Breitling Navitimer: The First Smart Watch
Written by Anthony Tyme on December 16, 2018
Speedmaster, Cosmograph Daytona, El Primero, Monaco: most watch aficionados can likely rattle of a similar list of iconic sports chronographs, but what if you were to ask them about the first “Smart Watch”? I can guarantee you that practically no one would mention the name Navitimer.
(L-R) Ref. 806 first-generation Navitimer, Ref. 809 Cosmonaute, Ref. 7806 Navitimer, 50-piece limited edition Navitimer Aerospace Royal Airforce Quartz
In the early 20th century, Breitling was a pioneer of the chronograph complication, giving the world the first chronograph with a mono-pusher at 2:00 in 1915, followed by a chronograph with the classic dual-pushers (at 2:00 and 4:00) in 1933. Willy Breitling (grandson of Breitling SA founder Leon Breitling) wanted to create a chronograph for scientists, engineers and mathematicians, so in 1940, in the midst of the Second World War, Breitling applied for a patent (patent no. 217012) for the design of a rotating watch bezel with an outer slide rule scale incorporated beneath the crystal. Enter the 1941 Chronomat Ref. 769 and Ref. 786: the Chronograph for Mathematicians, which had a logarithmic slide rule incorporated in its internal rotating bezel, allowing complex calculations to be made with the turn of your fingers instead of taps as is common today.
In 1952, 10 years after commercial sales of the Chronomat began, Breitling adopted the technology of the Chronomat specifically to the needs of pilots. The Navigation Timer, the Navitimer, was born. The first Navitimers were adorned with the double-wing logo of the “Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association” (AOPA) and by 1960, a real cooperation with the AOPA began. The first-generation Navitimer Ref. 806 came featured Arabic numerals and a black dial and subdials, and were outfitted with the manual-wind Venus Cal. 178. This was a legendary high-grade 17-jewel, tri-compax layout chronograph caliber with a 38-hour power reserve and a 18,000 vph beat rate. What makes it special is its column wheel function selector – the crenellated column wheel remains to this day more difficult to manufacture and is the traditional technology used in chronograph calibers. It also produces a far crisper and more satisfying engagement action than the cam-actuated technology that many brands later switched to (as a means of reducing costs and creating a more durable caliber).
In 1959, naval officer, astronaut, and test pilot Scott Carpenter wanted a version of the Navitimer dialed and geared to read 24 hours – the Cosmonaute. In 1962, he took part in the second manned American orbital flight in history, orbiting the Earth three times wearing his Breitling Navitimer Cosmonaute 809. The 24-hour display was necessary to help him keep track of the true passage of time.
The above picture shows three distinct Cosmonaute references: Ref. 809, 806, and the whopping 47.5mm 819 from 1968. All three feature three subdials and a 24-hour dial. The Ref. 806 and 819 feature the Venus Cal. 178 column-wheel actuated chronograph caliber; the Ref. 809 shown above is a rare example that has been outfitted with a Breitling-branded Valjoux Cal. 7736 cam-actuated chronograph caliber.
In another example of an uncommon Navitimer reference, we have the Ref. 7806 (pictures below). So what makes the 1970s Ref. 7806 Navitimer so special? As opposed to most other early Navitimer references, the Ref. 7806 has the distinction of being outfitted with the seldom-seen Valjoux 7740, a manual-wind caliber that is essentially a Breitling / Hamilton / Heuer Cal. 11/12 without the rotor assembly. The 7740 doesn’t only modify the movement by adding a sub-seconds register, it replaces the entire base movement under the chronograph module, using a faster beat (28,800 vph) manual movement equipped with sub-seconds at 6 to drive the normal Cal 11/12 module. The 41mm case is complemented by handsome red accents and a date window unobtrusively positioned at 4:30. It also features a date function.
After 1968, Breitling released the third generation of the Navitimer line, the Navitimer Ref. 816 and 1806. Some like to call these first types “Big Case” Navitimers due to their stunning angular case in 48mm. These two references have been endearingly nicknamed the “fried egg” and remain true show-stoppers thanks to their classic bi-compax chronograph layout, date window at 6, and orange accents in combinaton with a bold and angular 47mm case. The movement, Breitling Cal. 12, is based on the micro-rotor Buren 1282 (for a history of the microrotor, read our blog on the Universal Genève Polerouter), which was not designed to house a chronograph mechanism. Due to the unusual movement architecture, the Ref. 1806 features its crown at 9:00. Many of these watches were issued to servicemen of the Iraqi Airforce, with examples having insignias etched onto the caseback and wings on the dial (see below).
Breitling does not get sufficient credit for its contributions to horology. The Navitimer was more than a timepiece, it was a survival tool in the analog world in which it was born, as pilots relied on it to gauge groundspeed, rate of ascent, fuel consumption, and more. Both model lines are still part of the modern Breitling collection, with the Chronomat being one of the best-selling models for the company. The market for vintage Navitimers is still a value proposition and you can own an icon of the manufacture and a piece of chronograph history for between €3,000 and €5,000!
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