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VCH Looks at The Hamilton Model 22 Chronometer Deck Watch

The Hamilton 22 is a World War II-era deck watch. A deck watch was used as ship's chronometer on some smaller vessels, and as a companion to the regular (and larger and more fragile and theoretically more accurate) ship’s chronometer found on bigger ships. Chronometer is just another way of saying a very accurate watch, suitable for navigation.

Watch geek extra credit: the word chronometer comes from the ancient Greek words chronos + metron or time measure.

Back in the day, before GPS, chronometers were an essential aid in celestial navigation. They helped you get an accurate fix on your ship’s longitude position. Without that fix, you were apt to get lost. And that is never good, especially at sea in wartime.

During World War II when the Hamilton 22 was developed, the big, bulky—and vitally important—ship’s chronometers would stay stowed safely below deck on major US Navy vessels. The deck watches on the other hand could be taken topside or to the bridge for navigation or to compare their time with other watches. Deck watches were also called comparing watches.

The Model 22 has the look and weight of a very heavy pocket watch. According to the trusty digital postal scale, the Model 22 weighs in at a substantial 10.9 ounces, or over half a pound. It’s a beast.

More watch geek detail: Model 22s have a lever escapement as opposed to the more delicate detent escapement of the bigger Hamilton Model 21 chronometers. (Which are another breed altogether and considered perhaps the finest mass-produced mechanical timekeepers ever produced by the hand of man and machine. Seriously.)

Still, the Model 22 is quite nice in its own right. For a history-minded watch aficionado, winding one is just about as sinful a tactile pleasure as can be imagined. The crown is huge, much larger than the one on your pet Patek Philippe or fill-in-the blank any other high-end watch. They let you get a real good, firm purchase on things as you wind it up. They’re smooth as silk and almost purrrr when you wind them. Sigh.

The Model 22 VCH obtained for test purposes was a late example. According to Hamilton records it was finished after the war and sold to Northwest Instrument Co. of Seattle on 11-29-1946. It's a beefy 35 size –- note the hasty, slightly blurry photo with a 40mm Rolex reference 1675 GMT lying on top of it for comparison. It has a neat "safety" feature of a pin that has to be pushed in to set the hands which precludes inadvertently changing the time while winding the watch.

Another safety feature for a watch used for navigation is the nifty up/down wind indicator. This tells you when the watch spring is “down” and in need of winding. A 60-hour mainspring helped ensure excellent accuracy—that, and the patented elinvar hairspring. Those features combined with Hamilton’s first class quality control produced one superlative timekeeper.

Ours only lost two seconds in the first 30 hours of being run…and that was after the mailman dropped the box—hard— onto the ground while getting out of his truck on his way to the front door of VCH Headquarters.

Losing only two seconds the first day was a pretty auspicious beginning, but we suspected it might even do a little better after settling down.

** Spoiler Alert, settle down it did. **

The Model 22 was compared to the atomic clock at every day for ten days. Here’s a record of its variances starting from day one. Note it only lost seven seconds and it didn’t vary at all for the last three days in a row.

Day 1 -3 seconds Day 2 -5 seconds Day 3 -6 seconds Day 4 -7 seconds Day 5 -8 seconds Day 6 -8 seconds Day 7 -9 seconds Day 8 -9 seconds Day 9 -10 seconds Day 10 -10 seconds Day 11 -10 seconds

Nice as they are, Model 22s are surprisingly common today. Over 28,000 were made for the war effort and many survived to be sold as surplus afterwards. That’s good news for collectors—they pop up for sale quite often. However, as with any vintage watch, buying one is strictly caveat emptor. Some have been sitting in a box in somebody’s closet since 1945 and are in serious need of some TLC.

VCH obtained the test sample from "the guy" who’s the undisputed expert on anything and everything related to Hamilton chronometers. His name is Larry and his website is called the Military Watch Museum. He has most of the remaining spare parts. We emailed Larry and asked if he had any nice examples on hand. Turns out he did.

The tested Model 22 is a late, minty example that was recently serviced and had a fresh mainspring installed. It doesn’t get any better than that when it comes to Model 22s.

For a watch lover, a history buff, or anyone who likes the finer things in life, a Model 22 looks simply smashing sitting in its wooden glass-topped case on your desk or the bookshelf of your library or office.

As our accuracy test shows, a Model 22 can still give you the correct time of day, too—provided it has been properly serviced and regulated. They aren’t exactly cheap—nice examples will run somewhere around just under 1K up to $2,000—but we consider them a bargain.

They’re beautiful, they’re pieces of history, and they’re among the most highly accurate mechanical timekeepers ever made. A Model 22 is still more affordable than a lot of infinitely less interesting modern luxury watches you can buy all day long at the mall. They are truly a bargain when you think of them like that…which we do.

To paraphrase Ferris Bueller’s comments on the Ferrari California Spyder…if you have the means, VCH highly recommends picking up a Hamilton Model 22. You won’t be sorry.

To learn more…

For more on the historical significance of the chronometer and how the first successful one made by 18th century English clock maker John Harrison revolutionized both navigation and timekeeping, we recommend the book Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time by Dava Sobel.

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