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Leeds Beat Weems: the Origins of the Rotating Bezel

I recently realized that my curiosity about watches is similar to the way a T-Rex' vision works, at least according to the 1993 film Jurassic Park. For those who don't remember the film, Dr. Alan Grant (a paleontologist played by the actor Sam Neil) tells the other characters that if they don't move, the T-Rex won't see them. Similarly, I realized that the rotating bezel is such a permanent (but adjustable) fixture of dive watch designs that I've never actually seen much of its history.

Subsequent to attending Jeffrey Kingston's Horological Society of New York lecture on the advent of the first dive watch by Blancpain (required WIS viewing, really), I think I'd naturally assumed that the brand's former CEO, Jean-Jacque Fiechter, invented the rotating bezel sometime around 1953.
Drawings of rotating bezel from Fiechter's Fifty Fathoms patent.
There certainly were many innovations he patented while dreaming up the Fifty Fathoms, so I subconsciously assumed the rotating bezel was one of them. It was plausible, Fiechter (and his team) were incredibly innovative. Then I found myself in a Clubhouse room while collector (and onetime watch dealer) Andrew Tolley discussed the early Longines references known as "Weems" and "Lindberg" watches. I'd seen these references in passing before, but it never registered that their rotating bezels predate dive watch bezels. Was this the fount of the rotating bezel?

There is a great piece over on Two Broke Watch Snobs describing the evolution and purpose of the bezel on these "Hour Angle" watches.
Drawings of Weem's patented rotating bezel.
The authors do seem to imply that Longines was first to cross the finish line when it comes to rotating bezels. The Longines design was intended to aid pilots with navigation. The inventor, Phillip Van Horn Weems, obtained a patent for the idea in 1935 (US 2008734, pictured above). During the Clubhouse discussion, I asked Mr. Tolley if he thought Mr. Fiechter would have been aware of the Longines rotating bezel while developing the first modern dive watch. I always find it interesting to uncover the progression of an innovation. Mr. Tolley offered an answer I can respect: he wasn't certain, but he thought it was likely. Since Glycine also introduced a pilot's watch with a rotating bezel, by way of the Airman, in 1953, I agree with this conjecture. There was clearly a whole lot of "rotating bezel" floating around in the Swiss watchmaking ether during Mr. Fiechter's work on the Fifty Fathoms.

But I began to wonder if there was a documented connection between Fiechter's work and Weem's prior innovation. So I pulled up Fiechter's patent for the Fifty Fathoms from 1955 (US 2909893, pictured here). Interestingly, I did not see Mr. Weem's patent cited as a reference of prior, related innovations. This seemed remarkably odd to me in light of how likely it was that Fiechter would know about rotating bezels in pilot's watches. Even more curious is the fact that Fiechter's patent cites a rotating bezel patent predating Weem's patent by at least a decade. Interestingly, Weems does not cite this, apparently earliest, patent.

Wiliam Eastwood was born in 1864 in England.
A steam engine manufactured by one of Eastwood's employers. Credit: Wikimedia.
At the age of 16 he began an apprenticeship as a draughtsman for Messrs. Pollit and Wigzell, who manufactured stationary steam engines. Eastwood was a highly successful draughtsman, ultimately achieving the position of chief draughtsman and designer at another engine manufacturer: Messrs. Newton, Bean and Mitchell, Ltd. Eastwood claimed membership in the Midland Institute of Mining Engineers and standing as an Associate Member - Institution of Civil Engineers. His career was punctuated by World War I, when he served in the Ministry of Munitions.

Eastwood's commmanding officer during the war was Captain Riall Sankey (CB CBE), an engineer who obtained a number of patents for steam engine innovations prior to the war.
Captain Riall Sankey (CB CBE). Credit: Wikimedia
It is conceivable, then, that Eastwood was inspired by Sankey when, on November 29, 1917, he filed a patent entitled "Improvements in or appertaining to Watches, Aneroid Barometers and other Dial Instruments" (GB120980A and US1322770A). At the time, he lived in Leeds. It appears this was only part of his invention portfolio, there are patents bearing his name relating to steam engines and crayons dating from the early part of the 20th century.

Eastwood's patent describes a "revolvulable bezel" with a logarthmic scale. He proposed placing such a bezel on a watch (or any dialed instrument) so that it could serve as a circular slide rule. I've never personally used a slide rule, but it was a calculating tool that was popular prior to the widespread availability of digital calculators.

In many ways, Eastwood's patent anticipated the advent of smartphones, almost a century later.
Drawings from Eastwood's rotating bezel patent.
The basic idea involved combining two functions for a watch (timekeeping and calculating) just as a smartphone combines an almost limitless number of functions (voice and text communication, timekeeping, navigation, on and on). It is also clear that Eastwood's invention of a rotating bezel on a watch predates both Weems and Fiechter by many years.

The story of the rotating bezel is one which reminds us of the insight offered by Bernard of Chartes in the 12th century, who "used to compare us to dwarfs perched on the shoulders of giants. He pointed out that we see more and farther than our predecessors, not because we have keener vision or greater height, but because we are lifted up and borne aloft on their gigantic stature," (John of Salisbury, in Metalogicon). Eastwood is clearly one of those giants holding up many watchmakers as they conceive of their designs. It is only fair that we acknowledge his role in that process.

Comments

  1. Fascinating what you've uncovered here. Hats off to you.

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