1919 Waltham Depollier Field & Marine “THERMO” the first waterproof watch has finally been found.
by Stan Czubernat, Author of “Waltham Trench Watches of the Great War”
For the past 15 years I have been trying to document and catalog every American made trench watch produced during the Great War era. It’s not very often that I get to draw a line through a name on the very short list of watches that still remain missing from the historical record.
In early January of 2022 I was finally able draw a line through the name 1919 Waltham Depollier “THERMO” Waterproof Watch on that list. It has finally been found!
Many military watch collectors are familiar with the Waltham Depollier “Field & Marine” Waterproof Watch, made of nickel and had a black jappaned case finish. But, Depollier also made a HIGH END version named the Waltham Depollier “THERMO” Waterproof Watch that was made in silver and 14k solid gold. The THERMO did not have a black case finish, it was bare metal. The THERMO has been missing from the historical record of American made wrist watches from the WWI era even though many have searched for this elusive model for many years. There are no pictures of a THERMO anywhere on the internet and no books or magazine articles have been published featuring this incredibly rare model, that is until now. One has been found and it’s the .830 silver version. It is the only “THERMO” currently known to exist in silver or 14k solid gold.
In 1915 Depollier started his quest to develop a waterproof watch case but in May of 1917 things really started to heat up when he filed a patent application for the “double clinched bezel” which is one of the patents that made his waterproof watches possible. The Depollier ateliers were also working on several different waterproof crown designs at the same time. There were no less than four waterproof crown designs being developed by four different men at Depollier. They were Mortimer Golden, Charles Dunham, James Tough and Charles Depollier himself.
In the beginning the Mortimer Golden waterproof crown design was at the forefront for the Waltham Depollier “Field & Marine” Waterproof Watch and for the Waltham Depollier “THERMO” Waterproof Watch. The Golden crown design can be seen in several very early advertisements for the “Field & Marine and for the “THERMO” in 1918 & 1919. The Golden waterproof crown was the one that was prototyped and a small batch of them were in fact made for waterproof testing.
Soon as Depollier knew this design was waterproof after testing he sort of jumped the gun and started advertising the “Field & Marine” with the Dunham crown design in “The Jeweler’s Circular Weekly” and in “The Keystone” magazines in late July of 1918. The very first advertisements for the “THERMO” did not get published until very early 1919. There are only three advertisements currently known to exist for the Waltham Depollier “THERMO” Waterproof Watch. They were all published from January of 1919 through March of 1919.
The first was published in the souvenir catalog for the “Aeronautical Exposition” that was held at Madison Square Garden from March 1st-15th 1919, this advert shows the Golden waterproof crown design. The second advert was published in the “Official Aero Blue Book and Directory 1919” but it featured the Charles Dunham waterproof crown design. The third and final advert was published in the March 17, 1919 edition of “Aerial Age Weekly”, it also featured the Dunham crown design. Pictured are the three publications that the THERMO was advertised in and the adverts in those publications. Trust me, it was NOT easy to find original copies of these advertisements!
But, there was a problem with the Charles Dunham waterproof crown design. The week that the Armistice was signed in November of 1918 that halted the bloody fighting of the Great War, Charles Depollier boarded a train from New York City to Washington D.C. to meet with high ranking members of the United States Army Signal Corps division.
The US Army Signal Corps division was in charge of purchasing all watches for all branches of the United States military. They would then distribute those purchased watches accordingly. Charles Depollier met with Lieutenant Colonel Joseph Mauborgne to discuss a contract to purchase 10,000 units of the Waltham Depollier “Field & Marine Waterproof Watch. Depollier brought 12 samples with him and left them with Lieutenant Colonel Mauborgne for independent waterproof testing and beta testing on the wrist. This is where it gets very interesting!
Lieutenant Colonel Mauborgne was a highly educated man, at one point he served as “Chief of the Signal Corps Engineering & Research Division” and as the “Commander of the Signal Corps Laboratory in the Bureau of the Standards”. In later years Lieutenant Colonel Mauborgne would become a two star Major General and Chief Signal Officer of the United States Army which is now part of the “Joint Chiefs” of the Department of Defense. He was awarded the “Distinguished Service Cross” by President Woodrow Wilson. Lieutenant Colonel Mauborgne personally did the waterproof testing on the Waltham Depollier “Field & Marine” Waterproof Watches that were submitted and he in fact said “This watch is alright, it is waterproof, we have tested it” according to Charles Depollier. If you can’t trust a man with this sort of resume and credentials who could you possibly trust? Remember the beginning of this paragraph where I said “but there was a problem”?
