A time for pioneers
Hans Wilsdorf’s philosophy was to prove his ideas by testing them. In 1927, Mercedes Gleitze’s swim across the English Channel was the test by water, the most convincing of all waterproofness checks undergone by the Oyster. For the test by air, it was worn by Captain Charles Douglas Barnard, who declared: “The peculiar qualities of this Rolex watch render it eminently suitable for flying purposes and I propose to use it on all my long-distance flights in the future.”
Barnard went on to set many records for long-distance flights, notably in 1930, when he flew 14,484 kilometres (9,000 miles) in 100 hours, between England and Cape Town in South Africa.
The first flight over Mount Everest in 1933 was another – extreme – test for the Oyster. The Houston expedition made history, as the aviators were the first to see, and to photograph, the roof of the world from the skies.
Two Westland Wallace biplanes were chosen for the expedition. Lord Clydesdale headed the operation and was joined in his aircraft by Lieutenant-Colonel Stewart Blacker, one of the organizers equipped with Rolex Oyster watches that had been launched seven years earlier.
The planes flew over the summit twice. The first trip took place on 3 April 1933 in appalling conditions. At an altitude of over 9,000 metres (29,528 feet), the pilots fought to control the aircraft in the thin air, at -40° Celsius (-40° Fahrenheit).
The first expedition was unable to obtain clear photographs due to cloudy conditions, but the second, in clear skies on 19 April, was a success, with Blacker able to photograph the mountain. In a letter to Rolex, his words spoke for themselves: “I can hardly imagine that any watches have ever been subjected before to such extremes.”
The team members received a hero’s welcome on their return to England. For strategic purposes, the photographs taken on 19 April 1933 remained a secret, stored in the archives of the Royal Geographical Society, until 1951. Two years later, they played a key role in the strategy adopted by Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay as they became the first to summit Everest.
A time for breaking records
For aviation, the 1930s brought great success. British pilots set numerous speed records flying from England to the far corners of the Empire, and some of the nation’s air race champions began wearing the Oyster.
In 1934, on board a De Havilland Comet, Owen Cathcart-Jones and Ken Waller landed in Melbourne after having overcome all manner of difficulties on their demanding five-day flight. Disappointed to have finished fourth, the pilots decided to make their return journey almost immediately, and in doing so set a new record: 37,000 kilometres (23,000 miles) in less than 13 days. Cathcart-Jones and Waller transformed a setback into an unrivalled display of endurance that opened the door to commercial flight.
On returning to England, Cathcart-Jones recounted: “Synchronized at Mildenhall prior to the start of the race, [my watch] remained without adjustment during my absence from England. On my return I found that despite extreme climatic variations my Rolex was still registering accurate GMT.”
Some of the most talented British pilots made history during this era that was so rich in achievement with many records being set. Arthur Clouston and Anthony Ricketts travelled the 45,000-kilometre (28,000-mile) return journey between England and New Zealand – an exploit that broke 11 records.
The golden age
The GMT-Master was launched in 1955, during the golden age of commercial aviation. Society’s relationship with time and travel was evolving, with transatlantic flights enabling voyagers to cross the ocean without needing a stopover. Designed especially for airline pilots, the GMT-Master rapidly became the watch of choice for aviators and world travellers alike.
Four years after its launch, the GMT-Master played a starring role in an event that secured its reputation as a watch that connected people: the first non-stop Pan Am flight from New York to Moscow.
Scott Crossfield – the first test pilot to fly in excess of Mach 2, in 1951 – took part in the X-15 programme. An ambitious project, it began in 1956 and aimed to develop new-generation, more powerful engines that paved the way for the propulsion of the first space rockets. During testing, Crossfield made 14 test flights. In October 1962, he wrote to Rolex declaring his watch to have worked perfectly in temperatures ranging from –54 °C (–65 °F) to 75 °C (170 °F), as well as at altitudes of 76,000 metres (249,000 feet) simulated in a hyperbaric chamber and 28,000 metres (92,000 feet) in real flight conditions.
One of the programme’s test pilots went on to be known as the fastest man of all time by commentators of the era. On 3 October 1967, in the rocketpowered X-15, US Air Force lieutenant and engineer William J. Knight set the highest speed ever recorded, which is unequalled to this day: 7,274 kilometres (4,520 miles) per hour – Mach 6.7. On his wrist was a GMT-Master.
Going further, for longer
Since the origins of aviation, humankind has always wanted to go faster, higher. But for some visionaries, there was another quest: one to go further, for longer. Sheila Scott was one of those people. In 1966, she became the first British woman to complete a solo round-the-world flight in a single-engine plane. She and her tiny aircraft returned having covered 50,000 kilometres (31,000 miles), flying 189 hours in 33 days. Scott was wearing a GMT-Master. She also set more than 100 long-distance solo flight records, one of which was for the longest non-stop flight – from London to Cape Town and back without landing.
Today, the challenge is to keep the adventure of flight alive. Rolex watches are there to accompany those who endeavour to make this dream perpetual.