I am into wristwatches, and early automatics are especially fascinating me. It was mid- 1920s and early '30s when watchmakers started to explore, invent and build self-winding wristwatches. These decades have still a lot to discover. It's fascinating how every now and then a watch from that decade surfaces and puzzles everyone. Timepieces back then were more engineering than marketing back then.
Stakes are high and heated on such discussions like who invented the first automatic wrist-watch, just like the rotor, the first micro-rotor, first automatic chronograph, first automatic pocket watch...
The first automatic wristwatch ever created is self- claimed by Leon Leroy in 1922, mentioned in the company's own history timeline. Leroy timeline states that 6 pieces of self-winding watches were specially commissioned and delivered. Leroy, being a respected brand demands credibility but what I have learned during my collecting journey, every claim has to be fact checked. There is no patent to be found for Leroy's automatic invention and these kind of unproven stories raise my eyebrows. Such an invention would have deserved an intellectual protection and serial production for financial gain. I have also emailed Leroy several times to ask for information, no reply. So I am passing it.
The rightful person who deserves as being called the inventor of automatic wristwatches is: John Harwood. He invented the first mass produced wristwatch. Harwood, an Englishman from Isle of Man returned from WW I safely and troubled himself to fix the challenges he had in the trenches for reading time. He wanted to create a self-winding watch which was dust and moisture proof and could be worn on wrist. He saw the crown as a weak point for case protection so that was his start point- eliminate the crown. After much trial with different movements he made his self-winding prototype movement in 1922. It was an enamel dial watch without a functional bezel, so you couldn't change the time unless you open the watch. In his own words: " I set the time and closed the watch-case." It was about testing the self-winding mechanism anyway. Once the movement was set, he focused on the time setting mechanism without an external crown. That's what he did in later prototypes, he integrated a crown inside the case which can be operated by the bezel. He was well aware of protecting intellectual property, therefore applied 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 travelled to Switzerland in order to find manufacturing partners. He agreed with Adolph Schild, who owned an ebauche factory, to produce the base caliber. They manufactured some more prototypes and made improvements until Harwood's patent was registered in Switzerland finally on 1st of Sept. 1924. Semi-serial production took 2 more years where Harwood personally worked on all movements' dial side mechanisms. This approach proved to be pretty difficult to manufacture larger quantities. In April 1926, Baselfair, Harwood had inventory and presented the first self-winding wristwatch. At the fair Walter Vogt, who was a young watch fabricateur, owning Fortis Watches Co. became fascinated with Harwood watches and learned the challenges he went through. Vogt, believed that automatic watches were the form of future and offered partnership to Harwood. After the fair Fortis finished the Schild movements and in return got the distribution rights for Harwood watches. Harwood and Vogt's partnership continued in the future with Autorist watches distribution also. Blancpain also got involved in return of financial gains and distribution rights, finishing Harwood movements and selling them in other markets like France. On 17 August 1928 John Harwood transfered the self-winding patent to the company " The Harwood self winding watch company ". This company sold all the rights, patents and inventory to Harwood Uhrenaktiengesellschaft ( Societe Anonyme de Montres Harwood ) on 20th July 1929 where Walter Vogt was in the board. They enter the financial operations and start selling shares and being listed in stock markets with this company. Once the patent was transferred to this Harwood Financial Company many other patents surface for early automatic watches. Harwood also uses the name Perpetual Co in US and Canada which later was adapted by Frey's Perpetual and later on Rolex Watch Co. After selling all the rights and inventory the Harwood Watch Company changed its name to Harwatch Syndicate Ltd. Co. Unfortunately with the stock market crash in Oct 1929 and its global impact Vogt and Harwood's financial operations are short lived. The company had to sell 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 in 1923 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.”
Harwood struggled at the beginning but met the right people and realized his dream marking this milestone. Ha has been awarded by the British Horological Institute with Gold Medal in 1957 for his contribution to the world of horology.
You will see in below timeline early automatic watch patents, however not all inventions have become a watch, many stayed as a drawing in patent applications. Some made it to prototypes and some, even less, became an actual watch and survived to our times.
Further reviews with photos are in no particular order, just upon my choice. It was also a common practise if the inventor or copy/paster was not able to register the patent in Switzerland, to have it done outside Switzerland. This doesn't mean that all foreign patents are fake but it was part of the game back then, there was no Google to check what is going on across the pond in the US.
Universal Watch Company's wrong claims:
Universal Watch Company ( aka Universal Geneva ) is like a case study for wrong claims and made-up history.
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 neither don't relate to any patents anywhere in the world, nor an application file number ( like in EMSA ). 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, Autorem has purchased the self winding mechanism invention of Invicta Watch Co in 9 Aug 1933 ( Pat. CH159711 and CH159712 ). These patents have been transferred and registered in US as Autorem Automatic ( US1973898 ). That is what now Universal Geneva Watch Company claims to have invented in 1925.
The sad part is automatic invention isn't their only wrong claim, they also claim the micro-rotor invention. But this wrong claim costed them a lot. UG had to pay Buren for every UG Polerouter production a certain amount due to the patent infrignment. UG claiming premium chronographs while their chronograph movements were manufactured by Martel watch company is another weak point ( 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 live example of how things shouldn't be done. It is their wrong claims rather than actions of purchasing patents, or self-claim inventions or using ebauches of others. Obviously they are not the only ones who did these, but whoever did so, corrected their claim with public apology, like Rolex apologizing from Harwood.
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.
Until Leroy produces proof for their 1922 self-winding watch I won't consider them also as a reliable source.
Early Automatic Watches Timeline according to patent application dates. Watches in upper row of the line are patents which have been materialized as a watch whereas bottom part of the timeline shows only self-winding watch patents which for many reasons have not been manufactured. This chart shows how fierce the competition actually was and how creative the watchmakers and companies were back then.
I am aware that the above chart is difficult to read, it doesn't fit in this page, therefore I have the timeline ready for download in PDF & JPG formats. Permission to re-post by reference only with credit and link to Glycintennial.com
One of the interesting self-winding mechanisms with a pendulum in the watch case. It is invented by Emil Frey and manufactured under the brand name 'Perpetual Watch Co', which was also Harwood's American branch name, however the two companies with the same name were different entities in US market.
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 pioneers of 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, the famous "Harwood", the first industrially produced automatic wrist watch, leaves the factory of Blancpain, in Villeret. The movement for this watch was 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 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 ball-bearing 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. 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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