50th Year of the Automatic Chronograph: Who Came First?By Darren Ho
We mark the 50th year of the automatic chronograph with a series of articles devoted to this beloved complication, starting at the beginning!
Mechanical watchmaking is, for all intents and purposes, an old-school industry. Manufacturing methods may have modernised, in the same way that the Ford Motor Company modernised industrial production with the conveyor belt. However, while cars today are made with electronic internals, mechanical watches still bear the age-old and proven Swiss lever escapement and traditional gear train as its “computer”.
In recent years, watchmaking has invented new mechanical solutions and innovations, but none so important as the invention of the automatic chronograph 50 years ago. It started from a decline in public interest in chronograph timepieces, due to an increasing popularity of automatic and waterproof timepieces.
Hand-wound chronographs seemed backward compared with a wristwatch that would generate sufficient power from a regular work day without having to hand-wind. The race had in fact started in the late ’40s, but the leading watch movement developers of the time (Lemania and Omega, among others) had ceased their efforts or decided it wasn’t worth the time.
By the ’60s, the race had intensified to four key players and further reduced to just three in the running.
Among collectors and chronograph aficionados, there’s plenty of questioning (even today) as to which was the first automatic chronograph of 1969. But based on common archival information, Zenith’s El Primero was indeed the first to release its prototype. The El Primero was announced on January 10, 1969 and remains a world standard with a column wheel chronograph and a high-paced 5Hz movement.
The 3019 PHC was solid on all the right spots. It was compact, at 30mm in diameter and 6.5mm in height, with a 50-hour power reserve and impressive performance. This was despite the fact that the brand was far smaller than its competitors and in fact had far less resources than they did. Though it would take longer to release a model in series in October 1969, the El Primero has the renown of being the first automatic chronograph and one that is still in production today.
Zenith had begun work on the project shortly after acquiring the chronograph maker Martel in 1960. It had intended to complete the project much earlier but success took a good 7 years. The brand made its announcement well ahead of the Baselworld fair so as to be able to claim its first mover status, after hearing news that the Chronomatic project would be showing their design at Basel.
According to common knowledge, the next to announce was the Chronomatic group of collaborators, on 3 March, which included Breitling, Buren, Hamilton, Heuer and Dubois-Depraz. The project was called “Project 99” and announced its success with a lever-and-cam operated chronograph module mounted on a standard watch movement which would work across the brands.
However, in more recent years, there’s some questioning on the timeline, particularly with regards to the third competitor, Seiko. Seiko’s 6139 was officially launched in Japan in the May of 1969, in a watch that’s dubbed the Speedtimer. The movement featured an integrated column wheel chronograph with vertical clutch, and the watch bore a 30-minute chronograph totaliser at 6 o’clock with a day-and-date aperture display at 3. However, production references have suggested that early Speedtimers indicate a March 1969 serial production date, and recently, Seiko 6139-6000 models with a February 1969 serial production have appeared from Japan. (The Japanese models had 23 jewels, while international models had 17.)
Due to the nature of the Japanese market, it’s a challenge to know which of these dates are accurate. Seiko 6139-6000 pieces have surfaced with dial references that date to a December 1968 production. Despite that, it’s impossible to tell if these are Franken-watches or not. Jack Heuer noted that the head of Seiko then, Mr. Itiro Hattori, visited the Heuer booth at Baselworld 1969 and congratulated them on their claim to the first production automatic chronographs. Based on his anecdote, it’s possible that Seiko acknowledged they came after.
The 6139 ceased production in the end of 1969, replaced by a new calibre, the 6138. The bicompax chronograph was released in a bullshead case, some featuring a unique octagonal underside — industrial design, anyone?
Back to the Project 99 Chronomatic chronograph, however, it manifested its success at the Baselworld fair of 1969, with 10 working prototypes and quickly earned nods both for its consistent performance and its practical value — as a module, it could easily be fitted onto various watches. While this meant that the chronograph pushers and crown weren’t in line on the flanges of the case, the difference was so small that it was a non-issue.
The Chronomatic was known as the Calibre 11 in Heuer, and the first production pieces were on the market by August 1969. It appeared in several watch models, most notably the Monaco reference 1133, designed for the Monaco Formula One race and made famous by Steve McQueen in the movie Le Mans. The Monaco incidentally was also renowned as the first waterproof, automatic chronograph watch housed in a square case.
Check out the other article in our series commemorating the 50th anniversary of the automatic chronograph:
50th Year of the Automatic Chronograph: The Second Wind
50th Year of the Automatic Chronograph: In the Age of Quartz
50th Year of the Automatic Chronograph: The Drive In-house
50th Year of the Automatic Chronograph: Race to be the Best