The Longines Weems that Saved Admiral Byrd’s Expedition to the South Pole

The Longines Weems that Saved Admiral Byrd’s Expedition to the South Pole

Rear Admiral Richard E. Byrd specially ordered this Longines watch for his second Antarctic expedition. Without it, he wouldn’t have reached the South Pole.
Rear Admiral Richard E. Byrd specially ordered this Longines watch for his second Antarctic expedition. Without it, he wouldn’t have reached the South Pole.

T he 20th century gave rise to aviation exploration like never before. At the forefront of that movement were men like Charles Lindbergh and Admiral Richard E. Byrd. Both were daring aviators and explorers who flew great distances – but also had something else in common: their reliance on Longines watches and instruments. Now, on 7 December, a custom Longines Weems from Byrd’s storied expedition to the South Pole is coming to auction.

Rear Admiral Byrd is truly one of America’s greatest explorers. In addition to being a pioneer in aeronautical and scientific research, he remains one of the most decorated officers in the history of the US Navy. He was a recipient of the Navy Cross, Distinguished Cross, numerous expedition medals and, of course, the Medal of Honor – the highest military award the United States can bestow upon anyone.

Although Byrd achieved much in his career, today he is most famous for his highly accurate and nearly complete mapping of the Antarctic continent, which he and his crew accomplished over several expeditions. In the process, he became the first person to fly over the South Pole during his first Antarctic expedition in 1928. This, however, was not enough for Richard E. Byrd. As one of his fellow explorers, Paul Siple, would note: “[Byrd was] an undaunted and insatiable explorer.”

Admiral Byrd needed to chart more of this previously unmapped continent, and so in 1934 it was decided to mount the Second Byrd Antarctic Expedition. Despite being in the grips of the Great Depression, the United States was riveted by Byrd’s courage and his ambitious undertakings. Thousands of private citizens across the nation donated money to help fund this scientific endeavor, while larger grants came from prominent Americans such as Edsel Ford and Thomas Watson, as well as groups such as the National Geographic Society. Through those donations – alongside the inventive selling of photography rights and advertising spots on Byrd’s weekly Antarctic broadcasts – over $150,000 was raised to fund this monumental undertaking.

Byrd noted that Antarctica was a deeply unforgiving terrain, having endured extreme temperatures of -58 to -76 degrees Fahrenheit. This expedition was to be a larger undertaking than the last, with more men and aircraft, plus the best equipment available. To that end, Admiral Byrd wrote to Longines to discuss his specific needs. His notes, name and specifications are still found in the Longines logbooks to this day.

At this moment in the 20th century, Longines was perhaps the greatest watchmaker in terms of timing, accuracy and robustness. They won more awards than any other watch brand, and were field-proven in extreme conditions as early as 1899. It is no surprise, then, that Byrd would write Longines with a very specific set of requirements for his own watch.

The present Longines, serial number 5’167’802, is likely the finest and most technically advanced watch ever produced at that time. According to the production register, the watch was invoiced on 29 August 1933 to the company of A. Wittnauer Co., the manufacturer’s US agent at the time. The watch used an “extra quality” movement calibre 18.69N adjusted for isochronism using “star regulator,” then the best regulation method available. It was set at sidereal time, necessary for celestial navigation – denoted on the dial by the red star at 6 o’clock. Most unique, the nickel-plated movement has an additional engraving: the words “EXTRA QUALITY” denote its extensive timing regulations.

Images from left to right: USS Bear, a dual steam-powered and sailing ship, served Byrd on both Antarctic expeditions. Image via Wikimedia Commons. Rear Admiral Richard E. Byrd, date unknown. Image courtesy US Navy.

Admiral Byrd relied heavily on this piece of instrumentation – and at a pivotal moment in the expedition. It helped save his life. As Admiral Byrd set about his course to make that famed route over the South Pole, this watch was the sole functioning navigational aid. In his accounts of the expedition, he noted that “no compass works near the Poles.” The only way to determine one’s position and to navigate was to use a watch adjusted to sidereal time.

His Longines watch used special oils to maintain accurate time even under extreme temperatures. It also featured radio synchronization. As the eyes of the world were upon Byrd and his expedition, he maintained a radio schedule from their base-camp, Little America II, three times a week, describing the meteorological and living conditions of winter in Antarctica. Essentially for radio synchronization, the inner rotating seconds setting disk, controlled by secondary crown at 4 o’clock, allowed Byrd to synchronize the second hand with a reference clock.

Given all that this watch has been through, it survives in impressive condition. The lot is accompanied by a bevy of important artifacts worthy of any museum. Most notably, the original hand-typed transcripts and flight logs from the 1933-1935 expedition detail 169 hours of total flight time. Each one of those hours, accompanied by Byrd’s Longines Weems, make this watch not just a witness to history but an integral part of it.

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