The All-Proof Man: Jimmie Mattern and his Wittnauer All-Proof
If the founding of the Wittnauer Watch Company was a fairytale then the life of Jimmie Mattern is an adventure serial
For a generation, Jimmie Mattern epitomized the fascination the American public had with exploration and adventure in the 1920's and 1930's. Born in Freeport, Illinois in 1905, Jimmie worked as a cowboy, limousine driver, window washer and bus boy before lying about his age to enlist in the Army. Whilst stationed in Pearl Harbor, he managed to convince a pilot to take him up on his next sortie. Jimmie's first flight ended with the pilot losing control and crashing but Jimmie walked away from the crash unharmed, a feat he would repeat throughout his life.
After being issued his pilot's license, the 576th ever to be issued and signed by Orville Wright himself, Jimmie worked as a stunt pilot on Howard Hughes' Hell's Angels, even saving the millionaire's life by pulling him out the wreckage of a crashed plane. The stock market crash in 1929 wiped out Mattern's savings with his only real possession a Lockheed Vega he inherited when his employer went bankrupt. Mattern's roommate was a World War 1 Flying Ace and soon the two conspired to beat the record for circumnavigating the world by plane. In 1932 the Century of Progress took flight and from the moment the wheels left the runway there were problems; they almost crashed into an ocean liner, they got lost over Newfoundland and Berlin, and they ultimately crashed outside Minsk when the entry hatch collapsed.
As Mattern soared through the skies, the Wittnauer Watch Company became more prominent in the American watch industry; they had grown from a small immigrant business to a distinguished brand with sole sales rights for Longines in America. By 1916, all three of the founding brothers had died so their sister Martha took control of the company and became the first female CEO of a watch company, four years before she was allowed to vote. With Martha as CEO, Wittnauer weathered World War 1 and the Great Depression, supplied watches to the U.S Army Air Corps and provided dashboard instruments for Friendship, Amelia Earhart's transatlantic plane.
In 1928 Wittnauer released the All-Proof which they claimed was the world's first shockproof, waterproof and anti-magnetic wristwatch. There are some claims that the watch was released in 1916 (My Lost to Time article about Wittnauer originally said 1916) but for several reasons 1928 is just more plausible.
In the trench warfare of World War 1, many troops soldered wire lugs onto their cumbersome pocket watches and strapped them to their wrists to create the trench watch. For Wittnauer to have been making a wristwatch like the All-Proof in 1916 when the very notion of wristwatch were still in their infancy was is unlikely. The claims that the Wittnauer was the first waterproof watch are contrary to the more documented claims of Rolex with their Oyster case. The first patents for hermetically sealed watch cases date to the mid-1880s however the technology remained rudimentary until the invention of the screw-down crown in 1925 and the invention of the Oyster case by Hans Wilsdorf in 1926. For the Wittnauer to have predated these patent dates by almost a decade would have been extraordinary.
A claim made by Wittnauer advertisements stated that the All-Proof had been "thrown from the top of the Empire State Building and survived". This is most likely marketing BS because I doubt even a G-Shock could survive the drop from 1,250 feet. Another blow to the theory of the All-proof being made in 1916 is that the construction of the Empire State Building didn't start until 1930 and wasn't completed until May 1st, 1931.
The All-Proof was advertised in the typical overstated fashion of the era; it was "dropped from 3400 feet from an aeroplane - exposed to rain for thirty hours and still running perfectly" and was taken "through the steaming Amazon jungles and brought to the highest elevation of the Himalayas, Alps and Andes". The men's version was 34.5mm by 27mm and the ladies 29mm by 24mm with earlier models lacking the words "All-Proof" on the dial above the seconds register. The screw-on case backs were engraved only with the serial number and the word CONTRACID, the trade name for stainless steel at the time.
When the Century of Progress was returned to Mattern, he immediately set about rebuilding it and securing sponsors for a second flight attempt. Mattern enlisted the help of an engineer called Ed Aldrin to help on the more technical changes and Ed's son, Buzz, would often be seen bouncing up and down on Mattern's knee. In 1933 Mattern set off flying solo and despite a promising start, soon the Arctic cold stopped Mattern from completing his journey; first his fuel line broke and flooded the cockpit with fumes and later the fuel pump froze, causing the plane to plummet into the ice.
Mattern was stranded hundreds of miles away from civilization with only a set of maps, a tool kit, a hatchet, three chocolate bars, the clothes on his back, a gun and his Wittnauer All-Proof.