The waterproof testing went great but the US Army did not like the crown design itself. Major Klock and Colonel Morse had objections to the height of the Charles Dunham crown design, it was obviously too high and was digging into the back of the hand or getting caught on the uniform sleeves of the soldiers. They also said it was “ugly looking”. The US Army told Charles Depollier that he would have to change the design of the crown to make it more comfortable.
So, Depollier went back to his shop in Brooklyn and retooled the case to work with his own waterproof crown design in which a patent application had already been filed on March 18, 1918, patented on January 28, 1919. By May of 1919 the new design was ready for mass production. The Depollier patented waterproof crown design is the one that everybody knows. Pictured below is Major General Joseph Mauborgne (in 1919 he was a Lieutenant Colonel) who did the waterproof testing.
The only reason we now know any of this is because Mortimer Golden sued Charles Depollier for royalties on March 8, 1919 in United States District Court, Southern District of New York. A good friend of mine and fellow watch book author Mr. Fred Friedberg was actually able to obtain a transcript of the 1919 lawsuit sworn testimony. According to the court testimony a total of 335 original Gen #1 Depollier “Field & Marine” Waterproof Watch cases were made at Depollier’s shop but only about 20 were completely finished using the Mortimer Golden crown design. 12 of them were given the the US Army Signal Corps division for testing, 2 were sold and the rest of them were put in the scrap bin and destroyed. So, that means that only 14 of them might still exist but none have ever been found or documented.
When the US Army would not accept the Mortimer Golden waterproof crown design due to it’s discomfort on the wrist the advertisement published in the souvenir catalog for the Aeronautical Exposition held at Madison Square Garden in early March of 1919 was already obsolete. The crown had already been changed over to the Charles Dunham waterproof design for the next two Waltham Depollier “THERMO” Waterproof Watch advertisements in the “Official Aero Blue Book and Directory 1919” and in the March 17, 1919 edition of “Aerial Age Weekly”.
I surmise that Charles Depollier decided to use his own shorter height waterproof crown design to avoid any further lawsuits for royalties or delays going into mass production because the Charles Dunham waterproof crown design also had a high stance in my opinion. In the end the Waltham Depollier “Field & Marine” Waterproof Watch and the Waltham Depollier “THERMO” Waterproof Watch had the same Charles Depollier patented crown design by May of 1919.
Pictured below are the first advertisements of the Waltham Depollier “Field & Marine” Waterproof Watch and the Waltham Depollier “THERMO” Waterproof Watch, both featuring the Mortimer Golden crown design that never went into mass production.
According to Charles Depollier’s sworn court testimony that can be found on page 36 of the lawsuit transcript it was the US Army’s idea to put a heat insulating disc on the case backs of the “Field & Marine”, these discs would also be used on the “THERMO” watches. The Depollier waterproof watch insulated case backs are comprised of three components. They are a round mounting bracket that goes flush up against the outside of the case back, a round asbestos disc that is the size of a quarter but thin as a dime and then a sterling silver or 14k solid gold outer disc. This three piece unit would then be pressed into the case back mounting ring. So the final design of the Depollier waterproof watch case was a joint effort between J. Depollier & Son and the United States Army Signal Corps Division.
Contrary to popular belief all Waltham Depollier “Field & Marine” Waterproof Watches did NOT have a 14k solid gold case back disc. Only the civilian versions of this watch had the 14k yellow gold disc. The militarized versions of the Depollier “Field & Marine Waterproof Watch cases in fact had a sterling silver case back disc, not a 14k yellow gold disc. The 14k disc features the 5 patent dates that made Depollier’s waterproof watch cases possible, they also have the case serial number stamped into them.
The militarized versions are simply stamped “U.S.A” which stands for “United States Army” and then the case serial number. But, unfortunately the vast majority of these sterling silver and 14k solid gold discs were pried off of the cases over the years for the precious metal content. I have seen many of the Waltham Depollier “Field & Marine” Waterproof Watch cases over my career and I’d say that only about 20% of them still have their case back discs. The Waltham Depollier “THERMO” Waterproof Watches that were made in .830 silver and 14k solid gold cases both had 14k solid gold discs according to the advertisements. Unfortunately, the Waltham Depollier “THERMO” Waterproof Watch I’m discussing today has had the 14k solid gold disc removed over the years.
