Watches for Engineers and Scientists: A Brief History in Six Iconic Timepieces
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Watches for Engineers and Scientists: A Brief History in Six Iconic Timepieces

Looking at the watch market as it exists today, one will notice that the most popular styles, even on the luxury end, have their roots in “tool watches” aimed at a particular audience of users: professional and recreational divers, pilots and aviation hobbyists, competitive racing drivers and motorsport enthusiasts, military operators and outdoorsy weekend warriors. Nearly all of these styles trace their origins back to the early to mid-20th Century — an era in which, around the same time, many watchmakers were developing another style of tool watch, one that we really don’t see as much anymore because so many of its elements have been absorbed into the mainstream, incorporated into sport watches and dress watches alike: a watch targeting engineers and scientists who plied their trade around magnetic fields. Here are six of the most important watches from this now-rare genre and a bit of historical information about what each of them contributed. 

1930: Tissot Antimagnetique

The need for a watch that could withstand the ill effects of magnetic fields was felt as early as the 1920s, when the use of electricity in homes as well as businesses became more widespread. One of the first watchmakers to respond was Tissot, founded in 1850 in the Swiss town of Le Locle. In 1930, Tissot released to the market the aptly named Antimagnetique, the first wristwatch with a magnetism-resistant movement. Tissot accomplished this feat by using the non-magnetic metal palladium for vital movement parts like the balance wheel, balance spring, and lever shift. Tissot made various versions of the Antimagnetique over the years, with cases in steel, chrome, or gold, measuring as small as 32mm up to 40mm and larger, including some models in rectangular Art Deco-influenced cases. 

In the modern era, Tissot paid tribute to the original Antimagnetique with a Heritage Collection limited edition from 2018 (above), with a 42mm steel case and a manually wound ETA 6498-1 movement; though it still has “Antimagnetique” in its name, the vintage-style watch is notable not for its magnetic resistance (which falls within reasonable but not outstanding modern norms), but for its retro charm.

1941: Breitling Chronomat

Breitling, a Swiss watchmaker founded in 1884 in Saint-Imier and now based in Grenchen, is today best known for its historical role in aviation, but one of its oldest watch models, and its signature innovation, was originally built with scientists in mind. The original Breitling Chronomat, released in 1941, was the first timepiece equipped with a logarithmic scale on its rotating bezel that could be used by the wearer to make vital calculations and conversions. The watch’s name came from a portmanteau of “Chronographe” and “Mathématique” and its bicompax dial featured tachymeter, pulsometer and telemeter scales accompanying the slide-rule bezel for additional calculations; it contained the Swiss-made, manually wound Venus Caliber 175. Based on the E6B slide rule devised by mathematician Robert Marcel — which enabled users to convert between standard miles, kilometers, and nautical miles — the multifunctional scale could also be used by pilots, in conjunction with the watch’s chronograph function, to determine factors such as fuel consumption, distance traveled, and climb and descent rates. Thus began the long association of the Chronomat, and its successor, the Navitimer, which adopted the slide rule bezel as its signature feature, with airplane cockpits rather than laboratories and research stations.

1955: IWC Ingenieur

By the 1950s, everyday technology had advanced to a degree that many of the era’s professionals in scientific fields, like engineers, technicians, and even doctors, were exposed to strong magnetic fields on a regular basis, often daily. Magnetic fields, of course, are the arch-enemy of a watch’s ability to run reliably and accurately, as they can adversely affect the tiny metal parts in a traditional mechanical movement like the wheels, gears, and hairspring. Schaffhausen-based International Watch Company (IWC) was the first to tackle the challenge with the original Ingenieur in 1955, a watch whose name literally means “Engineer” in French. The first IWC Ingenieur, Ref. 666 (above, via Sotheby's), and its successor, Ref. 886, launched in 1967, used an antimagnetic “Faraday cage” that shielded the movement from magnetic fields to 1,000 Gauss — a technology that IWC had actually been using in some form since the 1940s in the pilots’ watches it supplied to military units. Both served their function well enough but were unremarkable from a design standpoint. 

