Quartz wristwatches maybe ubiquitous and inexpensive today but the first ever quartz watch launched in 1969 cost as much as mid-size family car. Christmas Day this year will mark 50 years since the unveiling of the world’s first quartz watch, the Seiko Quartz Astron 35SQ. To say that this was a revolutionary timepiece would be an understatement – the Quartz Astron changed the watch industry forever and gave the world access to high-precision timekeeping.
In the Post-War era, watchmakers were obsessed with improving the accuracy of wristwatches. Companies from Switzerland, the U.S.A., and Japan were involved in a three-way race to produce the most accurate wristwatch. In 1959, the Suwa Seikosha Co. (now known as Seiko Epson) – one of the many companies under the Seiko Holding Corporation – launched the 59A Project. This was a program to develop a next-generation, highly accurate, battery-operated wristwatch. Around this time, another Seiko team was also working on a project to develop the official timekeeping device of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.
The two teams pulled together their resources and in 1963 presented a portable steel quartz timer called the Seiko Crystal Chronometer QC-951. ‘Portable’ is an important distinction here because the first quartz timekeeping device built by Seiko (in 1958) was the size of a filing cabinet. The QC-951 was the first portable, high-accuracy, battery-operated quartz timer, and it could run for a year on two size-D batteries. It was used as the backup timer at the 1964 Tokyo Olympic Games marathon and was later commercially produced for use on bullet trains, oil tankers and even for the military.
By 1966, the company had developed a pocketwatch-style quartz prototype. A year later, the first quartz wristwatch prototypes were developed and impressed at Switzerland’s prestigious Neuchatel Observatory Chronometer Contest. Finally, in 1969 Seiko unveiled the first quartz wristwatch to the public, the Seiko Quartz Astron 35SQ. It was presented in an 18k yellow gold case and was priced 450,000 yen. Seiko only made 200 of these watches, so the original from 1969 is a rare bird.
The watch housed a tuning-fork crystal resonator, a watch IC, and an ultra-small stepping motor. It was extraordinarily accurate for the day. At a time when the daily accuracy rate for mechanical watches was 20 seconds, the Astron had a monthly rate of ±5 seconds and a daily rate of ±0.2 seconds.
The first Swiss quartz watches containing the Beta 1 movement arrived only a year later at the 1970 Basel Fair. Soon after the launch of the Quartz Astron, Seiko opened most of its patents to the world, a move that brought the advantages of quartz timekeeping to the mainstream consumer and heralded the coming of the Quartz Revolution. In 2004, the Astron received the IEEE Milestone Award for its breakthrough contribution to horology and a vast range of other electronic applications.
To mark the 50th anniversary of this monumental watch, Seiko has today unveiled a limited edition GPS Solar Astron, a watch that brings together two technologies that Seiko pioneered – quartz and satellite timekeeping. Funnily enough, this costs as much as mid-size family car too.