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WW1- Time Machines and Paradigm Shifts


By Bill Betten, Co-Director of the California WW1 Centennial Task Force


doughboys helpingUS Doughboys extend a helping hand that came to symbolize American strength and compassion in the new view the world had of her.Online Merriam-Webster defines a paradigm shift as, “an important change that happens when the usual way of thinking about or doing something is replaced by a new and different way.”

There were many such changes that WW1 gave birth to of which most today may already be aware.

Politically, the age of colonial expansion ends and the rise of third-world cultures escalates. Along with that, the concept of an isolated America is replaced with the United States as a global catalyst and new “world power.”

wwi dead attritionOn both sides in WW1 the military leaders used the archaic strategies of the past to attack. It became a war of attrition.Militarily, the realization of the importance of technology in making war and the impotence of ignoring that technology’s impact demanded attention. Simply ordering scores of soldiers to “charge the enemy’s line” no longer had the desired results. Helmets versus hats, Machine guns versus muskets, artillery versus armies, steel-clad tanks versus stead-born cavalry were shifts generals had to learn to not discount. Reliance on the second always forced belief in the first.

women working in pistol  factory ww1Socially, the emergence of women and of minorities through the demands of war. Just in example, women proved themselves by taking the place of men on the home front in jobs and in decision making, and Americans of color proved themselves time and again as courageous and valuable in battle, among other things.

These three alone are significant, and the list is plethora, but I would like to broach a subject that today touches every one of us.


How WW1 Changed Time

Stating that WW1 had the power to “change Time” may appear as a foreign, even magical assertion, but it should not. In today’s fast-paced world we have seen lately a similar dramatic shift in the way we as humans monitor and keep time. The emergence of the cellular phone has practically everyone abandoning their old time-keeping apparatuses and turning to our hand-held electronic devices to keep and remind us of appointments, find and know the date, pace and time our activities, and simply just to check the time of day (not to mention the fact that it is also our camera.) Quite a paradigm shift from the days of analog devices I grew up with.

But, one hundred years ago, there was a previous fundamental change that just as dramatically influenced nearly everyone.


The wristwatch

Just as today many seem to perceive their old watches as contraptions of a day gone by, after World War One the pocket watch, which had been the favorite of every farmer, statesman, and railroad conductor, was soon replaced by the wristwatch.

It is not as if the wristwatch did not exist before WW1. Wristwatches had been around long before.

It is said that in 1571, the Queen of England received one as a gift. This may have set a fashion trend and tradition, for up until just before WW1, wristwatches were thought only to be a female accessory.

The first series of wristwatches purposely designed and produced for men was manufactured in 1880 for the German Navy. Likewise, in the same year, officers of the British Army are to have begun using wristwatches during military campaigns in the colonies. But, fashion in the 1890s for ladies’ pendant watches drew attention again away from the “wristlet” or “bracelet watch” as they had been called, since the more fashionable pendants sported the stylish designation "Swiss."

1918 wristwatch adToday’s watchmakers must in part recognize that though wristwatches were not invented specifically because of World War One, after the war, their use by men took off dramatically. California wristwatch maker’s post-war success sprang from the importance of timing during the war.

Artillery barrages, needed precise synchronization, and the wrist watch became the answer. Additionally, wristwatches could keep both hands free in the heat of battle. Pilots also needed hands free, and the old pocket watch just did not fit the bill. World War 1 really created the wristwatch market that fine California-based watch makers like Tsovet, Devon, and Weiss now operate on.

doughboys wearing wristwatchesNotice all three of these American soldiers are wearing wristwatches.But as timing in war became more important - so that artillery barrages, for example, could be synchronized - manufacturers developed watches which kept both hands free in the heat of battle. Wristwatches, in other words. Aviators also needed both hands free, so they too had to throw the old pocket watch overboard.

But it was WW1 which really established the market. In particular, the "creeping barrage" where timing was everything. This plan was an interactive reliance between artillery firing just ahead of advancing infantry. If the timing were off, it would be fatal, and not just for the assault. The proximity had to be perfect. Timing had to be close. With zenith ww1 wristwatchobstructed vision and the distances from artillery, observers were unable to use signaling. Anyway, signaling in plain sight meant the enemy could see. Wristwatches were the answer.

In fact, the use of the wristwatch became so important to the AEF (American Expeditionary Force) that headquarters contracted directly with numerous Swiss watch making companies for the purchase of ww1 renault tnkshundreds of wristwatches.

Thus, the war changed how consumers behaved creating a paradigm shift in the market that lasted into the next century. Even one of today's iconic luxury watches goes back to WW1. Cartier's Tank Watch originated in 1917 when Louis Cartier, the French watchmaker, saw the new Renault tanks and modelled a watch on their shape.


Miraculous Timesaving Device

Prior to the beginning of the war in 1914, due to our fragility, humans always had to struggle against the elements. Sometimes it had taken hours just to put on the layers needed to fend against nature. Mankind also had spent eons tying on, buttoning up, or lashing themselves into their protective armor of one kind or another. It was time consuming and tedious.

But, as it so happened that very same year, it was in America that an immigrant from Sweden came up with a real solution after decades of attempts and multiple failures.

It was Gideon Sundback who conquered the problem and devised a remedy that would change the way people around the world would dress themselves from that point on, and it was the U.S. Army and the U.S. Navy, fighting in WW1, that would provide him the means to achieve success even when no one else believed in his invention.

The average person did not fully comprehend why Sundback’s invention worked, but the fact is that it did, and the military saw its potential, and early on incorporated it into its gear and equipment, particularly the Navy.

gideon sundbackGideon Sundbach had transformed a previously unsuccessful design into a much more efficient and dependable system, and one of his first customers was the US Army. It began incorporating Sundback’s Hookless Fastener into the uniforms and boots of the Doughboys of World War I.

Within moments an aviator could jump into action for high-altitude flight, but more astonishing was the fact that in a flash he could escape the same suit if it were suddenly set ablaze in an accident. With the simple tug of his “Hookless Fastener No. 1” a soldier could unzip himself out of danger.

But it was not until after the war, that the B.F. Goodrich Company renamed Gideon’s invention the “Zipper” for the sound it made, and its popularity caught on. Though buttons still persist, clothing manufacturers around the world have wholly adopted this paradigm shift, and Gideon's invention has stretched well-beyond apparel. To the average Doughboy of 1917, it would seem strange to know that today his briefcase, backpack, musical instrument case, wallet, and even his lunchbox all might likely have a zipper. Oh, and don't forget the one on the door of his tent!



Bill Betten is one of the Co-Directors of the California WW1 Centennial Task Force and the author of the WW1 historical novel series Doughboys. [See his biography here. ]codirector bill betten cww1ctf