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Breguet - Louis Breguet: Aviation pioneer and watch enthusiast

Breguet Louis Breguet: Aviation pioneer and watch enthusiast

If the name of Breguet is associated with aeronautics as well as with watchmaking, it is due to one of the pioneers of world aviation, Louis Breguet.

Louis Breguet in fact represented the fifth generation of his family since the arrival in France in 1762 of his great-great- grandfather, Abraham-Louis Breguet (1747-1823), member of the French Academy of Sciences, who established his business in Paris and, with his son, Antoine- Louis (1776-1858), brought the art of watchmaking to its peak. Louis’ grandfather, Louis-Clément Breguet (1804-1883), also member of the Academy of Sciences, devised a large number of electrical instruments. He invented and built a dial telegraph adopted by many countries and developed several telecommunication systems that improved railroad safety. In recognition of his many achievements, his name is featured on the Eiffel Tower. Louis’ father, Antoine Breguet (1851-1882), graduate of the Polytechnique and one of the most promising engineers of his generation, introduced the Bell telephone in France before dying prematurely at the age of 31.

Louis Breguet, newly graduated from the École supérieure d’électricité (school of electrical engineering), seemed destined to take over the family telecommunications and electric-motor activities, the watchmaking business having been sold by his grandfather in 1870. However he surprised his relatives by turning decisively towards aviation. 

Summing up the career of Louis Breguet in a few lines is no easy task given that he and the Société Anonyme des Ateliers d’Aviation Louis Breguet that he established and ran (later known as Breguet Aviation) became the major players of the aviation world for nearly a century. As an engineer and company manager, Louis Breguet entered history in his lifetime on three counts: for his pioneering work on helicopters, for his major contribution to military aviation and for his role in establishing civilian air transport.

The gyroplane, an early helicopter

From 1905 to 1909, in partnership with his brother, Jacques, and professor Charles Richet, Louis Breguet entered the emerging world of aviation with an original approach: rotary wings or vertical takeoff. In 1907 his Gyroplane n°1, a curious aircraft with four rotating systems comprising eight propellers each, was twice airborne for about one minute: it reached an altitude of 60 centimeters on August 24 and almost 1.5 meters on September 20. It was a world first and Louis Breguet immediately informed the Academy of Sciences. In its meeting of September 16 it made the lift-off of August 24 official by declaring: “A helicopter- type craft succeeded for the first time in becoming weightless and leaving the ground with its engine, supplies and one man on board.” Faced with the poor results obtained by two other rotary-wing machines, Louis Breguet, abandoned vertical takeoff in 1909, despite his conviction that this was a promising solution, and embarked on the construction of conventional aircraft with biplanes and then monoplanes. But he hadn’t yet said his last word on the matter. Indeed, 23 years later, in 1932, he decided to resume the gyroplane venture, when, at the peak of his career he was listened to and watched by his competitors around the world. Even though the technology had advanced considerably, especially so far as engines were concerned, the undertaking was still regarded as somewhat crazy. Nevertheless with a reduced team consisting of René Dorand and Maurice Claisse, and after three years of relentless efforts, 1935 and 1936 saw the exploits of the experimental Breguet-Dorand gyroplane. Breaking records of maneuverability, speed (108 km/h), altitude (158 meters), endurance (one hour and three minutes) and hovering (10 minutes), it firmly established itself as the first modern helicopter. Louis Breguet, thus twice strongly influenced the history of the helicopter and inspired a whole generation of engineers in his wake, including Igor Sikorsky and Frank Piasecki. 

Louis Breguet: Aviation pioneer and watch enthusiast

Breguet and military aviation 

Returning in 1909 to a more conventional approach, Louis Breguet built biplanes from 1911 for the armed forces of France, the United Kingdom and Russia. Like the world’s other aviation pioneers in 1914, he committed himself totally to the industrial production of aircraft, which had by then become exclusively machines of war. On September 2, 1914, a few days before leaving the front line to attend to his factories, he undertook on his own initiative one of the hazardous aerial reconnaissances that would alert the French general staff to the German attempt to get around Paris from the east. This intelligence, taken seriously by generals Gallieni and Joffre, ended in the first battle of the Marne, made famous by the Paris taxis requisitioned to rush reinforcements to the front line. Louis Breguet was awarded the Croix de Guerre medal for his outstanding feat and his name was to be forever associated with the victory on the Marne that changed the course of the war.

