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Dr. Dietz' Watches

Dr. Robert S. Dietz was "one of the most irritating as well as influential geologists of the 20th century," at least according to a 1998 piece published in The Geological Society of America Memorials.
Robert Dietz scuba diving in Japan, 1953. Source: UCSD archives.
The same piece notes that, "a mountain in Antarctica, a tablemount on the Pacific Ocean floor, and an asteroid somewhere in orbit between Mars and Jupiter," were all named in his honor. This is the story of a period of time in Dietz' life and the watches he owned during that time.

I first encountered Deitz' story when I read a piece by Jose "Perezcope" on the Rolex Deep Sea Special series of watches.
The commemorative edition of the Rolex Deep Sea Special.
Two examples of this watch are on the auction block this month. They have garnered a fair bit of media coverage. Jose's work is required reading for anyone wishing to learn about the "fog of history" which descended upon these watches across decades. Engineers designed the Deep Sea Special to withstand crushing pressure in the greatest depths of our oceans. However, not all of them actually travelled to that depth and experienced that pressure. Jose tries to sort out which watch may have done so.

There is litte disputing that at least one Rolex Deep Sea Special was strapped to a specialized submarine called a bathyscaphe and accompanied it to the bottom of the Marianas Trench in the Pacific (located roughly 330km or 205 miles southwest of Guam).
The Trieste bathyscaphe in 1959. It flew both American and Swiss flags in acknowledgement of the nationalities of the crew. Source: US Navy.
It survived the pressure of the dive. I was a bit swept up by Jose's research and found myself reviewing photographs from the 1950s and 60s of the Trieste, the record-setting submarine in question. I'd hoped to spot the watch attached to the submarine in one of the photos. That didn't happen. Instead, I found myself reviewing digital archival photos from the University of California at San Diego. These photos were scanned from the papers of Dr. Robert Dietz. Jose noted that Dietz was:

an oceanographer working for the United States Navy’s Office of Naval Research (ONR) who expressed great interest in the bathyscaphe. After personally inspecting the Trieste at Castellammare a few weeks later, Dietz began promoting the submersible in U.S. Navy circles.

The historical record shows that the U. S. Navy subsequently purchased the Trieste for $200,000, or $1.9 million in today's dollars. Dietz was then instrumental in the development of Project Nekton, during which Trieste plumbed the depths of the Mariannas Trench. It was a team effort, and much attention deservedly goes to those brave souls aboard the Trieste when it made the record-setting descent. Dietz was the "man with the plan," though. Behind the scenes, he made the magic happen.

As I continued to read about Dietz, I became more and more interested in his life. He was born in Westfield, New Jersey in 1941, a town roughly eleven miles west northwest of New York's Staten Island.
Dietz in California, circa 1939 Source: UCSD.
After graduating from high school he relocated to Illinois. By 1941 he had earned a PhD in the field of geology from the University of Illinois. A fair bit of his dissertation research was conducted at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego, California. A picture from this period shows him sitting on the roof of an early model Chevy with a license plate registered for 1938. He is not wearing a watch in this picture, a point I'll come back to later.

Many years later, one of Dietz' colleagues would describe him as "impetuous." He shared the following story:
There was a case in which Dietz had found an ancient fossil, I think the story was, was driving home with it, was stopped by the policeman for wild driving or too-fast driving or something of the sort, was so excited about this find that he had made that the policeman said, `Go on home.'... [Dietz] was one of the very good Scripps people.
The photo of Dietz and the Chevy may commemorate this event or it may simply show his early love for cars.

In his junior year at Illinois, Dietz joined ROTC and began his military career.
Dietz during his military service, 1943. Source: UCSD.
During World War II he served as a pilot with the Army Air Corps, ultimately achieving the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. He flew the North American B-25 Mitchell.

It is after the end of World War II that the first clear picture of one of Dietz' watches is available.
Dietz (right) with Dr. Revelle (left), 1951. Source: UCSD.
In 1951 he sat at a table with Dr. Roger Revelle, an oceanographer who pioneered the study of climate change. Revelle and Dietz were co-Chief scientists of Scripps' MidPac expedition in 1950. In front of them was a "lithified globigerina ooze dredged from western Pacific." This artifact, and other evidence from the expedition, significantly changed our understanding of the ocean floor.

