Man has been curious about the ocean from ancient times, probing the depths with lines and nets, before making the plunge in fantastical submarines and diving bells. The arrival of autonomous breathing systems brought a heightened order of freedom, allowing intrepid explorers of the deep to pack oxygen on-the-go, giving them gills in effect – for till the air runs out.
Today, SCUBA diving kits are no longer a rare sight, but it wasn’t until the late 1950s that diving as an activity was democratised beyond the military, scientific/exploration communities. From relying on hand me downs from the armed services, wetsuits for civilian use entered the market in the later part of the 1950s and the YMCA started the USA’s first dive instruction program for regular folks in 1959. Cousteau’s documented exploits provided the inspiration, access to dive gear and instruction lit the match for an explosion of interest in recreational diving that flowered in the 1950s and ’60s.
Choices in 1962
In an age before dive computers, what divers also needed was a wristwatch with the reliability, water resistance and accuracy to track the amount of air left in their tanks. When the Rado Captain Cook was released in 1962, choices facing the amateur diver would include the ultimate in tool watches, the Rolex Submariner ref. 5512 or its friendlier-priced sibling the Tudor Oyster Prince Submariner ref. 7928; the grandaddy of dive watches, the Blancpain 50 Fathoms which inked the blueprint for many a dive watch to follow since its introduction in 1953; Omega Seamaster 300 which Omega launched as a trio with the Speedmaster and Railmaster in 1957; and the Longines ref. 7042, one of a long list of makes that used the Super Compressor case that held sway through the 1960s, typified by signature internal rotating timing bezel and twin crowns at ‘2’ and ‘4’.
Compared to the other makes in the field as listed above, the Captain Cook was somewhat different in character; as the others seethed with machismo, Rado Captain Cook was somewhat more subdued and modest in demeanor, mixing performance with a touch of cheek, a millennial-friendly Flash (2014 TV series) to the Submariner’s brooding Batman (any one of them, except for Adam West’s version, which aired from 1966). The Rolex Submariner ref. 5512 was a veritable hulk in 40mm steel case with drilled lugs, its screw-down crown shouldered between crown guards for added protection, with generous licks of lume on the dial markings including the 0/60 marker on its bi-directional rotating bezel. Though Blancpain’s 50 Fathoms with uni-directional rotating bezel would have been even larger at 42mm when it was launched in 1953, by this time the civilian version from 1960 would be 35mm across, only growing to 41mm from 1965 with a huge no-radiation symbol on its dial to distinguish it from the military version supplied to the Pentagon.
Rado Captain Cook
On the other hand, the Captain Cook was a relatively svelte 35.5mm, and didn’t look very different from most dive watches until one looked closer. The domed acrylic crystal featured a magnifier over a window at ‘3’ which displayed the date, red-on-white. The Rolex Submariner would have to wait seven more years to get a date display, in the ref. 1680 of 1969. Captain Cook’s black dial bore the boldly lumed hour markers customary of dive watches, with broad hands (arrow-tipped for the minutes, or sometimes, the hour) aiding legibility. Where the minute track usually sits on the perimeter of the dial, in the Captain Cook, the minutes were marked in black on the silvered chapter ring beyond the dial. Also, in place of a brand logo that was printed or applied, Rado’s was a little fancier — articulated, so that the little anchor on the dial moved as the wearer swung his hand, though it was not mated to the A Schild AS1701 self-winding movement beating within. Framing all this – domed crystal and quirky black dial– was a bezel that not only stood out for not having a lumed point at 0/60, it also sloped inwards towards the crystal, daisy-like.
Rado’s Captain Cook was manufactured from 1962 to 1968, during which time some 8,000 pieces were made, making this off-kilter diver relatively rare. It was rated to 220m water resistance even though it didn’t have a screw-down crown. Might this be attributed to proprietary case technology which a patent marking on the caseback alludes to? In any case, a push-pull crown makes it all that more convenient to set and wind the automatic A Schild movement. Started in the late 19th century, A Schild was one the largest movement makers in Switzerland in the 1920s and supplied its well-regarded movements to many brands, before becoming part of what is ETA today, in 1979.
Perhaps serious diving would be a stretch; Captain Cook not being screwed down like submarine hatch requires a little more faith from its wearer; but recreational diving and water sports fall well within the watch’s advertised specifications, with a bonus that Captain Cook rewards its wearer with a touch of levity and quirk not often found elsewhere.