How World War I soldiers gave America the wristwatch

Published: 28 December 2023

By Jeff Schogol
via the Task & Purpose web site


A 1918 Elgin General Funston Trench Watch. (Photo of watch courtesy of LRF Antique Watches, background photo via U.S. Signal Corps/Library of Congress).

World War I led to a revolution in timepiece technology.

World War I is largely remembered for mud, trenches, and barbed wire, but it also marked a significant turning point in the history of timepieces.

Prior to the United States’ entry into the war, many Americans had pocket watches. But that began to change when the Yanks started heading “over there” to fight the Kaiser, said Stan Czubernat, an expert in American-made World War I watches.

“A wristwatch, aka the ‘trench watch’, was far more convenient for a soldier in the trenches,” Czubernat told Task & Purpose. “Rather than fumbling around and reaching into your pockets to pull out your pocket watch, all a soldier had to do was look at his wrist. Almost all advertising for military watches had switched over to wristwatches by the time the United States entered the war in spring of 1917.”

Czubernat is certainly an expert on this subject. He is an author whose books include “Elgin Trench Watches of the Great War” and “Waltham Trench Watches of the Great War.” He is also the founder and watchmaker for LRF Antique Watches, which restores and sells watches from World War I.

One could argue that no one watches World War I watches as watchfully as he does.

The U.S. Army began embracing wristwatches before Congress declared war on Germany in April 1917, Czubernat said. Four years earlier, the War Department issued a bulletin explaining which soldiers would be issued wristwatches, such as corporals, sergeants, and scouts in battalion headquarters detachments.

“These were the highly educated men that were in charge of making sure that everything was officially tested and approved for military usage,” Czubernat said.

The U.S. Army Signal Corps Engineering & Research Division, led by then Army Lt. Col. Joseph Mauborgne, would set the standard for Army wristwatches, Czubernat said.

As the Army’s “technology” department, the Signal Corps oversaw testing timepieces and purchasing wristwatches for soldiers, Czubernat said. Those wristwatch models that passed the necessary tests would then be distributed by the U.S. Army Quartermaster Corps.

Czubernat’s research indicates that the Army announced the standards for all purchased wristwatches as early as October 1916. The wristwatch specifications would change two or three more times in the following two years as technology improved.

Read the entire article on the Task & Purpose web site here:

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