Peaking out from Dietz' shirt cuff is a somewhat nondescript timepiece.
Detail of 1951 picture featuring Dietz and Revelle. Source: UCSD.
It has arabic hour markers and a black dial. Based upon this picture, alone, it would be almost impossible to identify the watch. A picture from two years later helps us solve the mystery.

By then, Dietz was on another expedition, this one named TransPac. It was the first U. S. oceanographic visit to Japan after World War 2. In the picture, Dietz holds a video camera, presumably one he used while in Japan.
Dietz holding a camera in Japan, 1953. Source: UCSD.
Several additional wristwatch details are now clear from this picture. Dietz was still wearing the same watch. The dial color and arabic markers match. Markings on the rehaut at 12, 2, 4, 6, 8 and 10 are the giveaway. Dietz wore a Type A-11 Navigation (Hack) watch.
Left, detail from the 1953 picture of Dietz holding a camera. Right: photo from War Department publication AN 05-35A-8, Handbook of Instructions with Parts Catalog for Navigation (Hack) Watch, 10 April 1945 Source: UCSD and ialreadyhaveawatch.com.
This was a milspec watch reference manufactured by three brands, principally: Elgin, Waltham, and Bulova. Dietz' dial configuration most closely matches the Waltham design.

The fact that Dietz did not wear a watch in the earlier picture but was now wearing this particular watch suggests that Dietz likely aquired the timepiece while flying for the Army Air Corps. It was widely used by the military during World War 2. It is a very practical and robust watch. They are hand wound measuring in at 32mm with a hacking feature which allows the owner to stop the seconds hand in its place.

By 1961, roughly eight years later, Dietz had changed his "daily wearer." In a photo from the 10th Pacific Science Conference in Hawaii, Dietz samples poi (a Polynesian tarot paste made from the root of the taro plant).
Dietz wearing a Rolex GMT-Master in Hawaii, 1961. Inset detail of the watch. Source: UCSD
On his left wrist is a Rolex Oyster Perpetual GMT-Master. The picture suggests the watch does not have crown guards, indicating that is the progenitor reference 6542. This same watch design was also worn by Fidel Castro and the James Bond film character "Pussy Galore." Subsequent pictures suggest Dietz wore this watch on a regular basis, in environments ranging from scuba dives to office work (additional photos follow after the concluding paragraph).

The GMT-Master was a good choice for Dietz. It would help him keep track of the date, which might have been challenging given his extensive travel. Even more challenging was keeping track of time in multiple locations. During his Pacific expeditions, he would undoubtedly want to keep track of local time as well as time back in San Diego at the Scripps Institute. The GMT-Master is perfect for such needs.

A picture from the 1970s suggests that Dietz owned yet a third watch during his ocean adventures.
Dietz in a 15 foot submersible, 1970s. Source: UCSD
In the photo, he protrudes from the sail of a 15 foot submersible called the Nekton Beta (the UCSD archives misdate this photo at 1960, the records of the Nekton Beta manufacturer indicate the sub was not active until the 1970s).
Detail of photo of Dietz in a 15 foot submersible, 1970s. Source: UCSD
The cyclops and arabic markers on the bezle suggests that this, too, is a GMT-Master. However, it is on a jubilee bracelet. It is possible that Dietz had simply swapped the bracelet on his existing watch. An alternative possibility, though, is that he acquired a GMT-Master reference 1675, which was the first Rolex sports model to offer the jubilee bracelet.

Dietz' life exhibited a fascinating parrallel with the life of Auguste Piccard, the Trieste's creator. In his early years, Piccard designed a balloon which broke the existing flight altitude record. Subsequently, his submersible set another record, this one for "downward" travel. Dietz also explored heights and depth, both in his career as a military pilot and during his work as an oceanographer. One thing is clear: as Dietz progressed through his life of adventure and accomplishment, his timepieces quietly testified to the unique challenges he surmounted throughout his career.
Dietz and a fellow diver in an undated photo. Source: UCSD


Detail from Dietz diving photo. Source: UCSD


Dietz drinking from a coconut at Ceylon, 1964. Source: UCSD


Detail of Dietz drinking from a coconut, 1964. Source: UCSD


Dietz headshot. Source: UCSD


Detail from Dietz headshot. Source: UCSD

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