Abstract from Sir Sandford Flemming’s journal.
Dublin March 23, 1876
It cannot be. My beloved Mary has left me…for good. I let her standing at the altar… Thinking I had abandoned her she left and sought refuge at the convent of the Blue Butterfly and refuses to have contact with the outside world and the wretched soul that I have become.
Why ask you would I abandon one of Gods most perfect creations? I did not! The train I was to take at Dublin for Cork was to depart at 9.16 AM, my train arrived at 9.07 AM precisely but my correspondence was leaving as I set foot on the quay…9 minutes early. It seemed early to me but the local time was set off by 9 minutes and here I was seeing my life as I know it come to a halt. I fear that I will not sleep until things change.
|Sir Sandford Flemming|
A great story.
Well it could have been as all the ingredients for a great story are gathered: Love, drama, revenge and time zones that don’t add up....but that's what it is. Just a story! However, there is a pinch of truth as the idea for standardizing time came to Sir Sandford Fleming in 1876 after missing a train in Ireland!
Today we take it for granted that since the world makes a complete revolution in 24 hours that it should be divided into 24 time zones (there are in fact 37 time zones but more on this later) but until the late 19th Century this didn’t seem that obvious to many, in fact most countries had their own time zone and within each country many towns had their own local time based on solar time.
We could have been fine with this if it was not for the urge for mankind to travel via rail (the 1st official railroad was inaugurated in 1825). In fact this didn’t seem too much of an issue at first as the distances were short, but the mapping out of Canada's first long-distance railway lines which fell to Scottish-born engineer, Sir Sandford Fleming posed whole new problems. In 1880, Canada embarked on the construction of the future Canadian Pacific Railway, and Sir Sandford observed that keeping track of time over such a great distance was nothing if not confusing (there are now six time zones from Newfoundland to the Pacific), making it virtually impossible to draw up reliable timetables and most importantly to prevent collisions between trains. Fleming was not the first to recognize that this dilemma, stemming from the ever-increasing number of trains crucial to feeding the industrial revolution, was a problem, but Sir Sandford would be the first to do something about it.
Legend has it that it was in 1876 after missing a train in Ireland that Fleming began to look for a way to standardize time. Speaking before the Royal Canadian Institute in Toronto in 1879, he proposed to divide the Earth into 24 time zones of 15° one hour apart with a universal time for each individual zone.
However, as with most revelations that threaten to change the world, his idea was met with considerable resistance from the governments and the scientific communities. At last, Fleming’s persistence paid off and his idea was finally adopted in 1884 in Washington, when the 25 nations taking part in the International Meridian Conference decided that the prime meridian of 0° longitude would pass through Greenwich, England.
But why Greenwich, which is after all nothing more than a London suburb? Firstly, because the town had long been in possession of a renowned observatory, and secondly, because this was a time when Britannia ruled an Empire over which the sun would never set and the laws of the British Empire were observed all around the world.
Obviously les français could not accept to have the laws of a population with such bad eating habits apply to them and until 1891 French towns continued to calculate their own time based on the position of the sun at noon, or solar time. Except that the sun rises 50 minutes earlier in Strasbourg than in Brest which, in the railroad era, proved slightly inconvenient. In 1891 the French government therefore adopted Paris time for the whole country, despite a difference of 9 minutes and 21 seconds with the time in the majority of western States.
Legend has it that the British lead the French to believe that if they adopted the GMT standard in return they would adopt the Metric system… a French invention of the late 18th Century!
The British didn’t adopt the Metric system and France continued to refer to Paris time for 20 years before finally passing a law that adopted international time zones in 1911.
One bizarre quality associated with the original GMT standard was that according to British tradition hour zero started at noon and not midnight. This changed in 1925 so that a new day would start at midnight, at the same time the term GMT was replaced by Universal Time.
Fleming’s contribution to the creation of the World Time watch does not stop with the creation of the world’s first system of standardized time, Sir Sandford went further than that. In 1880, Fleming commissioned a watch manufacturer in London to construct a unique pocket watch that would accurately reflect his proposal, and so was born the “Cosmic Time” pocket watch. The times for each of the 24 “zones” in Fleming’s system were depicted on a single dial, making his “Cosmic Time” pocket watch the world’s first World Time watch as we know it.
However, Swiss watchmakers had already tried creating timepieces which would give local time in different cities, one of the earliest is attributed to Rouzier et Melley (Geneva) from 1780, this two sided watch indicates on the back side the time in 53 different locations.
|scan courtesy of the Beyer Museum|
Another interesting creation by Achille Hirsch circa 1900 indicated 6 time zones on the front and 140 on the back of the watch!
Today, the Earth is divided into 24 time zones corresponding to the same number of local times. In theory, each zone measures 15° although there are significant variations to accommodate borders and political imperatives. China, for example, extends across four time zones but only uses one. Russia takes only nine of its 11 time zones into account and how they are calculated defies comprehension. India, Iran, Afghanistan, Myanmar and Venezuela have offset their time zones by half an hour; Nepal and the Chatham Islands, off the coast of New Zealand, by three-quarters.
