Top Ten Technically Important Electronic Watches

Top Ten Technically Important Electronic Watches

Top Ten Technically Important Electronic Watches   ablogtowatch editor top lists

Until the 1950s, the wristwatch world was powered by springs. It wasn't even until the 50s that automatic winding watches started to become popular, meaning that most watches were not only powered by springs but also one's ability to wind that spring manually. It was human-powered timekeeping. Winding one's watch was part of daily routine, as was adjusting it regularly to keep it accurate. But 1957 heralded change and the beginnings of a revolution that would fully materialize in the 1970s and 80s, and it all started with the futuristic-sounding, electric watch.

Pre-quartz watch electric timekeeping technology was crude by today's standards, but rapid improvements helped make the battery-powered watch not only the dominate way people tell time today (don't ruin it for mechanical watch lovers by telling them), but also set the stage for wearable computers and a whole universe of watches that managed to do things no spring could ever hope to accomplish.


Top Ten Technically Important Electronic Watches   ablogtowatch editor top lists

1957: The Electric Watch

A horological landmark, the electric watch was the first battery-powered watch and part of the revolution that would eventually lead to the toppling of the mechanical watch by quartz technology. These early electric watches used a traditional balance wheel that was driven electromagnetically by a solenoid powered by a battery, and the hands were driven mechanically through a wheel train.

The production of an electric watch became a possibility thanks to the miniaturization of electronic components and the introduction of small batteries. Hamilton and Elgin both attempted to be the first to market.

Hamilton released the first one in 1957, the 500 Model. But it was rushed to market due to fears of Elgin releasing one ahead of them. Consequently, it was plagued with reliability issues from the start, which damaged its reputation. The cause was with the electrical contacts which soon wore out and were difficult to repair.

Even though a new, improved version was released in 1961 and Elvis could be seen wearing the distinctive arrow-pointed Hamilton "Ventura" model in the movie "Blue Hawaii," Bulova had by then released their more accurate and more dependable Accutron tuning fork watch, going on to become a huge success. The Hamilton 500 was a fusion, it still contained elements from the mechanical watch such as bridges and balance wheels, it was only after all the problems they encountered that they decided to modify this hybrid approach. Nevertheless, the Ventura model went on to become an iconic watch designed by Richard Arbib with an aesthetic which complemented the watch's very modern movement.


Top Ten Technically Important Electronic Watches   ablogtowatch editor top lists

1960: The Tuning Fork Watch

Unlike any other watch seen, either battery driven or mechanical, the Accutron was driven by a tuning fork which, depending upon the model, vibrated at 360-480 times a second. At the time, the most accurate mechanical watches were about 2hz -or two beats per second. The Accutron's higher frequency gave it an accuracy of one minute per month. Indeed, the Accutron was so precise for the time (pun intended) that it was the only watch that was accurate enough for space travel and as well precise enough for U.S railroad certification.

So confident were Bulova of the accuracy of the Accutron that they didn't even include a setting stem on the side of the watch, but instead placed it in the back of the case.

Because of its accuracy, it was chosen for use by some of the "Original Seven" Nasa astronauts and became embroiled in a battle with Omega for the accolade of being the first watch on the moon or "Moon Watch." A battle the Accutron ultimately lost due to not being dust-proof. The movement was, however, used in spacecraft instrument clocks and other time-keeping mechanisms, partly also because NASA was still unsure how gravity would affect mechanical movements.

The Bulova Accutron had a number of novel aspects that made them appealing to the public. Because they were powered by a tuning fork, they hummed rather than ticked and were the first to have sweeping seconds hands. "Spaceview" versions showed the highly distinctive and unusual tuning fork mechanism inside. But of course, being able to claim to be the most accurate wristwatch available, was a huge marketing advantage for them. By 1970 however, the writing was on the wall for the Accutron. Bulova did attempt to cling on a bit longer with the development of the "Accuquartz" model which combined tuning fork technology with quartz control.


Top Ten Technically Important Electronic Watches   ablogtowatch editor top lists

1969: The Quartz Watch

In 1927, Warren Marrison, a telecommunications engineer, was looking for reliable frequency standards at Bell Telephone Laboratories, but instead found he had invented the first quartz clock. It was based on the regular vibrations of a quartz crystal in an electrical circuit and was so large that a small truck was needed to move it. It took World War II to push quartz technology into making the long journey needed for it to be reduced down to a size usable in a wristwatch.

