A Brief Look at Horological History and The Time Zone Problem

January 16, 2024
Garrett Behringer

Horology as we know it today is embedded in a history of engineering, competition, and prestige.

Watchmaking advances have been the foundations on which the current titans of industry stand. This illustrious history can be said to begin with the first chronometer made by John Harris in 1735, later elevated by Breguet's keyless winding system for pocket watches in 1830.

Companies like Vacheron Constantin, Patek Phillipe, and Audemars Piguet (sometimes known as the ‘holy trinity’) have been around for so long that their pieces are considered royalty—a status given by the sheer weight of their longevity in the horological world.

Improvements to escapements, automatic winding rotors, minute repeater complications (a complication that sounds out in chimes what the current time is), chronographs, date wheels, and displays; all of these paved the road of horology. The time and detail it would take to outline and credit all of these technologies would require books, not blog posts. However, we can wash the canvas with a few milestones in timekeeping before we talk about the Time Zone Problem.

Utility and prestige are longstanding tenets in watchmaking. The first modern wristwatch was made in 1904 by Louis Cartier for Alberto Santos-Dumont, a friend and pilot, who wished to tell the time in flight without having to use a clumsy pocket watch. Cartier, already a jeweler of prestige, was able to further cement his place in history with the creation of this wristwatch for his friend, which was called the Cartier Santos Dumont. Women's wristwatches had started being produced before this, but history regards the Santos as being the first mass-produced men's wristwatch.

Cartier Santos from circa early 20th century (Image from quillandpad.com)

The more contemporary examples of historical watchmaking feats have come in the last hundred or so years. Omega famously produced and still produces the Speedmaster, the first watch approved by NASA for mission use. Buzz Aldrin brought his Speedmaster onto the lunar surface in 1969. The astronauts of the almost tragic Apollo 13 used a Speedmaster to time a crucial thrust burn, depending on the accuracy of a mechanical wristwatch to save their lives.

Left: Omega Speedmaster, Right: Buzz Aldrin wearing Speedmaster aboard Apollo 11 (Image from Swisswatchexpo.com)

At the end of 1969, Seiko introduced the worlds first quartz wristwatch with the Astron, kicking off the famed Quartz Crisis in the watchmaking world and making the Japanese manufacturer a household name. Casio introduced the iconic G-Shock in 1983, a tough-as-nails quartz wrist watch that fully embraced the new digital territory.

In 1926, Rolex created the first water resistant watch called the Oyster. It featured a much more watertight case and crown than any other watch of the time, giving the wrist watch a major boost in utility. Rolex also created the first GMT complication with the GMT-Master in 1954, adding a fourth hand that rotated only once around the dial every 24 hours which allowed the tracking of a second time zone using the numerals on the adjustable bezel of the watch. This was useful for pilots and avid travelers who could now track two time zones on one watch.

This is the complication that brings us to today; to Ardra Labs and the Time Zone Problem.

In our first Story, we talked about the creation of time zones. After the Meridian Conference in Washington D.C. in 1884, worldwide application and adoption swiftly followed.

At their inception, the application of time zones was most useful for railways and sea travel. Cargo trains could create timetables with more accurate departure/arrival times, scheduling could be calculated more reliably and estimates became better and better. Supply chains across all countries became more efficient as time zone adoption became standard.

Calculating time based on a meridian became the norm. Major cities could even have their own time zones, and for some, that practice influenced the time zone of the whole country. Notably, the word-timer complication uses city names—not country names—to showcase the 24 different time zones it can switch to.

However, there are more than 24 time-zones in the world. If you include Daylight Savings Time-zones (DST) as unique, there are a total of 38 currently active time-zones. In relation to mechanical horology, this is what we call the Time Zone Problem.

There are 11 total time-zones that the current GMT complication cannot address, split across 10 countries:

- 09:30 — French Polynesia (Marquesas Islands)

- 03:30 — Canada (Newfoundland, Labrador)

+ 03:30 — Iran

+ 04:30 — Afghanistan

+ 05:30 — India, Sri Lanka

+ 05:45 — Nepal

+ 06:30 — Myanmar, Australia (Cocos Islands territory)

+ 08:45 — Australia  (Central Western time zone)

+ 09:30 — Australia (Northern Territory and Southern Australia)

+ 10:30 — Australia (Lord Howe Island)

+ 12:45 — New Zealand (Chatham Islands)

The standard 24 (-12:00 to +12:00), plus these 11 brings us to 35, and the three time-zones left to get our total of 38 are +13:00, +14:00, and 00:00 itself.

The GMT complication has existed since 1954, yet no iteration of it has been able to address this problem. Until now.