Aviators have been using chronograph watches to navigate and make fast calculations since the early twentieth century. But chronographs and watches with the functionality to help make complex calculations were just as useful on the ground as they were in the air. For a pilot to be able to do any reckoning in flight, a network of engineers, physicists and mathematicians must first have made innumerable accurate calculations during the aircraft’s development.

As aircraft evolved to fly higher, faster and further, the number of engineers involved in their development increased considerably. By 1958 –the year the National Aeronautics and Space Administration was founded — engineers had started to consider Earth’s atmosphere and outer space as a single realm, coining the new term ‘aerospace’. Now the ever-expanding engineering community included scientists from all fields.

In response to this, Ollech & Wajs began to develop a range of chronographs and calculating watches that would be as much use under a lab coat as over a g-suit.

The Intelsat 1, nicknamed the ‘Early Bird’.

Throughout the 1960s, space exploration dominated the aeronautical, cultural and political agendas. Its influence is evident in OW’s most iconic watches of the period. We call these our ‘space watches’.

The ‘Moon Orbiter’ slide rule watch and the ‘Early Bird’ 24-hour GMT were both named after satellites, the latter being the first satellite launched into geosynchronous orbit. Intelsat I (nicknamed ‘Early Bird’) handled all communication transmissions between Europe and North America, including the live TV coverage of the Gemini 6 splashdown in 1965, and was also used to relay broadcasts from Apollo 11.

The ‘Selectron Computer’ was marketed as ‘an instrument panel on your wrist’. Back then, the word ‘computer’ was used to describe a person who carried out calculations or computations, rather than a programmable machine capable of processing digital data. Before the advent of the pocket calculator, a watch with a slide rule scale could help with a variety of tasks – calculating ratios, percentages, air speed, ground speed, rate of climb or descent, distance unit conversions, multiplication and division. It was an innovative feature on a wristwatch, and it certainly looked futuristic, hence the slogan for OW’s ‘Selectron’ range, ‘You can own today the watches of tomorrow’.

The 1965 OW‘Early Bird’ ref: 72.

To the layman, the dial of a Selectron Computer might appear perplexing. A standard watch dial, with a date complication, would typically have 13 numbers. The Selectron Computer had a total of 102 numbers around 5 concentric tracks. However, in the hands of a pilot, navigator or engineer, it was a simple, utilitarian instrument — the digital calculator of its day, or ‘The watch with the “mechanical brain”, as OW described it. One advertisement even went as far as acknowledging that ‘time’ was the secondary purpose of the watch. ‘ Swiss Flight computer tells time too!’. The ‘Selectron Navigator’, which had an added chronograph complication, was aimed overtly at chief engineers. For men in command — the space age watch was the tagline on one advertisement.

The ‘Astro-Chron’, with its 12-hour totaliser and decimal scale, also became popular with engineers and technicians, who used it to measure production and calculate averages, and to perform research work and industrial tests. Equal to any challenge, OW claimed … perhaps even the challenge of sending man to the moon?

As flight technology advanced to include craft capable of operating in outer space, the term ‘aerospace engineering’ came into common use, more colloquially referred to as ‘rocket science’. The most infamous rocket scientist of all time, NASA’s Wernher von Braun, was once presented with an OW Astro-Chron by his fellow NASA scientists, so impressed had they been with their own Astro-Chrons. This was a somewhat dubious honour for OW, but evidence nonetheless that our chronographs were considered tools of scientific precision by professionals at the very pinnacle.

‘You can own today the watches of tomorrow’

Despite OW’s reputation for making exceptionally reliable watches, proven to perform in extreme-pressure, deep-ocean environments, none of our references were ever tested by NASA for their suitability on manned space missions. Slightly surprising, given that OW watches had won the admiration of some very influential scientists and executives within the administration. We can only speculate that the age of the company may have been a factor. When NASA began selecting watches for potential use on the Gemini program, OW had been in existence for only eight years, whereas the companies that were invited to submit watches for testing had all been established for decades. The title of official ‘Moonwatch’ would be prestigiously bestowed on a chronograph made by a company that was over 100 years old.

When the crew of Apollo 11 completed the first successful lunar landing in 1969, three men would go down in history, along with the watches they wore. Of course, that giant leap for mankind was down to far more than three men and one watch. Back on Earth, tens – if not hundreds — of thousands of specialists all played a small part in man’s greatest achievement.

A letter from the OW archives requesting an Astro-Chron chronograph for presentation to Dr. von Braun.

From the physics of spacecraft to the physiology of astronauts, everything had to be calculated precisely. For that, more than one of the professionals responsible would have relied on an OW.

And while the crew of Apollo 11 were parading triumphantly in the motorcade along 6th Avenue, through a blizzard of ticker tape, the engineers unceremoniously poured hot coffee and rolled up their sleeves, ready for another glorious day of data crunching.