Military communication relied on radios, and as a result, quartz oscillators developed with more haste. Following this, a post-war interest in micro-electronics spurred on its further development. Suwa Seikosha, the early incarnation of Seiko, devoted considerable time and resources to the development of the quartz wristwatch. It served notice of its intentions and progress with a quartz timer for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.

Meanwhile, in Switzerland, a consortium of about a half dozen brands, Rolex and Omega included, called the Centre Electronique Horloger (CEH) were working on creating an electronic movement. A prototype called "Beta 21" was produced in 1967 with a 13-jewel, 8-khz quartz module. Before a production model was produced, though, CEH changed their mind, concluding that the future didn't lie in quartz technology and that it would be just a fad...

However, over in Japan, Seiko felt differently. In 1969, the quartz revolution was announced with the launch of the first production model, the "Astron." Unlike more modern quartz watches, the Astron's quartz oscillated at 8,192 cycles per second, about a quarter of what we expect nowadays. Due to its stepping motor - developed with Epson - it had a seconds hand that moved in one-second steps. Nothing special these days, but a sensation at the time. Seiko also claimed an accuracy of around one minute per month, making it the most precise watch available.

The first 100 "35 SQ" model Astrons were very expensive, costing about the same as a Toyota Corolla, 45,000 Yen or $1250 at the time, and weren't particularly dependable with many having to be recalled. But the quartz genie was out of the bottle, and there was no going back. Today, most watches are quartz and are the most affordable and accurate watches available.


Top Ten Technically Important Electronic Watches   ablogtowatch editor top lists

1970: The Ultra High Accuracy Quartz Watch

Today, it doesn't make much sense to develop more precise quartz movements since they can now sync with atomic clocks - and we even have  atomic clock wristwatches!  But, back in the 1970s when quartz technology was still young, brands vied to produce the most accurate quartz movements. These developments affected how quartz watches evolved and also the improvement of accuracy technology.

Generally, two approaches were taken: high frequency quartz technology; and thermocompensated quartz movements with the latter becoming the more commonly used.

Omega were the first to take up the challenge for the Swiss, and presented their 2.4 Mhz high frequency quartz watch, the "Megaquartz Marine Chronometer" at the Basel fair in 1970, which then hit the shelves in 1974. The most accurate wristwatch at the time, it lost just 1 second per month and was around 10 times more accurate than the quartz watches of the day. It was also the only quartz watch ever officially certified as "Marine Chronometer." However, Omega felt there was little practical need for a watch with such high accuracy and the line was discontinued in the late 1970s.

In 1975, Citizen released what is arguably the most accurate wristwatch ever produced. The Crystron 4 Mega used a 4Mhz frequency oscillator and was rated with a +/-3 sec per year accuracy. Like the Omega, the Crystron 4 Mega used a crystal that was thermo-insensitive, so no compensation was needed.

The disadvantages for these high frequency non-thermocompensated quartz movements were that higher frequency crystals consumed more power and the technology was expensive. Both models had a one-year battery life and the Omega retailed for nearly $2000 while the Citizen was a whopping $15,000 amid mid-seventies prices.

Rather than increasing oscillator frequency, another way of improving accuracy in a quartz movement is to combat the error caused by temperature. Rolex appears to be the first to make advancements in this area and after several years of development released their thermocompensated Oysterquartz model calibre 5035 in 1977. Rolex realized that in order to achieve superior accuracy it needed both a high frequency oscillator, combined with some way to negate the effect of temperature changes. They did this by using a thermistor to sense the ambient temperature, this data was then sent to an electronic module, which then adjusted the voltage to the quartz crystal. Although Rolex has never stated an official accuracy specification, unofficially, around 60 seconds per year was to be expected. It was one of the most exceptionally made quartz watches and was discontinued in 2004.

In 1978, Seiko responded with its "Twin Quartz" model which used digital thermocompensation. This has a subsidiary crystal oscillator that detects the temperature, then, along with a micro-processor, adjusts any timing error of the main crystal oscillator. Seiko claimed accuracy of  ±5 seconds a year, but production was expensive and demand from the general public not sufficient, so they were discontinued after a few years.

