I am into wrist-watches, and I love early automatic watches. At the time when this topic was hot it was late 1920s and early '30s. Self-winding watches were on all companies' design benches. It was more Engineering than Marketing back then.
Stakes are high on who invented the first automatic wrist-watch, just like the first micro-rotor, first automatic chronograph, first automatic pocket watch....my position on this front is for Harwood.
John Harwood, was THE inventor of a functional mass produced self winding watch vs Leon Leroy ( Leroy Cie. ) limited to 6 pieces automatic watch. Harwood, an Englishman from Isle of Man returns from WW I safely and troubles himself to fix the challenges he had in the trenches for reading time. He wanted to create a self-winding watch which is dust and moisture proof and can be worn on wrist. He sees the crown as a weak point for case protection so that's his start point, eliminate the crown. After much trial with different movements he makes his self-winding prototype movement in 1922. It's an enamel dial watch without a functional bezel. In his own words he says: " I set the time and closed the watch-case." It's about testing the self-winding mechanism anyway. Once the movement is set, he focuses on the time setting mechanism without an external crown. That's what he does in later prototypes, he integrates a crown inside the case which can be operated by the bezel. He is well aware of patenting intellectual property, therefore he applies for his patents. First in Great Britain on 7th Jul 1923, then in US on 8th Oct 1923, Switzerland 16th Oct 1923 and France on 17th Apr 1924. In order to mass produce his invention he heads to Switzerland to find manufacturing partners. He agrees with Adolph Schild, who owns an ebauche factory, to realize his invention. They manufacture some more prototypes and make improvements until Harwood's patent is registered in Switzerland finally on 1st of Sept. 1924. Serial production takes 2 more years in development and finally in 1926 Basel fair, the Harwood watch is ready for public. At that time John Harwood partners also with Walter Vogt for distribution. Vogt is a fabricateur himself who owns Fortis Watch Factory and believes that the future belongs to automatic watches. These two men become good partners and continue their cooperation even in later times with Harwood's Autorist watch. On 17 August 1928 John Harwood transfers the patent to the company " The Harwood self winding watch company ". This company sells all the rights, patents and inventory to Harwood Uhrenaktiengesellschaft ( Societe Anonyme de Montres Harwood ) on 20th July 1929 where Walter Vogt is in the board. After this transaction many patents surface for early automatic watches which may be a sign that this corporation didn't renew the patent and let the industry grow. After selling all the rights and inventory the Harwood Watch Company changes its name to Harwatch Syndicate Ltd. Co. The company sells all its tools, equipment and furniture on 13th Nov 1933 in Bienne, marking the end of the Harwood era. The manufacture stations for sale are listed as Harwood and Autorist stations along with 200 dozen ebauches.
Georges Dubois, Technical Director of A. Schild at the time when John Harwood first approached the Company described his memories:
“Harwood contacted us. He was a modest man who from the start makes an excellent impression. Notably he was interesting because he held in his hand a working prototype which he’d built entirely in his free time on the Isle of Man where he lived. He had started at zero and had tinkered for six or seven years.”
“I must say that his watch was not only novel, but had value.“
“His setting mechanism was original and worked by turning a fluted bezel. Harwood had eliminated the winding stem, thereby simultaneously addressing the problem of waterproofing. The inconvenience was that you had to shake the watch to wind it. Additionally, the system meant to prevent the spring from over-winding was fragile. In fact, it was Harwood who latter suggested replacing it with a slip bridle; but I don’t think it’s him who invented that.”
“Therefore, we had to setup production of the item exactly as it was presented to us; extremely ingenious, but functionally delicate. Harwood wasn’t an industrialist, and the conception of his watch evidently did not meet up to certain requirements native to industry.”
“We nevertheless manufactured a few thousand pieces and, despite interchangeability of the parts, finishing off the movements created more than one problem for the initial manufacturers. Since the economy had just entered into a difficult period precisely at that moment, the original version finally enjoyed only a fleeting lifespan; but at least the automatic watch had been launched.”
You will see in below list all the automatic watch patents, however not all inventions have become a watch, they stayed as a drawing in patent applications. Some made it to prototypes and stayed as a single piece, may have never made it into our timeline.
Further reviews with photos are in no particular order, just upon my choice.
I have listed below all the patent applications for early automatic watches in chronological order. US patents are not included since US became a heaven for fake inventors to steal Swiss patent ideas ( except local watchmaking companies ). Some of the patents below do not relate to a whole watch but rather to a gear configuration, a necessary part for the larger good. Some patents have never been realized. It was also a common practise if the inventor or copy/paster was not able to register it in Switzerland to have it done outside Switzerland. And sometimes like in Universal Geneva's case even in the US.
