Welcome to “Watches You Should Know,” a new bi-weekly (the once-every-two-weeks kind) column highlighting little-known watches new and old that have interesting stories or have had a surprising impact on the industry.
The trials surrounding NASA’s selection of a wristwatch that would accompany its astronauts into space have passed into horological lore.
Several of the watch world’s largest firms submitted chronographs to NASA’s call for entries: Rolex sent the 6238 “pre-Daytona”; Breitling submitted the Navitimer ref. 809; Omega submitted the Speedmaster, originally designed for automotive racing; and Wittnauer, originally the US-based importer for such prestigious Swiss brands as Longines and Jaeger-LeCoultre, submitted a chronograph with its own branding. (Longines had purchased Wittnauer in 1950, but kept the brand separate until 1995, when the Swatch Group took over Longines distribution. In 2001, it was purchased by Bulova.)
Just which Wittnauer chronograph was submitted for the trials is still a matter of debate, but many in the watch community believe it to have been the 242T. There’s still no official or definitive proof from either NASA or Longines that this is the case (the 235T is another possible contender) — however, there evidently do exist period advertisements following NASA’s Qualification Test Procedures that claim the 242T as the Wittnauer entry.
NASA’s testing procedure to choose its official chronograph was arduous, and aimed to subject the watches to conditions mirroring those they would experience in space while strapped to the wrists of astronauts. Watches were decompressed for 90 minutes and then exposed to rapid and extreme fluctuations in temperature, from 0 to 160 degrees Fahrenheit. The chronographs were left running for several hours, and the watches were subjected to extreme vibrations for 30 minutes and shocks measuring 40 Gs. All watches had to be wrist-worn chronographs that were water-resistant to 50 meters and legible in high and low-light conditions.
Though similar to several of the other entries in the NASA trials in that it’s a triple-register chronograph (in this case, and like the Rolex 6238, powered by the venerable Valjoux 72), the Wittnauer 242T is unique in several respects, most of them having to do with the fact that its dial is downright badass. Just look at that thing.
The dial is matte black with three sub-registers (running seconds at 9 o’clock; a 12-hour totalizer at 6 o’clock; and a 30-minute totalizer at 3 o’clock), each of which features a glossy back outer ring. Then, there’s a white inner minute/second track ringing and running through the sub-registers. The main hour indices are done up in round tritium plots, but the kicker is that there’s an outer decimal scale around the edge of the watch, which can prove somewhat confusing.
What’s this decimal scale for, you might ask? Decimal time is a feature used commonly in aviation that breaks the day down into 10 decimal hours, each of which consists of 100 decimal minutes, further subdivided into 100 decimal seconds each. This feature is rarely seen on even vintage chronographs (though the occasional Meylan or Gallet watch with this feature will sometimes crop up), and, to our mind, further solidifies the case for the 242T having been submitted for NASA testing trials (though this is admittedly pure speculation).
A thick, lumed handset with lollipop seconds hand, pump pushers, an acrylic crystal, a screw-down case back and a 39mm stainless steel case with nicely chamfered lugs and a 20mm lug width round out the feature set. The watch is powered, as mentioned, by the hand-wound Valjoux 72, which has powered some of the world’s most famous chronographs (Rolex Daytona, Heuer Carrera, etc).
The sophisticated and busy dial, replete with professional features and even “Professional” branding, the presence of the Valjoux movement and, of course, the association of the space program has driven prices for superlative 242Ts north of $10,000 in the past few years.