The inaugural Turn-O-Graph ref. 6202 was the first serially-produced Rolex wristwatch to feature a rotating bezel; the new element was presented as an easier way to measure and record time. As the Turn-O-Graph came before the Explorer, Submariner, and GMT-Master, it has the distinction of being Rolex's first tool watch.
“now the simplest of all ways of timing has been invented. It is built into a wristwatch called the Rolex Turn-O-Graph. This new principle consists of an extra rim or bezel around the watch face. This rim is marked from zero to sixty and is easily turned by hand. To time an operation, all you have to do is align the zero mark on the rim with the second, minute, or hour hand of the watch. Thereafter, at any moment, you have an immediate record of the time elapsed.”
From a vintage ad for the Turn-O-Graph ref. 6202
The collaboration with the Thunderbirds (USAF Air Demonstration Squadron) began with a pilot who owned a Rolex Datejust Turn-O-Graph watch. The watch became popular amongst the squadron because of its practical timing bezel. In the late 1950s, Rolex was commissioned to supply the Thunderbirds with watches. Rolex subsequently capitalized on their relationship with the USAF and began marketing the Turn-O-Graph as the Rolex Thunderbird for the American market. There was eventually a special-edition full 18k gold version with the Thunderbird insignia on the dial.