Jimmie Mattern, the All-Proof man, managed to survive for fifteen days in the tundra before a group of Chukchi, the indigenous people of Siberia, found him and rowed him back to the closest Russian town. It had been weeks since anyone had heard from Mattern yet his telegram to his manager was only six words long, "Safe at Anadyr. Siberia, Jimmie Mattern". Even though he had failed, Mattern was praised as an aviation hero upon his return to the United States and in turn he praised the All-Proof in a letter to Wittnauer.
"It gives me great pleasure to advise you that my Wittnauer All-Proof Watch was my only constant companion on my ’round the world solo flight, and it survived all hardships. It is a crashproof timepiece par excellence. After my ’plane crashed and I had to wade and swim in some of the rivers it proved absolutely waterproof. It kept up a true performance when I was lost to civilization for many days. It was a sensation with the Eskimos who considered it something super-natural. It personifies mechanical perfection heretofore unknown to me, and when I reached New York it was correct to the minute. I banged it all around. It was dropped on concrete a number of times – still it keeps ticking away. I should not have believed that such a watch could be built, but my experience has shown me that too much cannot be said about this wonderful All-Proof timepiece which I recommend for hard usage"
The relationship between Wittnauer and Mattern remained strong after his return; in 1934 Martha Wittnauer sent a letter to Mattern wishing him a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year and in 1936 Mattern was sent a sample with of a world timer. Mattern worked as a test pilot for Lockheed until 1946 when he developed spasms and was diagnosed with a ruptured blood vessel in his brain, most likely caused from flying at high altitude for so long. Jimmie Mattern was grounded and never flew again. His watch however did fly again.
"It was almost 11 hours since liftoff, and Jimmie Mattern's old wristwatch was still keeping good time" Neil Armstrong - Time Magazine, 1966.
Neil Armstrong had grown up hearing of Mattern's adventures and honored his circumnavigation attempts by wearing his Wittnauer All-Proof on-board Gemini 8 in 1966. Earlier this year I tried to find out what happened to this watch, whether it remained in Armstrong's possession or whether it was returned to Mattern. As far as NASA is concerned Armstrong only wore one watch, his government issued Omega Speedmaster, and any personal item brought aboard was not logged pre or post flight. Photos of Armstrong walking towards Gemini-8 and in the recovery pod show another watch on his right wrist and he spoke about it in a TIME article that same year. I asked Dr. Levasseur, Curator of Astronaut Personal Equipment at the Smithsonian Museum, about this who said that Armstrong was not a man to invite a story for story's sake. If he said something, then he meant it.
Remember that Standard Oil Engineer who helped Mattern fix the Century of Progress ? Well his son Buzz, despite humble beginnings as a dishwasher and camp counselor, ended up making quite the name for himself as the second man to walk on the moon during Apollo XI. In the pocket of Buzz Aldrin's flight suit was an old pilot's license, the 576th ever registered and signed by Orville Wright himself, that said James Joseph 'Jimmie' Mattern was licensed pilot. Jimmie Mattern might not have made it around the world in his Lockheed Vega, but his pilot's license had made it to the Moon.
Jimmie Mattern died on December 17th, 1988 in Palm Desert, California and the Wittnauer Watch Company effectively died a few years later. I hope that as vintage Wittnauer sees a resurgence in popularity that people will learn about Jimmie Mattern because he deserves to be remembered: Jimmie Mattern the pilot, the daredevil, the adventure. The All-Proof Man.
I'd like to thank Dr. Levasseur from the Smithsonian, Neil Armstrong's biographer Jim Hansen, the University of Dallas McDermott Library, and Sheldon James for helping me with the research for this. If you're interested in Jimmie Mattern then please read Cloud Racers by Adam L. Penenberg. Thanks as well to Atom Moore at analog/shift for their excellent photographs of the Wittnauer All-Proof throughout the article.
- Adam Vintage: Mens Wittnauer All-Proof Rare Stainless steel watch
- America Space: 50 Years Since the Traumatic Mission of Gemini VIII
- analog/shift: Wittnauer All-Proof
- Atavist Magazine: Cloud Racers
- ATG Vintage Watches Store: Blast-off From the Past
- Davis-Monthan Aviation Field Register: Jimmie Mattern
- Early Aviators: Jimmie Mattern
- Ebay: Rare Vintage 1920s - 1930s Wittnauer Pre All-Proof Mechanical Watch
- Ebay: Vintage Wittnauer Aviator Presentation Watch
- Ebay: Wittnauer Watch in Stainles Steel
- J&P Timepieces: Wittnauer Stainless Steel All Proof Vintage Watch
- Narratively: Two Men. Two Planes. One Race to Conquer the World
- Personal Communication with Dr Levasseuer and Jim Hansen
- The Norwegian American: A Record Flight
- Time: A Case of Constructive Alarm
- Timezone: Mid 1930's Wittnauer AllProof