First Quartz Watch: Seiko Astron

Plaza Watch International - - World - First -

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

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