A couple of years ago I was able to find an incredibly important document, it was the “Annual Report of the Chief Signal Officer to the Secretary of War” dated June 30, 1919. On page 242 of this official US government document it reads “Wrist Watches — After examining many designs the engineers of this section finally adopted a design of a waterproof case in which a watch could actually run for several weeks under water. The bezel in this case is tightly screwed against an oil-filled washer, thus making an impervious seal. The pendant is provided with a locking cap which seals all openings at this point. Many thousand of these cases were ordered, and it was contemplated to put the standard Signal Corps watch movements into them. This was being done when the Armistice was signed. Several satisfactory movements had also been examined, tested, and accepted by this section”. Now, when you read this document and the sworn court testimony from the March 8, 1919 Golden vs. Depollier lawsuit the watch description and the dates line up perfectly. The War Department report is in fact discussing the Waltham Depollier “Field & Marine” Waterproof Watch. In the end the United States Army Signal Corps division placed an order for 10,000 Depollier “Field & Marine” Waterproof Watch Cases in November of 1918, US government contract number 160,615.
For decades the watch community has given the Rolex Oyster credit for being the “World’s First Waterproof Watch”. The very first advertisement for the Rolex Oyster was published on November 24, 1927 featuring swimmer Mercedes Gleitze.
The very first advertisement for the Waltham Depollier “Field & Marine” was published on July 31, 1918. The Waltham Depollier Waterproof Watch advertisement was published 9 years before the Rolex. It was independently tested by high ranking members of the United States Army including Lieutenant Colonel Mauborgne, Major Klock and Colonel Morse. After government testing they purchased 10,000 of them. The test results were even put in the “Report of the Chief Signal Officer to the Secretary of War”, an official United States government document. We have sworn court testimony from Charles Depollier himself and Mortimer Golden. Not even all that long ago on October 12, 2020 an article was published by the New York Times titled “The Wristwatch at 100”. The article discussed waterproofing in one paragraph and it cites the 1926 Rolex Oyster. Within the article it states “There is arguably no more important innovation”, said Stephen Pulvirent, managing editor of the online watch platform Hodinkee. “It made watches everyday objects”. The Waltham Depollier “Field & Marine” Waterproof Watch and the Waltham Depollier “THERMO” Waterproof Watch were not even mentioned in the article written by Victoria Gomelsky. Personally, I think there is more than enough evidence now to give credit where it is truly due.
In 2020 Waltham Watches decided to make a modern version of the 1919 Waltham Depollier “Field & Marine” Waterproof Watch. The new Waltham “Field & Marine” Watch was made in collaboration with the manufacturing capabilities of Watch Angels in Switzerland and funded by the watch community. I had the honor of serving as historical advisor for this project and narrator for the promotional videos.
In the second half of 2021 the NEW Waltham “Field & Marine” Watches started to get delivered and the response has been exceptional. Here are a few pictures of the WWI era Waltham Depollier “Field & Marine” Watch, the Waltham Depollier “THERMO” Waterproof Watch with the NEW Waltham “Field & Marine” Watch.
Charles Depollier passed away on December 29, 1940 and he was buried in Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn New York next to his wife Elizabeth who passed away in 1931.
About a year ago while doing research for my 3rd upcoming book about WWI trench watches it came to my attention that Charles & Elizabeth Depollier were resting in an unmarked grave. This did not sit well with me at all. Charles Depollier’s horological inventions still echo loudly today. All modern dive watches and waterproof watches today can be traced back to the technology developed by Charles Depollier during the Great War years. The screw down crown, the fully hermetic case and waterproof crystal technology were all realized by Mr. Depollier, including the invention of a spring bar so straps can be attached to watch cases. Now you can see why I found it very upsetting that Charles & Elizabeth Depollier were resting in an unmarked grave. This was an oversight that needed to be corrected! I contacted seven people that might be interested in helping me fix this for Charles & Elizabeth. All seven people, without hesitation, donated the funds necessary to help me pay for the Depollier family plot headstone to be engraved with the names of Charles & Elizabeth Depollier.
I would like to personally thank them now for their generous financial contributions. Mr. Guido Benedini CEO of Watch Angels in Switzerland, Mr. Antonio DiBenedetto Owner of Waltham Watches, Mr. Fred Friedberg, Mr. William Peoples, Mr. Greg Hart, Mrs. Tiffany Czubernat and one anonymous donor Mr. PV. It was an honor and privilege spearheading this project. Getting this done was not an easy task, we had to jump through the hoops of a permitting process, delays due to Covid, then wait for our contractor to get the engraving job completed. I can’t even begin to tell you how happy I am that Charles & Elizabeth Depollier are now resting in a proper grave site. Thanks again to the generous individuals that helped me make this happen
A limited edition of the Waltham Field & Marine Thermo will be re-issued with Angel round in October 2022. You can reserve your place on the priority list here
Read the original by Stan Czubernat article here
For more information and viewing of the only Thermo know to exist please contact LRF Antque Watches
You find the new Waltham Field & Marine here