Welcome to Watches You Should Know, a biweekly column highlighting important or little-known watches with interesting backstories and unexpected influence. This week: Charles Lindbergh's Longines Hour Angle.
Let’s face it, guys, we’ve gotten soft. Our smartphones and cars tell us how to get to the shopping mall and we can fall asleep in London and wake up in New York six hours later, none the wiser. That’s why watches like the Longines Lindbergh Hour Angle are so important.
Not for its technical merits or its aesthetics, although it is a lovely, deceptively complicated, timepiece. No, this watch is important because it reminds us of a time, not even a century ago, when a man found his way across the Atlantic Ocean in a crude plane by using time and the rotation of the Earth. And though the Hour Angle watch will probably never again be used to navigate anything more than a job interview, it is an integral connection to an era when timepieces were tools and man relied on his wits to get from Point A to Point B.
To understand the story of the Longines Hour Angle, one has to look to the days before the airplane, when ships were being dashed on reefs with frightening regularity because their navigators couldn’t tell where they were on the planet. You see, on the gridwork of the globe, one can find his location relative to the poles based on the altitude of the North Star. But the other key coordinate, his longitude, is not so easy. For centuries, the solution to this conundrum foiled scientists from Galileo to Sir Isaac Newton.
But by the mid-1700s, the invention of a reliable chronometer that could be transported onboard a ship, finally allowed sailors to find their longitude by comparing the time at their current position (via the angle of the sun) with the time at their departure port told by the chronometer. This development saved countless lives and became the preferred method of nautical navigation right up until the development of LORAN, radar and GPS.
By the early days of air travel, aviators needed an easier way to compare times than by using a bulky chronometer in a cramped cockpit. The solution to the problem came from none other than Charles Lindbergh, the first man to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean. When Lindbergh returned from his heroic flight, he immediately set out to design the Hour Angle wristwatch and found a willing partner for its manufacture in Longines.
The watch featured a demarcated rotating bezel that allowed for the equation of time (the difference between a standardized 24-hour day and the fluctuating time of the Earth’s travel around the sun), vital for an accurate calculation of longitude. A rotating central disc on the dial allowed for the synchronization of the seconds without stopping the sweeping hand. And unique dial markings allowed a pilot to instantly tell his location by corresponding the time with the earth’s 360-degree rotation (the “hour angle’).
This first “Hour Angle” watch, which was patented by Lindbergh, had a hand-wound pocket watch movement inside of a huge case and an extra long leather strap for wearing over a thick flight jacket sleeve. The crown was oversized to facilitate winding while wearing gloves. It was utilitarian through and through.
Like other brands, Longines has released homage pieces as part of its “Heritage” line, and they are hands-down their best offerings. They have managed to re-create the Lindbergh Hour Angle watch with uncanny accuracy. The new Hour Angle retains the exact 47.5 millimeter diameter as the original – massive for the time and on the large side even for modern tastes – and the engraved steel rotating bezel. The lacquered dial bears the same exquisite painted markers, and thankfully Longines resisted the urge to introduce an anachronistic date window to keep with the original.
It’s amazing to think that the blued steel Breguet-style hands, lacking any sort of luminous material, are the same that Longines fitted to a watch designed as a navigation tool. The watch is supplied with a genuine alligator strap complete with a strap extension piece in case you want to channel Lucky Lindy and wear it over your faux bomber jacket. The new Hour Angle is such a perfect modern recreation, it is as though Longines pulled it out of a time capsule. But there are a few key exceptions.
But wearing it may just give a generation of men reared on Google Maps an appreciation for the bygone era of self-sufficiency and seat-of-the-pants adventure. And you just never know when your GPS will go on the blink.
The inner disc on the dial still rotates to synchronize the seconds but rather than using a second crown at 2 o’clock like the original, it is manipulated by pulling out the big onion-shaped crown to its second position. While not having a separate crown does make for a cleaner appearance, it does diminish its likeness.
The second way the new Hour Angle differs from its ancestor is the presence of a tiny button at 4 o’clock. Pressing it requires some skill and the use of a fingernail but you’re rewarded by the release of the polished, hinged caseback, revealing a magnificently decorated mechanical movement within. The original Hour Angle didn’t have this feature but this is one alteration we’ll forgive. So few watches have hinged casebacks and the mere act of flipping it open is a treat. The movement itself is protected behind sapphire glass and the inside of the cover is engraved with Lindbergh’s name and patent number.
The final and perhaps most crucial departure from the watch to which it pays tribute, is the use of a self-winding movement. Lindbergh’s original Longines would have been fitted with a large hand-wound pocket watch movement. The new Hour Angle bows to modern convention and convenience by using a modified ETA A07.111 automatic that Longines calls its calibre L6992.
Make no mistake, this is a beautiful movement and it shimmers from its prodigious Geneva stripes and circular perlage decoration. But we wish Longines had fitted the Hour Angle with a handwound movement. After all, buyers of this $5,000, 47.5mm-wide, date-less watch are no doubt seeking authenticity over convenience and hand cranking with that lovely crown would only be seen as a plus.
The Lindbergh Hour Angle is not the most practical piece. Its size doesn’t lend itself to shirtsleeves and its elegance and relative lack of water resistance (30 meters) means it’s not exactly a sports watch. But wearing it may just give a generation of men reared on Google Maps an appreciation for the bygone era of self-sufficiency and seat-of-the-pants adventure. And you just never know when your GPS will go on the blink.