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In the final months of the First World War, just as citizens and militaries were beginning to understand the power of air travel, U.S. Army pilots began delivering mail by plane.
Using pioneering aircraft, including Curtiss JN-4 Jenny biplanes, the pilots plotted courses between Philadelphia, New York City and Washington, D.C., and laid the foundations of a national airmail service that endures to this day.
Airmail became a civilian responsibility in the summer of 1918, transferred to a postal service department that used a Curtiss R-4 aircraft for its first flight.
But a little-known partner in those early days was Hamilton, a watch-making company that made its name with railroad timepieces and served as the official timekeeper of early airmail flights.
“Aviation also needs precision, which is why Hamilton started timing the skies in 1918,” said Sylvain Dolla, the current president of Hamilton Watches.
“Perhaps the idea was not as much about preventing collisions and accidents and more about precise timing and navigation, as you can use the watch to calculate your route and your position.”
In the early days of aviation, wristwatches were needed for navigation, calculating fuel consumption or air speed, and timekeeping, he said.
And today, even more functions are available, such as calculating drift angles and monitoring a second time zone.
“Timekeeping in aviation today has been replaced by electronics,” said Dolla.
“However, pilots still cherish their watches because if electronics fail then a good watch will always be useful and will guide you, like in the old days.”
The Hamilton brand quickly became intertwined with aviation, serving as the official watch of the first four major airlines in the U.S. and the official timekeeper for the first non-stop coast-to-coast service from New York to San Francisco.
“After being established as the watch of railroad accuracy, Hamilton was perceived as strongly precise and accurate, which definitely helped when transport moved from rail to air,” said Dolla.
“It was only logical for Hamilton to be ideally suited to aviation.”
Hamilton developed and maintained partnerships with military squadrons, air rescue services, demonstration teams and aerobatic pilots around the world.
The company has also been the official timekeeper of Red Bull air races since 2017, timing each pilot as they zip between inflated pylons in high-speed laps where fractions of a second count.
Pete McLeod, an elite Red Bull air racer from Red Lake, Ont., is one of four Hamilton ambassadors on the circuit, testing the company’s watches to their limits.
“Pilots inspire us for our watch designs, but they also set the bar high and are a very demanding clientele, meaning we need to provide high quality watches to meet their needs,” said Dolla.
“It is our continued close collaboration with pilots that has helped keep Hamilton at the cutting edge of aviation innovation in watches.”
While watches are less prominent in a time when most people have clocks on their cell phones and computers, Dolla believes they still matter.
“Watches still matter because people like to have an emotional tie,” he said. “Consumer electronics cannot provide this and get obsolete very fast. A watch is forever and can be linked to many strong memories.”
As Hamilton celebrates its 100th anniversary of timing the skies, it plans to continue building on the foundation of those first U.S. airmail flights.
“Aviation is constantly evolving and has changed so much in the last 100 years–for example, with the latest test of electric flying,” said Dolla.
“We work closely with our partners to define what is the next step and the next functionality they would need on their watch. We like to constantly innovate and keep the pioneering spirit alive.”