So, in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, IWC was already on a quest to produce a newer, bolder version of the Ingenieur that would be even more robust with a built-in shock protection system. After several underwhelming attempts, the brand reached out to legendary watch designer Gérald Genta (above), creator of the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak and Patek Philippe Nautilus. Genta’s design gave birth to the now-famous and very collectible Ingenieur SL Ref. 1832 in 1976, housing the automatic Caliber 8541, a watch that resisted magnetism to an astounding-for-the-time 80,000 A/m of magnetism. The Ingenieur was defined by its screw-on bezel with visible screws and its integrated H-link bracelet. It was also very expensive for a steel watch, and by the early 1980s the Quartz Crisis had sent the Ingenieur into relative dormancy as it had many other mechanical Swiss watches. 

In the 1990s and 2000s IWC resurrected and redesigned the Ingenieur in several versions, and the model became associated with the partnership between the Swiss maison and the Mercedes AMG Racing team. Its most recent update (above) came in 2023, when IWC reworked the Ingenieur to pay homage to Genta’s classic design, with a new emphasis on ergonomics and a thoroughly modern and high-tech movement. The round bezel sports the five visible, functional polygonal screws that defined the ‘70s original, while the soft-iron dial features an attractive, grid-like textured pattern, a structural design that balances the smooth curves of the case. The dial’s grid is made up of small lines offset by 90 degrees to each other, and is stamped into the soft iron blank before it is galvanized. The hour markers and hands are luminescent and add additional depth and legibility to the watch’s face. Inside each case, behind a period-appropriate solid steel caseback to ensure its protection from magnetic fields, is IWC’s in-house Caliber 3211, an automatic movement with a hacking seconds function and an improved barrel construction that enables a lengthy power reserve of 120 hours, or five days.

1956: Rolex Milgauss

In 1956, one year after the first IWC Ingenieur, Rolex — which had already created iconic tool watches like the Submariner and GMT-Master in response to the needs of a dynamic market —  took on the challenge of making a watch that could be counted on in high-magnetism situations. As with the previously mentioned models, Rolex’s Milgauss quickly became a leader in the category and an enduring icon even as the heyday of such watches faded away. Taking its name from a contraction of the phrase “mille gauss” — — mille being “1,000” in French, gauss being the international unit of measure for magnetic field strength, named for German physicist Carl Gauss — the Rolex Milgauss (vintage model pictured above) used its own miniature “Faraday Cage” made of ferromagnetic material to protect the movement inside the case.

As was the case with the Submariner and the GMT-Master, Rolex worked with the Milgauss’ intended users in its development process, namely scientists at Switzerland’s European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN, above), who helped popularize the watch during the Atomic Age. The original Milgauss (Ref. 6451, above) resembled the Submariner but was distinguished by its honeycomb-pattern dial and lightning-bolt seconds hand, a nod to its toughness in the face of electromagnetism. The Rolex Milgauss proved to be much more popular than IWC’s Ingenieur despite boasting the same magnetic resistance, probably because unlike its predecessor it never strayed too far from its original design. Nevertheless, the model was never as big a hit as the Submariner, GMT-Master or Daytona, so Rolex discontinued the Milgauss in 1988.

The Milgauss made a triumphant albeit relatively brief return starting in 2007, keyed to an era in which we are all more surrounded by magnetic fields than ever before, from microwave ovens, laptop computers, cell phones, and numerous other electronic devices. The modern Milgauss (above) included an orange seconds hand, whose lightning-bolt shape calls to mind the original model and its retro-futuristic design. The case was in Rolex’s surgical-grade “OysterSteel”  and the movement, Caliber 3131, resisted magnetism even more than its predecessor, not only guarded by the ferromagnetic inner case but also equipped with components made from antimagnetic materials, like the patented blue Parachrom hairspring and nickel-phosphorus-alloy escape wheel. Once again, however, the Milgauss captured only a small niche audience compared to its more famous and coveted siblings, and Rolex discontinued the model again in 2023.