Universal Watch Company's wrong claims:
Universal Geneva as a company has a special place for me, I dislike them because of their wrong claims and made-up history. Their claims and history don't match.
Claiming to have patented!! an automatic watch in 1925 called Autorem, claim: https://universal.ch/en/about-us/history-and-chronology/ where the patent numbers are fake and don't relate to any patents anywhere in the world, nor an application file as in the EMSA Automatic case. I have religiously searched all 1920s and '30s chronicles with any possible keyword for Autorem, Georges Louis Henry, Universal, Autorem, Berthoud... and could NOT find anything about their 1925 invention.
What I have found though for Autorem is that the company has purchased the invention of Invicta Watch Co in 9 Aug 1933 ( Pat. CH159711 and CH159712 ) who had patented automatic watches. These patents have been transferred and registered in US as Autorem Automatic ( US1973898 ). That's what now Universal Geneva Watch Company claims to have invented in 1925, yea my.....
The sad part is automatic invention isn't their only wrong claim, they also claim the micro-rotor, where actually they ended up paying Buren Watch Company, the real inventor of micro-rotor, a patent infringement for each micro-rotor Polerouter they have produced. UG claiming premium chronographs while their chronograph movements were manufactured by Martel watch company ( Martel was also supplying Zenith and has merged in late '59 with Zenith, the fruit of this merge is El Primero ) . Basically Universal Geneva is a living example of how things shouldn't be done.
Here is the proof of Autorem from 1933 NOT 1925. I challenge UG Watch Company to produce proof or remove their claim from their website.
Patents below are sorted according to application dates
One of the interesting self-winding mechanisms with a pendulum in the watch case, invented by Emil Frey and manufactured under the brand name 'Perpetual Watch Co'
Obviously only US registered patent exists of this pendulum automatic watch due to high volume of other claimers in Switzerland. Emil Frey from Bienne seems to be the inventor and the patent is registered on Perpetual Watch Company. Max Reiner and Emil Frey are the representatives of Perpetual Watch Company in Canada and US. The pendulum in wrist-watch case is initially Max Reiner's invention but Frey fine tunes it ( Reiner patents: US1814187A, US1795617A , US1899722A , US1853637A ). Pendulum automatics are surfacing very rarely in the market may be because of its initial manufacture volume.
Perrelet back in 18th century has used a pendulum in a pocket-watch case and was already a pioneer of this mechanism. Leroy's limited 6 pieces wrist-watch was also a side-winding, pendulum alike mechanism . Nothing new under the sun, but fine tuned and made it work in a small rectangular case was Perpetual Watch Company.
On 12th Nov 1931 William Lawrence Royall from the US transfers his patent US149139 to Perpetual Watch Co. marking the partnership of Max Reiner, Wiliam Lawrence and Emil Frey. The fruit of their partnership is this early automatic watch 'Perpetual' with a left winding crown.
Glycine fought hard during the early automatic quest and got its rightful place within the first 3 mass produced self-winding watches. This particular model though is a later model from 1939. The model which was presented at New York's World Fair hermetic, shock and water resistant.Patent: CH149138
Incabloc shock protection was initially developed in 1929 in a more primitive form and took the shape of what we know now in 1935. Looking back in horology, Breguet used pare-chute system as shock protection in 18th century, so it's again a diversion from pocket-watches to wrist-watches .
In 1926, a prototype of the famous "Harwood", the first industrially produced automatic wrist watch, leaves the factory of Blancpain, in Villeret. The movement for this watch was to be produced in small quantities for the French market. This is a 9k gold ( rose gold ) cased Harwood. Thanks to its British case-maker, it has city and date hallmarks. It's from 1928, London, cased by John Stockwell. Patent: CH106583
The movement initially was mass produced by A.Schild. Distribution partner was Vogt from Fortis Watch Co. , later Blancpain also got a share of Harwood production and distribution. Harwoods with case-back time setting mechanism are made by Blancpain.
Within the numerous invention attempts, one which has made it to production was this Rolls, invented by Leon Hatot in Jan 1930. Not many are available of this timepiece which could be an indicator of its production volume. Rolls has a particularly unusual automatic winding system in which the movement itself served as the oscillating weight. It is therefore accurate to say that the watch’s movement literally wound itself. Mechanically, this was accomplished by imparting the motion - caused by shaking the movement - onto a sliding arm guided by balls between two runners inside the case.
Blancpain is involved after Harwood also in Rolls by signing an agreement with Léon Hatot on September 30, 1930. It gives Blancpain exclusivity for the production of watches with the “ATO” system. Hatot S.A. reserved the right to manufacture 300 “Qualité de Genève” (Patek Philippe quality) movements yearly.
