To readers of this website, Smiths is synonymous with timepieces, but in truth timepieces formed a tiny fraction of Smiths' output; indeed in 1966, S Smith & Sons Ltd became Smiths Industries to better represent their vast engineering presence. There are two comprehensive histories of Smiths: the Smiths Group official centennial history, "A long time in making" by Dr James Nye (2014) and a privately researched and published "S Smiths & Sons Ltd - The Golden Years" by Barry M Jones (2013) - the latter also analyses many of the company's diverse products (it would be easier to list what Smiths were not involved in)! Barrie Smith's "Smiths Watches" provides a useful, if incomplete, compendium of Smiths' catalogues and advertising.
Jewellers and Diamond-merchants
Smiths' origins date to around 1850 to Samuel Smith as a jeweller and diamond merchant centered on Newington Causeway, south London, also marketing clocks, pocket-watches, spectacles and magic-lanterns. All their products were bought in - timepieces used English, Swiss or German movements... albeit signed S Smith & Son. And so it remained until 1929 when the Smith family sold the retail side, by now centered on Trafalgar Square, to concentrate on their massive, publicly owned Motor Accessories business, whose origins go back to 1904 with their first speedometer… it soon branched out into carburettors and aircraft instruments; it was at this point that Smiths became manufacturers in their own right. Having just sold their retail side in 1929, Allan Gordon Smith acquired Williamsons to fulfil his dream of making electric clocks... as so began their 'Sectric' business and, using Williamson's famous Astral and Empire movements, the Smiths English Clocks business became clockmakers in their own right. Smiths then acquired Enfield and other fledgling clockmakers... but though Williamsons produced the high grade Astral pocket-watch, there is no indication that Smiths continued its production although in 1938 Smiths did begin development of a new pocket-watch sized calibre, of which little is known.
Myths and legends
The 1920s/30s remain a bit of grey area which encourages over enthusiastic speculation. Indeed, identical time-pieces carry either the S Smith & Son Ltd (Trafalgar Square) or S Smiths & Sons (MA) Ltd legend (note plural 'Sons') suggesting MA was marketing since 1913, timepieces to the motoring, aviation and military markets alongside the family retail business - this is poorly recorded. Indeed in the 1930s Smiths (MA) was marketing Swiss Landeron chronograph wristwatches, probably as an aircraft navigation aid (Smiths was pioneering auto-pilots). The other major myth and legend concerns Robert Lenoir and Smiths' war-time development of pocket-, stop- and wrist-watches... and Jaeger-LeCoultre.
Robert Lenoir, a Frenchman was trained in horology at Le Locle and worked for both Jaeger and LeCoultre but his Smiths connection came through Jaeger's attempts to boost adoption by the British motor industry of their speedometers. As a major competitor and aware that Lucas (Smiths' arch-rival) was interested in Jaeger, Smiths secured in 1927 a major shareholding in Jaeger's British operations... including Lenoir! To cut a long story short, Jaeger and Smiths jointly formed ABEC (All-British Escapement Co) in 1928 to produce truly British-made speedometer, car and aircraft escapes and clock-movements. Lenoir introduced novel industrial engineering techniques quite different to the Swiss methods to use unskilled labour. The claim that Smiths' later watch movements were to J-LC designs is erroneous; indeed they probably owe as much to Williamsons and Lemania for in 1938 Smiths became major government contractors in the manufacture, service and repair of, mostly, aircraft instruments and clocks.
Smiths' clock-factories produced many thousands of calotte based and licensed fuze movements during the war including fluvial mines, artillery and proximity anti-aircraft shells. Time pieces included RAF sector clocks. Of smaller timepieces, one of the first contracts was the casing up of J-LC Weems pattern wristwatches; these carry Smiths' SS&S contract code, but of the contract nothing is (so far) known. This was followed by contracts for manufacture of fully jewelled stop-, pocket- and wrist watches - these share a common escape pattern. The first was the stop-watch in 1940, probably inspired by the military's Lemania; then came a pocket-watch - both entered volume production, with necessary improvements, primarily for the RAF. Alas Smiths and MoS documents are very patchy! The pocket-watch based 13-ligne wrist-watch is shrouded in mystery but was almost certainly developed as a miniaturised sub-secs model (for GSTP use) but was capable of easily being converted to (a navigator's) centre-seconds; indeed war-time prototypes of both exist, but neither would have passed military trials although around 1944 the sub-secs model was authorised for production as the RAF Mk.X… - more likely to test the viability of a British watch industry. However, it is unlikely any Mk.Xs entered RAF service: indeed, Smiths' archives barely mention it! Never-the-less, 'end of military contract' Mk.Xs did enter the civilian market post-war as the 'SMITH' badged 13-ligne (28mm dial) wrist-watch. Though agricultural in quality, they are a fine, desirable watch and form the basis of much improved 12-ligne models (26 and 28mm dial) launched in late 1946. This de-flanged movement underwent a series of rapid improvements - Smiths was learning on the job!- culminating in the famous '1215' and 'De Luxe' ranges of the early 1950s. The true origin of '1215' is unknown (possibly an extension of the early RGxxyy (dial/case) watch model codes) but it was a marketing ploy generally later regarded as 12-ligne, 15-jewel. What defined a 'De Luxe' however remains a mystery, but De Luxe with coronet came in spring 1952 heralding a ration-free Elizabethan era.
