into obscurity.

If you have any comments or questions, please don't hesitate to get in touch via my Contact Me page.

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Copyright © David Boettcher 2005 - 2024 all rights reserved. This page updated June 2022. W3CMVS. Back to the top of the page.