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The race to create the world's first automatic chronograph

There are few events as dramatic in the history of watchmaking, than the race to create the world's first automatic chronograph in the 1960s 

The Zenith El Primero, the Heuer Monaco and the Seiko Pogue.
The Zenith El Primero, the Heuer Monaco and the Seiko Pogue.

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One of the most popular complications in watchmaking is the chronograph. And I don’t say this just because of the numerous chronographs that are firm Instagram favourites. Right from the beginning of wristwatches, and even before that, the need to use a watch to time a specific action has been acute. It began with the genius of the Swiss watchmaker, Charles Victor Adolphe Nicol, who, in 1844, at the age of 30, devised a mechanical movement with a re-setting seconds hand that made chronometric measurements possible. In 1862, when Nicole added two pushers to the movement to start, stop and re-set the seconds hand, the chronograph was born.

Although fairly popular in the era of pocket watches, it is in the world of wristwatches, from the 1920s onwards, that the chronograph function really shone. Movement developers like Lemania, and brands like Eberhard, Universal Genève, Longines and Breitling soon jumped on the bandwagon to create timepieces with a complication that, unlike say the moonphase, had an actual practical benefit in a society that was becoming more industrialised by the day. 

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Mechanical chronographs, with their complex and beautiful movements, from the first half of the 20th century, remain some of the most collectible watches for a reason. In the 1950s, when industry heavyweights like Omega and Rolex started creating mass-marketed chronographs, the popularity of the movement fairly exploded. This trend intensified further in the next decade, as the growing popularity of motorsports gave birth to the concept of the racing chronographs, for measuring laps. Watches like the Omega Speedmaster, first produced in 1957, were already causing a splash, and by the time the Speedmaster was selected by NASA to be worn by astronauts on its manned space programmes in the late 1960s, the chronograph was firmly established as the other great sporty watch of choice, alongside the dive watch.

But unlike with divers and other kinds of three-handers, what stumped manufacturers was how to attach a self-winding rotor, the cornerstone of an automatic watch, to a chronograph movement. And this spurred a remarkable race to develop the world’s first automatic chronograph, which lasted through the 60s, and came to a heady photo-finish in 1969. Ironically, that year, Seiko also released the world’s first quartz watch, Astron, which ended up changing the entire industry.

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But that is to get ahead of the story. The race for the automatic chrono is a compelling tale in itself, one that would go on to have considerable ramifications for both chronographs and the industry as a whole. Proceeding parallelly, in top secret, were three parties: two standalone brands in the Swiss Zenith and Japanese Seiko, and one alliance in the Swiss brands Heuer, Breitling and Hamilton (which was an American watch brand then). 

Closely shrouded in secrecy as all three efforts were, it’s difficult to pinpoint who exactly started the move. But all indications are that it was Zenith, which began its project in 1962, after acquiring the Martel Watch Company, which produced chronograph movements, with the aim of unveiling an auto chrono in 1965, the manufacture’s centenary year. But creating such a movement was easier said than done, and it wasn’t till end-1968 that Zenith had its prototypes.

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Heuer and Breitling, were the biggest makers of chronographs in the early Sixties, alongside Omega. While Heuer targeted motorsports, Breitling focused on aviation. But neither company had the capability to make an automatic chronograph by themselves. So, in a remarkable move, the two rivals joined hands in in the early 60s, alongside Buren, which specialized in making thin automatic movements with microrotors, and Dubois-Depraz, a small company that mastered the art of making modular complication movements. When the latter was acquired by Hamilton in 1966, it too joined the ‘Chronomatic’ group, working on the movement that was code-named Project 99.

Seiko, by contrast, made it’s first moves towards creating an automatic chronograph in 1965, fresh from its successes in creating its first mechanical chrono in 1964, and providing timekeeping devices for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Seiko’s project too had a code-name, the 6139, named after the movement it was trying to create. While Zenith and Seiko’s approach were similar: an integrated automatic chronograph in one movement, the Chronomatic group went for a modular approach, marrying an automatic movement with a chronograph movement. Seiko’s 6139 movement was further differentiated by its proprietary “magic lever” system, which increased the efficiency of the winding system.

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And so, in early 1969, the competitors, unknown to each other, were more or less ready. The Chronomatic group were further ahead with working prototypes and closer to creating retail models. But Zenith got wind of this in late 1968, and in a pre-emptive move, announced its creation first, in January, calling the movement the El Primero. 

The Chronomatic group were taken aback, but chose to ignore this, instead going ahead with a lavish, global unveiling of their Caliber 11 Chrono-Matic in March. They were also first to the market, with new auto chronos from Heuer, Breitling and Hamilton hitting the shelves in August. Zenith could only follow suit in October. Seiko, surprisingly, hardly bothered with announcing anything, quietly releasing the new 6139 Seiko 5 Speed Timer in Japan by May 1969, and then internationally later that year. All three competitors showcased their innovations at the Basel Fair (pre-cursor to the now-defunct Baselworld) in March that year, but it’s the Caliber 11 that got all the attention.

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In some ways, Zenith and Seiko lost the battle, but won the war. By the early 1970s, Seiko had all but halted Heuer sales in the US, and in 1973, an orange-dial version of the Speed Timer was worn in space by the American astronaut William R. Pogue, creating an instant classic. Meanwhile, the El Primero, to this day, remains the class-leading automatic chronograph movement, and for a while, between 1988-2000, even served as the movement of choice for the Rolex Daytona.

Handwound is a column on watches and watchmaking.

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