However, the conflict bogged down into trench warfare. Aircraft production was stepped up but it took another two years before there was any real technological development in aviation. The Breguet 14 aircraft made its maiden flight in November 1916 and was mass-produced from 1917. This ultra-modern two-seater biplane featured an all-metal structure (with canvas-covered fuselage and wings) representing the very first use of duralumin. Built for reconnaissance and bombing, it caused a sensation among flight squadrons thanks to its speed, its maneuverability, its high payload capacity, as well as its 6,000-meter ceiling that put it out of reach of enemy aerial pursuit. It turned out to be an indisputably major factor in the allied victory of 1918. The Breguet 14 of which almost 8,000 were built and sold to around 15 countries, including the United States, where it was in service for more than 10 years, gave its designer a worldwide reputation5. Its successor, the Breguet 19 was in the same mold and went on to equip air forces around the world. Other multi-crewed combat aircraft followed and then came the powerful tactical bomber, the Breguet 690, which was ordered too late by the French general staff to prove its worth in the battle of France in 1940. However it was also ordered by Belgium and Sweden. Louis Breguet continued to supply armed forces to the end, and so did his successors. The 1950s and 1960s saw the development and sales of the Breguet 1050 Alizé anti-submarine aircraft that flew off the French aircraft carriers Clémenceau and Foch until 2000, and that was also used by the Indian navy. This was followed by the Breguet 1150 Atlantic long-range maritime patrol and reconnaissance aircraft, winner of the NATO competition in 1958 and acquired by France, Italy, Germany and the Netherlands. An upgraded version is still flying over the world’s oceans and deserts. The Breguet 941 troop carrier that could land in a football field came next, and finally the Franco-British Jaguar strike aircraft, which had a long and brilliant career. 

Breguet and civil aviation

It was however in the area of civil aviation that Louis Breguet revealed himself to be a true theoretician and a visionary entrepreneur. Mass-passenger transport was an old ambition, first glimpsed on March 23, 1911, when with 11 people on board his 90 horsepower biplane, he broke the record of the number of passengers carried. As soon as World War I was over, he was among those who envisaged peacetime aviation. In February 1919 he established the Compagnie des Messageries Aériennes to carry passengers as well as mail on the Paris-Brussels and then the Paris- London routes. For the next 15 years he continued to develop a major network through partnerships, mergers and links that was coherent and, if possible, profitable. The Paris-Le Havre route was launched in 1921 to connect with the liners to New York. In the summer of 1922, the route from Paris to Marseilles via Lyons was inaugurated with a connection from Lyons to Geneva. In March 1923, Louis Breguet merged his enterprise with his competitor on the Paris-London route, the Compagnie des Grands Express Aériens, presiding over the new company which he named Air Union. In 1929, the Marseilles-Ajaccio-Tunis line was inaugurated; in 1931, Tunis-Algiers; and, in 1932, Lyons-Cannes. The same year, Air Union started, operating the direct Paris-Geneva flight in association with Swissair, with connections to Swiss domestic flights. By 1932, Air Union became the biggest French airline in terms of distance flown and passengers carried. In 1933 Louis Breguet signed the document that brought Air France into being after the French government decided to merge the five carriers of the time: Air Union, Air Orient, CIDNA and the Farman and Aéropostale airlines.

Louis Breguet: Aviation pioneer and watch enthusiast

The Breguet 14s must of course be mentioned in the context of the Latécoère and then the Aéropostale mail services in Europe, Africa and Latin America, immortalized in the writings of Jean Mermoz, Henri Guillaumet and Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. It would also be unfair to ignore the long-distance flights featuring Breguet aircraft from the start of the 1920s to the mid-1930s. These were, of course, individual exploits by planes that were not yet carrying freight or passengers, but they pointed to future possibilities and marked out what were later to become scheduled air routes. Among the best known were Paris- Tokyo in 1924 by Pelletier d’Oisy and Bésin; Madrid-Manila in 1926 by Gallarza and Loriga; the round-theworld flight in 1927 by Costes and Le Brix with the first crossing of the South Atlantic from Saint-Louis in Senegal to Natal in Brazil; Paris-Peking in 1929 by Arrachart and Rignot; and, of course, the flight that captured popular imagination, the non-stop Paris to New York in 37 hours and 18 minutes by Costes and Bellonte on September 1 and 2 in Point d’Interrogation, a long-distance Breguet 19.