Blancpain commits to manufacture good quality anchor movements. Later on the two companies agree to work together to further improve this movement for the “Rolls”.
All movements are clearly marked “Licence Hatot” or “ATO” on top or underneath the watch case. Also, all brochures, ads, catalogs and other printed articles mention at least once that the watch was produced under license.
Hatot receives at least 10 francs per manufactured movement, respectively 15 francs per 9 x 20 mm baguette movement To control manufacturing quantities, all movements are numbered. The partners target sales of approximately 15’000 pieces of the “Rolls” in Germany and another 40’000 in the USA. However, the watches are steeply priced: a wholesaler must pay 1600 francs for a gold watch and the lady’s model with the baguette movement costs 1750 francs. Consequently, despite the innovative nature of this new watch, it is not a commercial success.
Today these early automatic watches are very sought after as collectors pieces. Rolls Patent: CH156803.
The signature trademark on Rolls watches most often was Blancpain. However, examples bearing the ATO name, which corresponds to the phonetic pronunciation of “Hatot” in French. In passing, it also is interesting to note that a certain number of Rolls wristwatches were produced by Walter Vogt and his Fortis Watch Company – manufacturers notably of the Harwood and the Autowrist - for distribution outside those markets reserved exclusively for Blancpain.
John Harwood obviously didn't stop after inventing his Harwood Automatic, he initiated also this Autorist automatic which winds via its lugs. He also has a pendulum automatic watch patent ( CH177308 ) but I have not seen any of his pendulum aut. watches. Patent: CH156173
Autorist, was being wound by one of the lugs movement. How much can a lug move any way? And the moving distance, a few mm. A very weak winding mechanism however very creative attempt.
Anything moving or moveable has been put to test to make it a self-winding mechanism. So was the idea with Wyler's invention. This watch has kind of double case-back and a pin between them. When the outer unit touches the inner unit, the pin winds the movement with kind of pump action. Ideally the watch should self-wind but what happened is that wearers had to finger tip their watch from the crystal up and down to wind it. Patent: CH156804
The hole on the movement is where the winding pin sits to activate the gears to store power in the barrel. Not that efficient, but survived to our timeline. Maybe due to its inefficiency ?
Leon Levy was a seasoned watchmaker and he invented this Pierce Cal 861, linear automatic. This mechanism winds only in one direction from 6 to 12 o'clock moves. There are two executions of Cal 861; center seconds and eccentric seconds. In this particular model, eccentric seconds, the crown just sets time and has no winding function like in early Glycines. Patent: CH183727
Even though the moveable track in the case looks short distance, Ronald Ranfft claims that it is more efficient than modern days ETA 2824:
quote/ With a two stage gear, a kind of saw actuating the first wheel, and a click it is simpler than most rotor automatics. And 300 shaking cycles of the 5.8g heavy weight are enough for 24 hours running. A modern ETA 2824-2 needs 650 revolutions of the 3.4g rotor for 24 hours, and therefore can't guarantee more efficient winding / unquote ( http://www.ranfft.de/cgi-bin/bidfun-db.cgi?10&ranfft&&2uswk&Pierce_861_AUT )
Buren was a very innovative company. Apart from contributing to the first automatic chronograph, they have invented alarm watches, the micro-rotor and this fascinating movement Cal 525. Patent: CH331276
Within many pendulum, side- winding, or jerk ( secousses ) self-winding offerings, this was another un-orthodox approach.
Hans Kocher, who was Buren's head designer and watchmaker has invented and registered the patent on Buren. Hans Kocher has stayed on board even after Hamilton acquired Buren in 1966. Patent: CH331279 & CH297476
Buren has manufactured several versions of this movement with and without seconds, with and without date function. Universal Watch Company got in trouble while trying to copy Buren's invention and were found guilty for patent infringement. Buren and UG later came to an agreement and UG had to pay a certain amount to Buren for each UG Polerouter manufactured.
At the Japanese front Citizen has also an interesting automatic watch from the '60s. It's mainly in Para 7 models aka autodater. Different versions exist for day/date configurations
Not like their Swiss distant cousins using a micro or half rotor, Citizen came up with a complete ring rotor. It has also a quick-set date by pulling out the crown. It's an elegant timepiece. Citizen group now owns the legendary company Angelus and has resurrected them.
This is a weird mechanism, I would understand it in the 1930s but '50s is a bit too late for still trying to diversify automatic mechanisms. Here the rotor touches the pin to wind the movement. Patent: CH278649
This mechanism is also called as impulse automatic. It's a difficult movement to spot and obtain.
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