World Time watches were invented, as is the case with most innovation, out of necessity. With the advent of the industrial age came the means necessary to facilitate global trade and travel and, as a direct result, there was a need for timekeeping devices capable of tracking time in multiple locations. The first dual-time watches were created to assist in nautical navigation which, with the increasingly popular steam ships, had become an integral part of international trade as well as transportation for the more affluent members of society. These early 19th Century marvels, named “Captain’s Watches”, featured two small dials displaying both the time at the home port as well as the local time.
However, surprisingly watchmakers did not plunge right away into this new opportunity by creating world time watches based on the 24hour time zones set up by the International Meridian Conference. Was this due to the complexity of the mechanism, the lack of demand, the national issues with the exact division of the time zones or the legendary Swiss neutrality (not wanting to put forward one nation by having its capital be the city of reference for that time zone)? Whatever the answer, world time watches as we know them today remained off the radar until the early 1930s and an invention by a genius watchmaker: Louis Cottier.
Vacheron Constantin and Louis Cottier
The history between Vacheron Constantin and the Cottier family is a long one. The father Emmanuel, also a watchmaker, had set up his workshop in Carouge just outside of Geneva and had been creating automatons and clocks for Vacheron Constantin since the early 20th Century and upon his passing his son Louis continued his work.
The relationship between the Cottier family and Vacheron Constantin was so strong that in a letter dated March 3, 1930 Louis Cottier wrote to Charles Constantin “I would like to enter your manufacture before undertaking other steps elsewhere…” The world was in the midst of the 1929 crash and business was not good, Vacheron Constantin could not hire Cottier but this did not stop the two parties from working together closely.
It is around that period in 1930/1931 that Cottier designed a movement featuring a local time with hour and minute hands at center, linked to a rotating 24hour ring, and bordered by a fixed outer dial ring with the names of different cities inscribed on it. The city of choice (local time zone) was placed at the 12 o'clock position with the hours/minutes hand set at local time, the watch would then display the correct time in both hours and minutes, night and day, for every time zone in the world simultaneously, all the while allowing easy and accurate reading of local time, and all on a single dial.
|Cottier's sketch for a world time dial|
In December 1932 Vacheron Constantin supplied Cottier with a 17 lignes VNP calibre on which the latter added his world time mechanism thus making it Vacheron Constantin’s very first world time watch and to the best of our knowledge, the 2nd “brand” to use the Cottier system (5 years before Patek Philippe who launched its first model in 1937). A one off was made for Beszanger, a jeweller who owned a shop in Carouge making them the first to offer a watch with the Cottier world time system in 1931 (some rumors suggest that the base movement used in this piece was supplied by Vacheron Constantin).
Vacheron Constantin housed this watch in a white gold case with a rose gold outer segment. The city ring features 31 cities.
This type of mechanism has a fixed city ring, therefore, at the time of the order the client needed to choose his reference city which was placed at 12 o’clock and the other time zones could then be read via a rotating 24hour inner disc.
Another variation of this system has the 24hour disc divided into 2 different colors: 6 to 18 for daytime and 18 to 6 for night time.
It wasn’t until four years later in 1936 that Vacheron Constantin presented two other world timers incorporating the Cottier system, the first in a yellow gold case with 31 cities on the outer ring (bought by Princess Khadiga Abbas Halim, the second in pink gold and with 30 cities (without Cairo), the latter remained in the Vacheron Constantin catalogue from 1939 to 1941.
Between 1937 and 1938, the brand also made a series of 6 table clocks, housing 22 lignes VLT calibres, with mobile dials and featuring an impressive 67 cities and daylight saving time for Paris.
Starting in the early ‘40s the world time watch was given a reference number: 4414 featuring 41 cities and an interior 24h rotating disc. This watch became quite successful with the rich and powerful of the time with clients such as Susanna Agnelli, King Farouk and even Foster Dulles (US Secretary of Foreign Affairs from 1953-1959) whose model featured New York as its reference time (and not the US capital Washington D.C.)
|1936||ref 4414 from 1946|
|ewf 4414 from 1949|
In fact, looking at the evolution of the world time watch you can have a good idea of the rise and decline of certain countries whose cities disappear as references for a specific time zone whilst other cities appear.
Vacheron Constantin’s expertise in the world time complication remained within pocket watches, nevertheless in the mid ‘50s an Egyptian dignitary commissioned a wrist watch version delivered in 1957 and bearing the reference 6213. Featuring a rather large 40mm yellow gold case housing the automatic calibre 1019 the watch also featured another first: a rotating inner dial with the cities inscribed on it which could be set via a pusher at 9 o’clock thus enabling the wearer to change his city of reference at will.