1215 and 27CS 'De Luxe' Calibre 400
The sub-secs 1215 is widely regarded as Smiths' finest movement, on a par with high-grade Swiss movements (it should noted that some sub-sec models use the 8-3/4 ligne ladies calibre). These were available in various guises: 15 jewel standard (16J for Benson, 18J Garrard), plain or screw-poised balance, Breguet overcoil, shockproofed… and from 1952/3 as a centre-secs 27CS 17-jewel variant, the best of which was the final Astral based military W10 General Service watch. The Astral was a cut-price De Luxe using some semi-automated production processes - it sold in its thousands and included calendar models and an attractive skin-divers model, but by the 1970s high-grade jewelled watch production was no longer economically viable and ended in 1971 with final completion of W10 orders. The centre-secs 27CS concept first emerges in WW2 but underwent major redevelopment after the war alongside radical new Navigator's prototypes of c.1951 for the RAF but these failed to reach muster in Royal Observatory tests and the project was dropped leaving the forces to adopt a military variant of the 27CS De Luxe followed by a stop-balance (hack-set) Astral variant, the aforesaid W10. One military oddity was the use of black dialled, white hands and character 1215s in the RAF's R88 airborne radar reconnaissance cameras; an image was recorded every 7.5 secs with the watch's time captured by prism.
What did emerge from these early post-war prototypes was an entirely new 11-3/4 ligne 19-jewel c/secs movement in 1957 designed to overcome inherent flaws in the 1215 and especially the 27CS. It was designed to be more easily serviced and would ultimately include manual, automatic, sub-secs and a ladies calibre. After several attempts Smiths abandoned their own automatic design and adopted a conventional (credited to IWC) design which produced a, short-lived, success: the sub-secs and ladies models did not materialise. Never-the-less the Imperial was a fine watch especially the solid gold 'Everest' automatic.
Chronographs and oddities
Smiths again offered a high-grade 2-button Landeron wrist-chronograph in the mid-1960s; this was superseded by a Valjoux based model around 1970 but both were 'Smiths' branded off-the-shelf 'trade watches' with several minor variations. Smiths also produced from c.1949 a Braille dialled, seconds-less 1215 (and pocket-watch) using Swiss dial, case and beefed-up train - available through the RNIB, these were produced on a not-for-profit basis. Smiths also contract built silver cushion cased retirement watches for the ICI group - such models do not appear in Smiths' catalogues.
Though rarely discussed, Smiths did produce ladies calibres. The first was the bankrupt Swiss Judex's Calibre 130 which Smiths manufactured from 1954 as their Cal.300 8-3/4 ligne in sub-secs, non-secs and later centre-secs... and for gents' dress watches. This was joined by Smiths' own in-house design, the Cal.200 5-1/4 x 8-3/4 ligne non- and sub-secs. A proposed 11-1/4 x 7 ligne went no further.
One of Smiths most interesting designs was their quartz controlled 'analogue' Quasar of the early 1970s. Smiths was well versed in quartz technology, and had a long association with Motorola - Smiths produced a superb quartz clock-movement - but the Quasar was a one-off project developed at Cheltenham, albeit a calendar wrist-watch, nurse' fob watch and pocket-watch prototypes were developed by Smiths's Quasar Time Products Ltd. Intended for launch at the 1973 Basle Fair, it soon became clear the Quasar was outclassed, outpriced by the Omega and Seiko offerings and had serious pcb design flaws. The project was abandoned as uneconomic in 1974. Of the handful of Quasars that survive, few now work.
Stop- and pocket-watches
The design origin of Smiths' stop-, pocket- and wrist-watches is unknown; suffice to say they were designed by Smiths for Smiths' own manufacture. The fully jewelled high-grade movements were made in Cheltenham (Made in England) - not to be confused with the low-grade 'Made in Great Britain or UK' models! These were available in 1/5th, 1/10th and 1/100th sec calibrations as stop/go-on 'timers', Work Study instant fly-back watches and yachting countdown timers in which the dial was reversed and, synchronised to the Master timer, the minute dial acted as a 5 or 10 minute warning. Case designs and weights vary over the years from Dennison to Smiths' own. These were superseded c.1971 by Swiss-made models (believed by Heuer). Jewelled pocket-watch production ended in 1957 - these however were not superseded.
'Made in England'
Smiths was one of very few companies in the world capable of watch/clock production from scratch. They had four operating centres: Scotland: Carfin (Synthetic jewels); Wishaw (budget alarm clocks 'Made in Britain or UK') Wales: Ystradgynlais (Anglo-Celtic budget watches, Enfield clocks, Mingware watch cases 'Made in Britian') London: Cricklewood: (ABEC escapements; industrial instruments; MA2 Sectric high-grade electrical and mechanical clocks; MA4 TimeGuard), Acton: (English Clock Systems industrial and Master clocks 'Made in England') Cheltenham: (High-grade fully jewelled wrist-, pocket-, stop-watches, calottes, car/aircraft clocks, Quasar, quartz clocks) 'Made in England'. Clocks were cased up at Wishaw, Cricklewood or Brighton (Dennis & Robinson) To confuse matters, Smiths' ABEC facility became part of Smiths Industrial Instruments Division and in the late 1960s adopted a new global trading name, 'Venture', for a wide variety of products made by the Smiths group.