Prior to the twentieth century wristwatches were worn by women as an item of jewellery, the first one being created by Patek Phillipe in 1868 for Countess Koscowicz of Hungary. Military men soon saw the potential for having a watch on their wrist as opposed to having to fumble for their pocket watch in the heat of battle. The German Imperial Navy experimented with wristwatches throughout the 1880s and soldiers in the Boer War used to tie their pocket watches to their wrist. However, it was in WW1 that the wristwatch was really born. As warfare became more advanced and synchronised, soldiers needed to check the time instantaneously for battles to be coordinated effectively. The Royal Signals was the first regiment that ordered officers to wear wristwatches and by 1916 wristwatch wearing had spread to civilian life. Originally officers were expected to buy their own wristwatches, which were either advertised as ‘service’ watches or ‘campaign’ watches. The Lufbery Mark VII is inspired by these original service watches. By the end of the war the War Department was issuing cheaper wristwatches to men further down the ranks.
In 1939 the Ministry of Defence commissioned a dozen companies to make wristwatches for the military. The companies were: Buren, Cyma, Eterna, Grana, Jaeger-LeCoultre, Lemania, Longines, IWC, Omega, Record, Timor, and Vertex. Each watch. Each watch needed to have to have a black dial, Arabic numerals, luminous hour and minute hands, luminous hour markers, a railroad minute track, a shatterproof crystal, and a stainless-steel case. In total 150000 watches were produced with the majority going to radio operators and artillery officers.
The most popular watch in the Korean War was the Waltham A-17 which first came into service in 1950 and had a 17 jewel movement. The last Waltham A-17 was created in 1956.
In February 1964 the Department of Defence awarded a contract for a new field watch. The specs required a 17 jewel hand wound movement, with accuracy of +/- 30 seconds per day, and a second hand setting feature ("hacking"). The steel case was a mere 34-35mm wide, antimagnetic, and water resistant. Many were made with fixed lugs instead of spring bars, requiring a pass through strap. The crystal was domed acrylic. The dial established the template for the American "field watch": a black dial with 12 hours in Arabic numerals, an inner ring marking 24 hour time with smaller Arabic numerals, and a 60 increment index with darts at each hour marker. The watches were made by Benrus, Belforte, Westclox, Hamilton, Timex, and Stocker and Yale. All of these watches will bear case back markings with contract type, federal stock number, manufacturing part number, contract number, manufacture month and year, and serial number.
The Gulf War
General Schwarzkopf famously wore two watches. The watch on his left arm was set at Saudi Arabian time and the Seiko on his right arm was set at Eastern Standard time. Schwarzkopf’s $200 Seiko recently sold at auction for $11000. For most US soldiers however they wore Stocker and Yale Sandy 490 series which was powered by a Swiss ETA 2801 movement.