These days, examples of high-end quartz watches would be the "Superquartz" models from Breitling which use upgraded ETA movements featuring thermocompensation similar to the Rolex Oysterquartz. Or, from Seiko, a current high-end movement is the 9F calibre used exclusively in the Grand Seiko line. It's not only highly accurate, but also designed to need no maintenance for fifty years. more »

38 comments
philnjp
philnjp

Great article thanks from a newbie. Within 20 minutes of reading I had found and purchased my first vintage watch - a nice looking Accutron 214 spaceview :-)

Love something with history and so much better than a brand new one. Now to hunt down the rest of the list :-)

Emperius
Emperius

Here's a new Tokyoflash Kisai Xtal watch that somewhat resembles the Pulsar LED, which I quite like based on its 'analogue' look and warm LED matrix old school look.

SuperStrapper
SuperStrapper

I don't know if I would call them 'important', but the Precisionist movements that Bulova/CTZ have on the street right now (I think) do a great job of making highly accurate watches on the wrists of the masses, considering they are generally affordable. And, they just look so much better than your garden variety quartz with the near-immaculate smooth sweeping hands.  

Austin222
Austin222

"At the time, the most accurate mechanical watches were about 2hz -or two beats per second."

 Two hertz is four beats per second.  A typo I suspect.  Thanks for the article.

Oelholm
Oelholm

Easily one of the most educational post on the site - thank you for taking the time!

JoshuaOgle
JoshuaOgle

No calculator watches here? I was the baddest kid on the block when I got one back in the day.


Great article!

Emperius
Emperius

Excellent article! Man I'm now shopping for the Pulsar LED lol! I love the old look and analog red design.

MarkCarson
MarkCarson

Sure which I had not tossed out my circa 1974 Pulsar. By then they had a mercury switch so you only had to rotate your wrist to display the time (no longer had to press a button with your other hand). It was around $400 as I recall and I lusted after it for many months before getting one. Ended up getting the matching ladies model for my future first wife too. Nowdays  I have Seiko Kinetic which is dead, but plan to keep it.

TAGDUDE
TAGDUDE

Excellent historical history of electronic watches. Although I do wonder what will be the common time keeping instrument on peoples wrist 50 years from now - mechanical, electronic or some hybrid design.

Ulysses31
Ulysses31

That Synchronar looks cool.  I'm surprised there's no mention of Spring Drive here - a project that spanned the decades and cost god-knows how much to develop.

BillGeiser
BillGeiser

Hi Matt

Great article. Wanted to clarify the part regarding the Sony Ericsson Bluetooth watch launched in 2006. That watch was created through a partnership between Fossil and Sony Ericsson. And the group within Fossil that developed this product was subsequently spun out and became Meta Watch.

wstephens1
wstephens1

Still kicking my self for losing the Accutron. I had a watch very simular to this model at 18 years of age. Used to show it off to my friends didn't think they fully understood what they were looking at. This may have been the beginning of my love for time pieces.

Sad to say I was to young to appreciate what I had. Dam!!!

Patrick Kansa
Patrick Kansa

This is a great history lesson - thanks for the writeup, Matt!

Matt Boston
Matt Boston

@Kris C The Precisionist watches are interesting with those sweeping hands and as you point out  affordable too, I like the 1/1000sec chrono they came out with recently, very accurate too. If I understand correctly they use quartz movements with some temperature regulation and the unique aspect of a three(instead of 2) pronged quartz crystal which improves accuracy.

Matt Boston
Matt Boston

@JoshuaOgle Thanks. I toyed with the idea of including calculator watches in the digital watches section, there was only so much I could cover though, glad someones mentioned them, they're certainly cool, as a kid I wanted one too.

Ulysses31
Ulysses31

@MarkCarson It's a shame.  Kinetic watches just aren't that exclusive any more, unless you were lucky enough to get one of the initial models with the weird futuristic design and that gradient style power reserve.  Remember those?

Matt Boston
Matt Boston

@TAGDUDE Thanks. Yes its interesting to ponder. Perhaps by then we will have some sort of cyborg-like "wrist implant" that is powered by our own metabolism..who knows!  Its certainly not so far fetched to think the wristwatch in some form or other will still be around.

aBlogtoWatch
aBlogtoWatch moderator

@Ulysses31 We went back and forth whether or not mentioning Spring Drive was a good idea. It most certainly is important and it does have an electronic component. It also took Seiko a long time to develop it for sure. The question is how impactful it is on a larger scale. Seiko more or less kept at it to offer a very cool bit of hybrid technology but how important is it to the masses? It is more an evolutionary tangent for enthusiasts like us rather than an innovation that will lead to more things like it which have mainstream impact.