1957: Omega Railmaster

Rolex’s biggest competitor in the Swiss luxury watch arena, Omega, was due to make its own contribution to the field of antimagnetic engineer watches in 1957, one year after the market debut of the Milgauss and two years after the launch of the Ingenieur. The year was, in fact, a historically significant one for Omega, thanks to the launch of three specially designed “Master” tool watches — all of which owed some stylistic debt to the original Omega Seamaster gents’ watch of 1948, and two of which became famous and quite collectible. One of these was the Speedmaster, a chronograph for timing motorsports that would eventually become much more renowned as the first watch worn on the moon. The second was the Seamaster 300, the first “Professional” Seamaster dive watch, which boasted a water resistance to 200 meters (Omega was confident it could 300 meters, hence the name) and embraced the era’s growing masses of recreational divers. The third, nearly forgotten model was the Railmaster, a watch aimed at scientists and technicians whose technical hallmark was its extreme magnetic resistance.

When Omega resurrected the Railmaster, as part of the contemporary Seamaster collection in its 60th anniversary year of 2017, the magnetic resistance had been bumped up to 15,000 Gauss, owing not to the case structure but by the non-magnetic components of its movement, Master Chronometer Caliber 8806. The Seamaster version of the Railmaster — which debuted in an even sportier “denim” version, with a blue-jeans-inspired dial and NATO strap (above) in 2018 — remains as a niche product in the Omega portfolio today. Its large triangular hour markers are surrounded by an on-theme railway minute track and accompanied by Arabic numerals at 3, 6, 9, and 12. The luminous hour and minute hands and contrasting orange seconds hand sweep over the vertically brushed dial with its retro “crosshairs motif.” Master Chronometer movements, which all include a 15,000 Gauss magnetic resistance, populate many of Omega’s watches today, so the Railmaster is no longer special in that regard, but its vintage-inspired look will appeal to many. 

1958: Jaeger-LeCoultre Geophysic

Another Swiss watchmaking house threw its hat in the antimagnetic ring in 1958, which was designated as the “International Geophysical Year.” In the midst of the Cold War era, it was the year that 67 world nations from the East and West agreed to collaborate on a series of scientific explorations designed to research and uncover the planet’s unexplored regions. Le Sentier-based Jaeger-LeCoultre, which was founded in 1833 and already famous for giving the world the Reverso in 1931, designed a watch that would be suited as a companion on these expeditions, many of which took researchers to harsh, forbidding climates and terrains. The original Geophysic watch contained the extra-robust Caliber 478BWSbr, which incorporated utilitarian details like a stop-seconds function, a shock-absorbent Glucydur balance designed for stability through extreme temperature changes; and a swan’s neck index for adjustments. Since it was intended to be worn in environments with strong electromagnetic fields, the Geophysic also had a soft-iron inner case around the movement. 

In August 1958, the Jaeger-LeCoultre Geophysic was worn by crew members on the U.S.S. Nautilus, the first-ever atomic submersible vessel, on its record-setting expedition to the North Pole on August 1, 1958 (above) — the first underwater transit from one ocean to another through the Arctic ice sheet, and the international event that put the model on the radar of watch collectors. The Geophysic, like the Railmaster, never did catch on as one of Jaeger-LeCoultre’s main pillars — only about 1,000 pieces of the original watch were ever made, making them quite collectible now — but it did make a return in 2014, first as a tribute edition, then as a product family. The former was the most period-appropriate, with a few modifications: it was slightly larger in diameter than the 1958 watch (38.5 mm) and was equipped with an automatic movement, Jaeger-LeCoultre’s manufacture Caliber 898/1, rather than a manually wound one. Its understated grained white dial, with dagger-shaped hands, echoed its predecessor, with a ring of applied hour markers and applied numerals at 3, 6, 9, and 12 o’clock. The solid solid caseback was embellished with the JLC logo, superimposed on a globe with latitude and longitude lines — a fitting tribute to the model’s world-traveling origins, and a visual reminder of a bygone era, when the scientific community was briefly one of the watch world’s most preferred demographics and when antimagnetic watches were the exception rather than the rule. 

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