First Quartz Watch: Seiko Astron
reflected its intention to be out of this world. On December 25th, 1969 – a day which may well live in infamy for the mechanical watch industry – the Japanese manufacturer Seiko launched the world’s first quartz watch: the Quartz Astron.
The watch had taken a decade to develop and from the outset looked risky, even if the Swiss too were pursuing the idea: not only were the 1960s a good time for sales of mechanical watches, but Seiko was suggesting a retail price of 450,000 yen, more than a new Toyota Corolla car at the time. It was, however, first to market – Swiss manufacturers, working with the Centre Eletronique Horlogere research centre, had shown concepts in 1967 but had failed to realise any commercially. And Seiko was on a mission: in 1968 Seiko’s president, Shoji Hattori, effectively ordered the company to produce a marketable product within a year. This proved also to be a marvel of miniaturisation. Four years earlier Seiko had introduced the first portable quartz-timing device, which was subsequently used in the Tokyo Olympic Games. But portable meant “the size of a wardrobe.”
In the short time that followed, watch technician Tsuneya Nakamura, who headed the so-called ‘59A Project’ team working on quartz for Seiko, had re-developed a tuning fork shape for the quartz crystal – allowing for a necessarily steady and predictable vibration when a voltage is applied to it – devised an ‘open’ design for the step motor and come up with the energy-saving step motion for the second hand. “Have you ever seen a second?” became the catchphrase for the marketing of this new generation of watch. Indeed, these were all key inventions that would become, and remain, the standards within the quartz watch industry that subsequently blossomed.
Remarkably, perhaps crazily, Seiko did not seek to monopolise patent rights on any of these ideas, deciding that opening them up to competition would better drive a fledgling sector forward. Certainly the sector ran with the idea: the quartz frequency typically used in watches today is four times that used in the Astron, technically making them four times more accurate in the process. JS
The name perhaps