Matt Boston
Matt Boston

@BillGeiser 

Hi Bill. 

Thanks for the comment, glad you liked the article and thanks for clarifying the information about the Sony Ericsson Bluetooth watch, thats interesting and I wasnt aware of that.

JoshuaOgle
JoshuaOgle

@SN0WKRASH @JoshuaOgle EHRMAHGERD! That is the most awesome thing I think I've ever seen. I just had one of those crappy Casios. I wonder if that thing is RPN like their scientific calculators?

GogogoStopSTOP
GogogoStopSTOP

@Matt Boston @GogogoStopSTOP   Ooops,  so much for my dyslexia.  I really enjoy my orange Pebble (a hit with everyone) & can see why Samsung is struggling & why Apple is taking the effort to task.  Thanks

Ulysses31
Ulysses31

@aBlogtoWatch @Ulysses31 It's hard to say, but Kinetic technology is also very old and was also once the preserve of their high-end watches.  Nowadays you can get a Kinetic powered watch (under one of the sub-brand names) for less than a hundred dollars.  Not sure if Spring Drive will go that way or if they'll preserve it for their premium lines.  I suspect they'll want to get the maximum return on their investment until nobody cares about it any more or it is superseded by something "better".

Matt Boston
Matt Boston

@aBlogtoWatch @Ulysses31 Ariel, good point about its impact on watches on a larger scale. Hybrid automobiles springs to mind..  If I recall correctly I think Seiko describes the Spring Drive as an "electronically regulated mechanical watch", I do wonder though whether  it could also be flipped around and described as a "mechanically driven electronic watch".. 

spiceballs
spiceballs

@arthurdavis @Patrick Kansa  and a third!

Hard to go past solar watches these days and their accuracy seems to be improving all the time, altho mechanical will always hold an attraction, for me.

Matt Boston
Matt Boston

@SN0WKRASH @JoshuaOgle Interesting. That's pretty high-tech for the day,  perhaps HP should update and re-issue it (knocking the zero off the price), could have a cult following! As far as I know only(?) Casio continue making Calculator watches (I remember they even made one that doubled as a tv remote!) although it wouldnt surprise me if Nixon has dabbled in this area..

SN0WKRASH
SN0WKRASH moderator

@JoshuaOgle here's what I found out and posted on the FB page with this photo: Hewlett-Packard HP-01 original calculator watch from 1977. Very cool with LED display. HP's first algebraic calculator, this one was meant to be used with a stylus. This gold one went for about $850 back then - not cheap!

It has a datatype for time, date, and time interval, and the ability to perform mathematics on these datatypes, plus a stopwatch that allows the stopwatch time to be multiplied or divided by a constant, and continuously display the results. Pretty smart watch.

MarkCarson
MarkCarson

@JoshuaOgle @SN0WKRASH Looks like you had to use a stylus (or ball point pen) to operate the recessed buttons on the HP which in the end was a bad UI (user interface) design. But yeah, the possible functionality is very intriguing.

Trackbacks

  1. […] First up, we’ve got a really great overview article on electric watches.  While I know that this category has confused me a bit in the past (due to the terminology), this post over at aBlogtoWatch really clarifies things, showing them to be defined as a sort of bridge between the mechanical watch era and the true, full-quartz, era.  There are definitely some interesting models in this segment, and Matt Boston runs down the top ten.  source […]

  2. […] The history of the Accutron Spaceview is actually rather interesting, as the open face and dial were never actually supposed to appear that way. Bulova Accutron produced a set of training watches to help explain how their new tuning fork-based watches worked when training retailers. The "dial-less" watches proved so popular it was decided to produce them, and thus history was made. For a few years Accutron produced a few versions of the Spaceview (with various case shapes) until it was clear that quartz was an emerging technology that made more sense. The Accutron Spaceview was so important we included it in a list of our top 10 most important electronic watches. […]

  3. […] In the 1970s and 1980s, the population of watchmakers, particularly in the USA, dropped off to “endangered species” numbers. If it had been 20 years later, you’d have college kids chaining themselves to Macy’s Department store, demanding that we “save the watchmakers.” This snobbery carried into the 1990s, and the new breed of watch enthusiasts looked down their collective noses at quartz watches. It might also be a good moment to look at the aBlogtoWatch list of the top 10 most important electronic watches. […]