The Military Aesthetic: A History of Timex and the Sprite

Recently, Timex introduced a reissue of one of its most obscure and immediately memorable watches: in collaboration with New York designer Todd Snyder, the “Mod Watch,” as it’s called, was hauled straight from Timex’s famed archives. For $138, complete with its own presentation box, it’s been celebrated by various men’s publications as the watch of the moment. This September, it was reissued for the second time this year. Timex first launched the Mod Watch in July, and it sold out in 23 hours, not even a full rotation across the red dial.

In period Timex vernacular, the Mod is an homage to a lineup Timex called Sprite. But it’s known, for good reason, as the roulette or the bullseye. There’s no way the design should work, but it does. And if not actually mil-spec, then it is certainly capable of offering the illusion: a 24-hour dial, bright and vivid colors, radiant and perpendicular lines that take a while to check out but are instantly remembered. It’s damn near impossible to find: there’s one on eBay at this moment, with a crystal that looks like it’s been hit by artillery fire, but with a faded patina all its glorious own.

Timex Sprite, also know as the “Bullseye” or “Roulette.”

Multiple rings. Multiple colors. Multiple numbers. Is it any wonder it came from the wild, unrestrained 1970s—arguably the most colorful and forward-thinking period in watch design?

We give nods to IWC for pilot’s watches, Rolex MilSubs for the seafaring cachet, and Benrus for the Vietnam-era issue—McQueen sure did—but a company as old as Timex, as readily produced as its watches, certainly had a hand in all of this great nation’s wars. One could even make the argument that Timex, and the company that preceded it, helped popularize this sort of “military chic.”

Waterbury Clock Company.

The Waterbury Clock Company was founded in 1854. At the end of the 19th century, the company partnered with Ingersoll, started in New York City by brothers Charles and Robert Hawley Ingersoll, and for nearly two decades, Waterbury manufactured non-jeweled pocket watches for Ingersoll. Around the same time, the pocket watch began its inevitable transition into the wrist-mounted watch. Across any number of conflicts like the Boer Wars, soldiers needed a way to check the time without having to fish a watch out of their pockets. Men weren’t supposed to wear anything as showy or uncouth as jewelry, it was believed: women wore wristwatches, men wore pocket watches. That was that. But war changes all the rules.

“Luminous-Sunrise” clock featuring hand-applied radium; Waterbury Clock Company.

Ingersoll took its Midget line of pocket watches, the smallest and cheapest model it made, originally designed for women. The company added D-loops to the top and bottom, fitted a strap, and eventually even added lume to the numbers for nighttime visibility, hand-painted by “radium girls.” (The efforts of these women would prove disastrous for company and employee alike.) And the result was one of the most popular trench watches used during World War I, produced in the hundreds of thousands and used by soldiers needing to accurately time artillery barrages. The Midget was issued to troops on both sides of the Atlantic as well as early tank crews; however, the watch, the tanks, and the men inside weren’t expected to survive.

Ingersoll Midget Trench Watch.

But many did. Soldiers returning to civilian life kept their watches on their wrist. Perhaps out of pride, perhaps out of newly-gained convenience, the exploding popularity of wristwatches signified one of the first examples of military style in peacetime, long after the treaties were signed.

In 1922, Waterbury purchased the struggling Ingersoll, but the new firm faced its own troubles during the Depression. After America entered the Second World War, the joint Ingersoll-Waterbury Company joined the war effort. It produced fuse timers for bombs and artillery. It built a new plant to do so in nearby Middlebury, Connecticut, just down the road from Waterbury. War helped make the company: its engineers learned a lot about automated processes, low-cost movements, and the value of simple designs, produced easily. Even the Timex name debuted with a link to the war effort, first appearing on a pendant watch for nurses.

“Timex” pendant watch for nurses, ca. 1944.

It was 1944, and it finally seemed clear that the war would come to an end, and the US Time Corporation (as it was now known) anticipated rolling out a new line of watches for civilians. “You can’t buy yours yet,” an ad slyly proclaimed. “Even if it’s several months before your dealer has them…be patient, we’re still at war work. You’ll find them.”

Fast forward to Vietnam. American watch companies were ready to fulfill the Department of Defense’s contract for a general purpose wristwatch: specification MIL-W-3818a (some background here) was issued in February of 1964 and called for a field watch with a 17-jewel movement, accurate to 30 seconds per day, and a hacking feature. It also called for a 12-hour dial with early readable Arabic numerals, an inner 24-hour ring, and 60-increment indices, setting the template for the simple, elegant military watch.

MIL-W-3818a specification.

Two more specifications (GG-W-113 and MIL-W-46374) followed later that year. The latter specification replaced the 1964 one in 1975 and called for even more simplicity: a 7-jewel movement, plastic cases, the phrase “Dispose Rad. Waste” on the case back, etc. The dials carried no branding.

According to some collectors, Timex began readying a watch based on that specification in the ’70s, but never produced it. Instead, Hamilton and Benrus took up the mantle. Timex instead focused on military-inspired fare, and that’s when the Sprite models came out—including the above “roulette”—with much the same mil-spec movements.

It is believed that Timex began readying a watch under the MIL-W-46374 specification in the ’70s.

Timex only built watches to this specification for two short months in 1982. Curiously enough, it’s these Timexes that are the most rare: the only modern mil-spec the company made was hardly issued and rarely turns up for sale. When it does, one can expect stratospheric prices. Is it any surprise, then, that when Timex collaborated with J. Crew a few years ago, they pushed the military angle back to the 1940s—long past 1982, when America’s only conflict was a brief intervention in the Lebanese Civil War? It’s also the year that Timex significantly diminished its production of mechanical watches.

Simplified M75 movement in the Timex Sprite.

Regardless, the rise of this military aesthetic led to the Sprite, and the roulette, and this reissue, easily riding the wave of a trend that’s never gone away. “Many watchmakers — cognizant of their connection to some of the past century’s most storied conflicts — have been in a noticeably nostalgic mood.” said the New York Times in 2014, “military use have become so commonplace as to seem generic.”

Everything purposeful about army life in a watch—the simple numbers, the lume, the purposefulness and the perceived toughness—makes for compelling timekeeping. What works for GIs, it seems, works for everyone else.

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Hailing from the middle coast of Austin, Texas, Blake Z. Rong is a freelance writer, researcher, one-time podcast host, and occasional automotive journalist. When he was 13, he took apart a quartz watch and forgot how to put it back together again. His love for watches has lingered ever since. He can usually be found on his motorcycle speeding across Texas Hill Country.