Who invented the self-winding watch?
Tuesday - 07 May 2013
Nowadays, most luxury wristwatches don't need winding. Instead, they're powered by movement. As long as a self-winding watch regularly adorns its owner's wrist, it will never stop telling the time.
Watches haven't always been this way. What's more, many of today's lower-priced watches still need daily winding to keep the hands moving.
What's the story behind the self-winding watch?
Switzerland, 1986. The Japanese watchmaker Seiko unveils a brand new watch under the trial name AGM. Remarkably, although it's a battery powered quartz watch, Seiko claims it will never stop. The AGM's battery is recharged by kinetic energy, so while it's being worn, it will always keep going.
The watch launched to the public in 1988, and the new technology quickly caught the imagination of watch lovers around the world. In 1991, Seiko relaunched the watches under the Kinetic brand name, and their popularity continued. In the first 20 years after the AGM launched, Seiko sold over eight million automatic quartz watches.
Seiko was a pioneer, and has created a technology few other watchmakers have successfully replicated. Citizen tried with it's $1,000 Eco-Drive Duo, but it failed to attract consumer interest, and Citizen withdrew the Duo from the market. The most notable success is the Autoquartz movement by Swiss watchmaker ETA SA. ETA's autoquartz movements are used by a number of luxury watchmakers, including Tissot, Rado, Longines and Fortis.
Seiko's kinetic watches launched 25 year's ago, but Seiko weren't the first to invent an automatic watch. They were many year's behind the original automatic watch. Centuries behind, in fact.
To find the original automatic watch, we must go back to 18th century Switzerland.
The Neuchâtel mountains, the early 1770s. A middle aged watchmaker, Abraham-Louis Perrelet is in his 40s. Perrelet has devoted his life to the study of time and watches, but feels that time, for him, is running out. His life so far has been unremarkable. He still lives only a short walk from the place he was born.
He's had one breakthrough, which he might be remembered for. He invented a tool for repairing damaged gear teeth in pocket watches. But truthfully, he wants to do something extra special that will put his name down in history.
Eventually, Perrelet is struck by an idea. We don't know how or when exactly, but maybe he was sitting watching the pendulum swing of a clock when he had his Eureka moment. What if a pendulum could be put inside a watch? As the watch wearer moved about the office, or walked through the city, the pendulum would swing, winding up the watch.
Perrelet set to work, and by 1776 he had a prototype automatic pocket watch. He quickly produced models for sale, and he began selling the watches at twice the price of a high quality ordinary watch.
A year later, with the automatic watch still selling well, the Genera Society of Arts reported that "fifteen minutes walk suffices to make the watch run eight days."
A stopclock built into the mechanism prevented the watch from overwinding. Or as the Geneva Society of Arts put it, "owing to a stopclock, continuation of the walking motion cannot damage the watch."
Despite his great accomplishment, Perrelet's love of watches never ceased. He built his last watch at the age of 95, less than two years before his death.