A Brief History of the Doctor’s Watch

A Brief History of the Doctor’s Watch

| 07.08.24

Part of the romance of collecting vintage watches is looking back on an era when timepieces were designed for specific purposes: To compute decompression stops or elapsed time beneath the waves; to time legs in a flight path; to measure intervals during a foot race; or to take a patient’s pulse. While your Apple Watch or iPhone can comfortably, quickly, and easily do all of these calculations for you, the idea of a mechanical wristwatch — today, a largely antiquated piece of technology — providing this functionality to professionals in the 1920s or 1950s is distinctly interesting. 

One fascinating subset of this culture of mechanical tool watches is that of doctor’s watches. These are precisely what they sound like — timepieces whose design is particularly well suited to medical professionals. But how, you ask? These watches came, primarily, in two forms: Conventionally round time-only or chronograph watches with pulsation scales, or rectangular time-only watches with seconds displays removed from that of the minute/hour display. But in order to understand these pieces’ design remit, first we have to examine the idea of pulse, and pulse taking, in the medical field…

In the 17th and 18th centuries, an English physician named Sir John Floyer became renowned for his treatment of asthma and his recognition of the relationship between pulse and health. In commissioning a local London watchmaker named Samuel Watson to create a timepiece capable of measuring a patient’s pulse, he created the first modern “doctor’s watch,” which would blossom into a full-blown timepiece category in the early 20th century. 

The Rolex Prince and the Gruen Techni-Quadron

Rolex Ref. 1490 - (Image by Phillips)

In the late 1920s, Rolex founder Hans Wilsdorf worked with movement manufacturer Hermann Aegler on “a shaped watch movement with a seconds dial” — one in which, in other words, the seconds were completely separate from the hour and minute dial. (Keep in mind that this design, which was patented in 1927, was developed during a time when many wristwatch designs featured sub-seconds rather than central seconds.) The thought process was that the separate seconds track would make the precise measurement of time easier to compute, while a larger balance wheel would provide better chronometric accuracy. 

Wilsdorf and Aegler — whose company Rolex would acquire in 1929 — turned out to be correct: The resulting movement, dubbed Calibre 827, was sufficiently accurate that it was presented in unadjusted form for chronometer trials and passed with flying colors. In 1928, Rolex released a watch using the Calibre 827 called the Prince, which featured a rectangular case and a vertically arranged dial with hours and minutes on top, and a separate seconds display below. A lovely example of Art Deco design, it was marketed as “the watch for Men of Distinction,” its observatory-grade movement rendering its production numbers limited — though it wasn’t a “limited edition” in the modern sense of the term. 

Gruen Techni-Quadron Doctor's Watch - IN THE SHOP

Produced in numerous references, the Prince featured a twin of sorts in the Techni-Quadron, a watch made by American firm Gruen during the same period. As it owned a stake in Aegler, Gruen outfitted the Techni-Quadron with the Calibre 877 and marketed it in the United States, while the Prince was marketed in Europe and across the British Empire. Both Gruen and Rolex touted the watch’s accuracy in chronometer trials — which makes sense, given their nearly identical makeup and reliance upon the same movement.

Gruen Expanding Buckle ad - (Image by Watch Talk Forums)

Due to the ease with which one could track the passing seconds on the Prince/Techni-Quadron’s dials, the Techni-Quadron was marketed as being especially fit for service in the medical profession. Period advertisements even show an optional feature, the Gruen Expanding Buckle, which would allow a doctor or nurse to wear the watch high up on their arm, above the elbow, out of the way of the hands as they were engaged in pulse-taking and other activities. (For those who need a refresher: feel for a pulse in the wrist or carotid artery and begin counting the number of beats that occur over 15 seconds. Multiply the number of beats by four to arrive at your heart rate per minute.)

Other brands would use this famed movement and produce similar watches, but it was Rolex that would revive the Prince name within the Cellini line — now once again defunct — and continue to produce the famed “doctor’s watch” for decades. However, another type of “doctor’s watch” boasts a feature even better suited to pulse taking: the pulsometer scale. 

The Pulsometer Scale 

MIDO Multi-Centerchrono Medical - IN THE SHOP

Though there is evidence of what may be a pulsometer-equipped pocket watch from the late 19th century, it was really in the first decades of the 20th century that the pulsometer-equipped wristwatch chronograph came into its own. In this type of chronograph, the dial features a scale around the dial periphery calibrated to 15 or 30 pulsations. The doctor (or other wearer of the watch) simply starts the chronograph when he or she begins taking a patient’s pulse; after 15 or 30 pulsations (as indicated on the dial), the chronograph is stopped, and a heart rate can be read against the scale. No pesky math involved, no room for error. 

Universal Genève Medico-Compax - IN THE SHOP

Certain watch companies developed specific models or references that included this scale, such as Universal Genève with its Medico-Compax, while others would include the scale on a more commonplace reference upon request of the client. Thus, a hand-wound Rolex Cosmograph Daytona Ref. 6239 or a Patek Philippe Ref. 5004 with a pulsations scale carries a serious premium over other examples of both these already-valuable references. The same can be said for examples of ‘pre-Moon’ Omega Speedmasters, Longines 13ZN-powered chronographs, and Heuer Carreras. 

Rolex Reference 6239 Daytona 'The Doctor' - (Image by Sotheby's)

In addition to pulsometer chronographs, there are also examples of time-only watches with pulsometer scales — though taking a pulse using one requires you to wait for the seconds hand to make a full revolution and begin sweeping or ticking from precisely 12 o’clock. With a watch like those from Doplr, however—which feature double-sided seconds hand—taking a pulse is only ever a matter of waiting less than 30 seconds. (Plus, Doplr watches also feature respiratory scales on the dial, which allows one to check a patient’s per-minute respiratory rate.) 

Regardless of the methodology employed, the doctor's watch represents a fascinating corner of tool watch design that has become all but lost in the age of the smartwatch. Still present on certain vintage reissues — and upon plenty of vintage originals — the pulsometer scale continues to interest serious collectors the world over, while watches such as the Prince and Techni-Quadron are still highly sought after. Though the heyday of such niche mechanical devices may be behind us, they live on as reminders of a more analog time — one when a hand-wound, wrist-worn device could truly prove a lifesaving piece of kit.