The history of the automatic chronograph
Half a century ago, a consortium of brands Heuer-Leonidas, Breitling, Buren-Hamilton and Dubois Dépraz competed with the loners Zenith and Seiko to create and launch the world's first automatic chronograph movement. Of course, all developments were kept in strict secrecy, but the consortium was quite confident in its success. However, while reading the morning newspaper on January 10, 1969, Jack Hoyer, the CEO of the Heuer watch company, nearly dropped his coffee cup at the news. A short article reported that rival Zenith had invented the world's first automatic chronograph and was already showing working prototypes of the El Primero caliber. But how is this possible? The consortium has been working hard on this task for 3 years now and has scheduled the release of caliber 11 on March XNUMXrd. How could Zenith handle faster?
This story captures well the spirit of the era of economic boom, the accelerated development of the automotive industry, the first flight to the moon and the hippie movement. The world was changing in the blink of an eye, both in terms of technical progress and the deep attitudes of society, everyone competed with everyone: from brands to countries. The Swiss watch industry, cultivating centuries-old traditions, tried to keep up with the times - the manufacturers knew that this was the only chance to survive in the era of competition. In general, we can say that at this time the impending quartz crisis, which almost destroyed the entire mechanical watch industry ten years later, has already begun to approach and cast a shadow on the Swiss brands. The creation of a modern automatic chronograph has become the main goal of the largest manufacturers.
Nowadays automatic chronographs are available from many brands, but then it was a serious challenge, because previously no one managed to fit both the automatic winding system and the popular chronograph function into a small wrist watch case. Zenith was the first company to develop an automatic chronograph in 1962. The brand planned to release its invention in 1965 for its centenary, but such an ambitious date proved impossible: it took another four years to complete the project.
Zenith's rivals were Project 99, a codename that hid an alliance of key timekeepers from Breitling, Heuer-Leonidas and Hamilton-Buren. The creation of this project was preceded by a request from an outstanding specialist of his time in the field of movement design, Gerald Dubois, head of the technical department of Dépraz & Cie. He had previously worked on an automatic chronograph himself, but the project required more investment than his company could afford. The work began in 1966 and marked the beginning of a unique collaboration between competing brands and suppliers. The result was caliber 11, which appeared three years later, Breitling called this caliber Chrono-Matic, Heuer used it on their dials, but in a slightly different spelling - Chronomatic.
The Japanese rival and the main threat to the Swiss brands were also awake - Seiko began developing its own automatic chronograph in the mid-1960s. The secret project of this brand was codenamed 6139. A year later, he presented his first wrist chronograph at the Tokyo Olympics, although still with a manual winding. At the same time, Seiko began developing another technology - quartz watches, but that's another story.
Each of the three rivals used a different approach to achieving the goal. Zenith relied on the number 36 - as fans of the watch industry have already guessed, this refers to the frequency of vibrations per hour of the balance of the El Primero caliber, which has reached an impossible mark of 000 vibrations per second. This frequency allows the El Primero chronograph to measure time with an accuracy of 10 / 1th of a second. Despite such a frequency, the power reserve of the movement was 10 hours, moreover, they managed to fit it into a space measuring 50 by 6,5 millimeters. In addition, the watches turned out to be aesthetically pleasing, and to this day they remain popular with connoisseurs of Swiss accessories.
Project 99 took a different approach - they relied on the module, much like complications were built into the early pocket watches. The chronograph module was attached to caliber 11. To make room for it, the team ditched the central rotor above the movement and opted for a peripheral rotor instead. One of the consequences of this decision was the positioning of the crown on the left side of the case, which was then reflected in the advertising slogan "Chronograph that does not need to be wound."
Seiko chose the third route and relied on an integrated design with a column wheel, center rotor and vertical linkage, as well as a "magic lever" - an element that the brand has used to increase the efficiency of the winding mechanism since 1959 - the lever collected all the energy of the oscillating weight, independently from which direction it rotated.
After the morning news on January 10, 1969, the consortium convened an urgent meeting at which the companies decided not to move their planned premiere. Unveiled on March 3, 1969, the movement drew a strong press response, despite being presented two months later than a competitor's design. Each brand in the group has incorporated the caliber 11 into its most popular model: Breitling in the Navimeter and Chronomat; Heuer in Carrera, Autavia and Monaco Hamilton has incorporated the caliber into the Hamilton Chrono-Matic with its iconic panda dial.
The Seiko brand was in no hurry and introduced its movement in May 1969. Initially, he did not enter into active competition with other brands, preferring to first introduce a new development in his home market, but after a few years he almost completely took over the US market, moving Swiss companies.
It remains surprising that in the same year, brands working on different concepts and in the strictest secrecy from each other managed to create the most important watches of the century. Although for the time of the incredible pace of development of technology, which was the second half of the last century, such coincidences were not so rare. In terms of watchmaking, El Primero was the absolute number one for about half a century, setting standards not only in technical aspects, but also in terms of style - in this race Zenith won.
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