Although Louis Breguet used disarmed and especially modified Breguet 14s to launch his activities as a founding president of an airline, he also embarked on the design of such purpose-built passenger aircraft as the Breguet 28 Limousine and the Breguet 393 which turned out to have an excellent safety record. His most spectacular achievement after World War II was the Breguet 760 Deux-Ponts, a four-engine aircraft with a hundred seats spread between two decks and the ancestor of Airbus A-380. This particularly reliable and economic plane experienced no fatal accidents throughout its twenty years in service. In a far-sighted lecture in 1921, he described the aircraft of the future, which would fly at an altitude of 13,500 meters and bring New York to within six hours of Paris 10. Louis Breguet did all he could to make air travel accessible to the greatest number, rejecting the notion of an elitist form of transport reserved only for the very rich. In 1943, he envisaged lowcost charters 30 years ahead of their time with the intention of bringing air fares down to the equivalent of third-class rail travel.

Louis Breguet died in 1955 while still extremely active in the firm, and the company that bore his name was taken over by the businessman, Sylvain Floirat, who brought a number of projects to fruition. In 1967, Marcel Dassault, another leading light in the field of French aviation, acquired Breguet Aviation, before incorporating it within his own company, then renamed Avions Marcel Dassault- Breguet Aviation, although more commonly known as Dassault-Breguet. The French government approved the deal, which gave Marcel Dassault the extra industrial resources of the Toulouse and Anglet sites that turned out to be most useful to his global ambitions. 

Louis Breguet: Aviation pioneer and watch enthusiast

Louis Breguet’s ties with watchmaking 

In parallel with his aeronautical and also sporting activities, Louis Breguet maintained contacts with the Brown family that took over his grandfather’s watchmaking company, in proud memory of his ancestors’ horological endeavors. The Louis Breguet aviation workshops frequently appeared in the ledgers of the watchmaking company from 1922. This indicates that Louis Breguet offered future opportunities for aviation-specific watchmaking products to the then directors of Montres Breguet. Moreover, in 1923 he chaired the committee celebrating the centenary of Abraham-Louis Breguet (1747-1823). It staged some major events in France and Switzerland culminating in the exhibition at the Galliera Museum in Paris that Louis Breguet opened with the French president, Alexandre Millerand. For several weeks, the aircraft manufacturer found himself immersed in the watchmaking word and frequented by its eminent representatives from France, Switzerland and Britain. He spent a lot of time with the London industrialist, Sir David Salomons and Henry Brown, owner of Montres Breguet, as well as with his son and successor, George Brown. On October 26, Louis Breguet invited all these watchmaking representatives on a tour of his factories at Vélizy-Villacoublay. The following day he concluded a long speech in the Sorbonne university amphitheater with these words: “One of the finest jewels in the crown of the watchmaking industry is the fact of having helped the navy solve navigational problems on the high seas. Furthermore it today makes a powerful contribution to helping air navigators — whose efforts are particularly close to my heart — to find their way in space.” This was the engineer talking: watchmaking indeed had challenges to take up and a part to play in the emergence of aviation, similar to its former role for the navy. This declaration, from the mouth of an aircraft manufacturer, Louis Breguet, who was also president of the aviation industry’s trade association, takes on a particular resonance.

Frequent orders for Breguet timekeeping instruments from the aircraft manufacturer, Louis Breguet, continued for some time and Breguet watches naturally featured in the cockpits of Breguet aircraft. It is also interesting to note that one of the earliest steel chronographs with the special retour en vol or instant restart function was sold to Louis Breguet’s company in 1952. One of the first examples of what would become the Type XX model two years later was, thus, tested by Louis Breguet and his colleagues — an apt choice that proves how close the two Breguet enterprises really were. 

One can only conclude by remarking that the celebrated aviation pioneer was also a watch enthusiast. He took a keen interest in watches as scientific instruments and his role as a behind-the-scenes consultant to the Breguet watchmaking company, although little known, was nonetheless real and substantial.

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Breguet’s archives, kept in Switzerland and in Paris, record the developments that have sustained Breguet watchmaking for more than two centuries. The firm is committed to remaining ahead of its time with a flow of inventions and improvements.

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