1969 Seiko Astron: the watch of the future
Most people have probably never heard of the Astron but, that should in no way lessen its value to the history of watch making and engineering as a whole. What makes this watch, which Seiko unvailed in Tokyo Christmas Day 1969 so special? Well, chances are good that the watch on your arm uses the technology developed for this watch.
The Seiko Astron was the very first electric quartz wristwatch.
original 1969 18k gold Seiko Quartz Astron
The concepts behind quartz technology had been known going back to the 1920’s when Warren Marrison developed the first quartz clock but, the problem had been shrinking it down to a usable size. Every major power in the post-war world had a group working on this now seemingly simple concept but, it only seems simple because it is so pervasive today.
The story begin in 1959 high in the mountains of central Japan where Suwa Seikosha (the predecessor of the modern Seiko Co.) embarked on a mission to develop the first personal quartz timepiece. This mission became known as the “59A Project” and it bore much fruit over the next decade including a quartz marine chronometer, precision timing clocks for the Tokyo Olympics and the Japanese bullet train system. One of the biggest problems with shrinking things is making a power source that can be that small so, the invention of the integrated circuit in the mid 1950’s was really what made this new technology possible. With the vacuum tubes and transistors of the day it never would have happened. When a prototype was finally produced in 1967 the company sent it to one of the most prestigious accuracy competition in the world, the Neuchatel Observatory competition* and nearly single handedly ended the era of mechanical watches over night.
original 1969 Seiko Astron electronic quartz movement
The Suwa Seikosha quartz wristwatch type 35SQ was released to the public on Christmas Day 1969 under the name Seiko Quartz Astron and within a week K. Hattori & Co., Ltd. (present-day Seiko Co.) had sold 100 18k gold watches at the amazing price of $1,250 which, at the time, was about the same price as a brand new Toyota!
The original Astron boasted ±5 seconds per month or about a minute per year! In 1969 that blew most mechanical watches out of the water and the silver battery would keep it running for a year with no winding. You can see how big of a splash this watch made just by looking at the market today. How many quartz movements do you see?
The Astron also introduced the “dead second” to watch making, where the second hand stops at every marker instead of sweeping around the face. This action became a hallmark of quartz watches everywhere for a very simple reason, power consumption. This style of seconds readout was very tough on the power source. The battery needed to be drained continuously to move the hand. With a “dead second” hand the hand moves just once each second, thus reducing the power consumed from the battery. And low and behold that ticking seconds hand that is the hallmark of quartz watches was born. It is all about power consumption and keeping batteries alive in watches from 2-10 years. All of this helped it to its rightful place on the IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineering) list of historic engineering milestones
2009 Limited edition 40th anniversary Seiko Quartz Astron, $5000!
For the 40 year anniversary Seiko released 200 brand new commemorative Astrons. The case looks like the original except wrought from titanium instead of gold but, it got a big upgrade in the movement. So, if you have $5000 to throw at a heritage quartz watch, actually no, I probably still wouldn’t say buy this but, it is an amazing watch with an amazing story.
*Observatory testing regimes typically lasted for 30 to 50 days and contained accuracy standards that were far more stringent and difficult than modern standards such as those set by Contrôle Officiel Suisse des Chronomètres (COSC). Of the ≈250,000 “official chronometers” certified each year in the 1960’s only a few hundred of the very best mechanical chronometers from around the world would be sent to the observatory competitions. When a movement passed the Observatory, it became certified as an Observatory Chronometer and received a Bulletin de Marche from the Observatory, stipulating the performance of the movement. Observatory competitions ended by the mid-70’s with the proliferation of quartz movements.