This system of a mobile city ring was subsequently used in the reference 6382 pocket watch launched in 1960.
Vacheron Constantin remained dormant in terms of world timers until 1992 where it launched the reference 48200 in the sporty Phidias line (in both yellow gold and two tone yellow gold/steel) which was discontinued in 1996.
In 2001 Vacheron Constantin relaunched a world time model ref 48250 called Evasion, it was destined only for the Japanese market and made in 100 pieces. In 2003 a second series was launched in rose gold and made in 100 pieces, still for the Japanese market. The cities were inscribed on the outer bezel and needed to be manually set to the desired city of reference with a 24 hours night/day disc on the periphery of the dial.
Let’s face it Loungers (and apologies to those who own and like their watches) but neither the Phidias nor the Evasion will go down in the books as successful designs.
Vacheron Constantin had some making up to do.
It took some time but the new Patrimony Traditionnelle World Time launched in 2011 hits the nail on the head… it’s not just another World Time, but one which mechanically reflects political decisions!
For political reasons certain countries did not apply standard time zones as originally conceived by Fleming but added half-hour and quarter-hour deviations from the original full hour time zones.
Consequently, in developing the World Time model the watchmakers and engineers at Vacheron Constantin wanted to have a system that would truly represent world time and which would for the first time in history indicate not only fullhour time zones but also those offset by 30 and 45 minutes. As a result, this reflects the temporal reality of all 37 time zones of the globe and not only 24, as has been done over the past 60 years.
It may seem easy to say but it took the team close to 3 years to devise an ingenious solution of pawls or feelers who can recognize, via a 37toothed outer ring, if the chosen time zone is a fullhour zone or an offset one.
Let’s welcome Tehran, Delhi, Kabul, Yangoon, Eucla, Adelaide, Caracas, Kingston, Marqueseas, Waitangi, L. Howe St John’s and Nepal.
One of the main challenges for the team was this: What happens if in 5 or 10 years, a country or countries change their time zones? The watch movement is designed so that the click ring can be changed, and the cities portion of the dial can be simply changed, so the watch will always be current.
This was quite an intelligent move given that since the presentation of the World Time in January Russia has decided to remain on winter time and therefore Moscow will go from GMT +3 to GMT +4. As such the dial and click ring have been changed to reflect this.
|new dial showing Moscow in its current new time zone|
But that’s not all!
A lot of thought and detail also went into the creation of the dial, which is divided into 3 sections:
- the dial per se with a Lambert projection map: Says Vincent Kaufmann Head of Design “the World Time is a very technical watch and we wanted the dial to reflect this, that’s why we chose a Lambert projection rather than a more poetic type of map to depict the earth.” The Lambert projection is a type of map often used for aeronautical charts, the projection minimizes distortions resulting from projecting a three dimensional surface on a two dimensional one.
- a sapphire crystal, of which half is tinted a shade of blue, makes a full rotation every 24 hours indicating which part of the world is going to bed and which part is enjoying the daylight (interestingly, the idea came to the design team while in an airplane and checking flight information the position of the plane was shown over a world map with darker areas Distinguished night from day time).
- A metal chapter ring with 24 hour markers
Finally, and this is quite a feat, all indications are adjusted via the crown, thus considerably simplifying the use of this watch.
In light of these exclusive developments, a patent has been filed for the new Vacheron Constantin Calibre 2460WT
Despite its complex construction principles, the new World Time movement is extremely user-friendly. The wearer chooses the reference time and places it opposite the black triangle at 6 o’clock. The time in the reference location can then be read off either by the hour hand, or by the 24-hour disc, while the time in the other 36 time zones is simultaneously readable. The cities shown in black represent the full time zones, while the cities in red indicate half-hour or quarter-hour zones.
In the world of Haute Horlogerie it is sometimes forgotten what exactly certain timepieces and complications represent. The intricacies of the design, the magnificent color schemes and the precious materials used can, at times, overwhelm admirers who have difficulty seeing past the physical beauty before them. While it is true that much of the value perceived in these watches is purely aesthetic, there is another fundamental element to this craft that supersedes all others in regard to its importance and influence on this industry and its timepieces: history
The history of High Watch Making in and of itself is an inspiring tale that combines innovation, discovery, and technical mastery in order to explain how humans evolved from reading sun dials in order to roughly estimate the time to having portable chronometers capable of giving the exact time in 37 cities around the world simultaneously.
Most VC admirers shall be captivated by this article which makes a smart link between history and the new advanced World Time. For sure, it makes this masterpiece even more desirable !
Two thumbs up!!!
Thank you, Alex! Amazing post. Just wanted to clarify one chronology point : 1) 1931 - Beszanger 2) 1932 - VC 3) 1937- PP Is this correct? Thatswhy VC is the second brand who used Cottier's system?
caliber as the former was a watch shop and not a manufacture