Compared with the three-handed mechanical watch, Chronograph gives time a whole new meaning-it is no longer a simple ‘cumulative travel time’, but start, stop, reset and subdivide segments . In this evolution, the Zenith El Primero chronograph, which came out in 1969, occupies an important chapter.
Zenith El Primero
When it comes to the history of time measurement, Sir John Floy’s name has to be mentioned. He is a British doctor and writer who sees inventing tools that can measure human pulses as a lifetime goal. With the help of great British watchmaker Samuel Watson, Sir John Floy created the first Stopwatch. The watch is called the Doctor Pulse Meter and is equipped with a second hand and a lever. When pressed, the movement of the entire movement is stopped, enabling the doctor to accurately measure the patient’s pulse rate. Both the second hand and the lever are innovations in horology. Since its introduction in 1690, Sir John Floy’s doctor’s pulse watch has been and is still the starting point of all portable stopwatches.
Zenith El Primero 3019 movement?
More stopwatches and chronographs followed. In 1815, Louis Movanet began to focus on the research and development of Compteur de Tierces (the same as ‘counter of thirds’, the term before decimal is used to represent 1 / 60th of a second), and completed production about one year later. The next one is Nicholas Caes from France. In 1821, he made a scoring timer for King Louis XVIII, which is slightly less complex than Compteur de Tierces. By the 1870s, mechanical stopwatches were widely used in racetracks and sporting events, especially by artillery officers. It was very difficult to integrate the stopwatch mechanism into the existing movement, so it was not until 1913 that Longines produced the first chronograph watch. In 1923, Breitling optimized the design by integrating the crown and the button at 2 o’clock to separate the start / stop function from the reset function. In 1932, the universe watch added a second button for resetting at 4 o’clock, shaping the prototype of today’s chronograph.
Zenith El Primero 3019 movement, 1969
During this period, the watchmaking industry flourished, and many watch factories stood out, and their products were very similar to modern timepieces. Venus, Leonidas, Minerva, Martel, Excelsior Park, Valjoux and Lemania produce excellent chronograph movements. Legendary chronographs were born one after another, such as the Aero-Compax chronograph, Rolex Ref. 4113 double chronograph, Minerva chronograph (13-20CH movement), Longines (13ZN movement), Breitling aviation chronographs and mechanical chronographs, as well as aviation chronographs from brands such as Hanhart, Urofa and Breguet. One of the most famous and legendary hand-wound chronographs is the Omega Speedmaster, which is now celebrating its 60th anniversary.
Zenith El Primero 400 movement
Even so, with the increasing popularity of self-winding and the launch of diving watches, sales of Swiss chronographs fell sharply in the late 1950s. By 1960, manual winding chronographs were behind the times. The solution is to modernize and automate the chronograph. In fact, Lemania produced a prototype self-winding chronograph movement in 1947, but did not put it into production. It is said that the director of Omega thought that the project was redundant and shelved the prototype movement, so the brand lost the opportunity to produce the world’s first automatic chronograph. So, this heavy responsibility fell to three competitors.
In 1969, Zenith, Seiko, and the joint institutions of Dubois-Depraz, Buren, Breitling and TAG Heuer developed automatic chronographs. Which one comes first is still controversial. In January 1969, Zenith took the lead in announcing the achievement; in August 1969, TAG Heuer Caliber 11 took the lead and entered the global market; while Seiko has been working silently behind the scenes, as early as May 1969, it launched the automatic timing in the Japanese market Stopwatch. The beginning and end of this competition, as well as who has argued, are explained by different blogs and forums. The most comprehensive report comes from Jeff Stein’s OnTheDash website.
Seiko 6139 is the first self-winding chronograph movement with full oscillating weight, vertical clutch, column wheel control, 17 gems, 21,600 vibrations / hour (3 Hz), 30-minute accumulation timer and quick setting Week calendar function. Followed by Caliber 11 Chronomatic movement, the leader Jack Heuer integrates Buren (making the world’s most compact self-winding watch) and Dubois-Depraz (expert in turning the basic movement into a chronograph movement). Based on a thin micro-rotor automatic winding movement, a modular chronograph is developed, and Breitling and Hamilton complement the development lineup. A major feature of the TAG Heuer Caliber 11 Chronomatic is that the crown and the chronograph button are separated from each other. Another major feature is the dial layout: the chronograph hour hand is left, the chronograph minute hand is right, and the date display window is set at 6 o’clock.
Zenith El Primero
At the end Zenith El Primero was without a doubt the most technically complete self-winding chronograph at the time. Zenith is small in scale, does not have the resources of competitors, has clear objectives and Martel’s expertise. Martel is one of the most important manufacturers of premium movements, and its products are supplied by many respected watchmaking brands. In 1960, Zenith bought Martel, which laid the foundation for El Primero’s research and development. Calibre 3019PHC is a full-rotor, self-winding, accumulative chronograph for up to 12 hours, integrated column wheel, high frequency (36,600 times / hour 5 Hz) chronograph movement. The movement has a diameter of 30 mm and a thickness of 6.5 mm. It is very compact. It has an instant jump date display at 4 o’clock, a timing accuracy of 1/10 seconds, and a 50-hour power reserve. In the watchmaking industry, Calibre 3019PHC movement may have been, and is still the best example of victory, this is an outstanding movement beyond the times.
Before and after El Primero’s birth, there was a brief but true ‘time war’. After the TAG Heuer Group quickly replaced Caliber 11 with Caliber 12, the competition intensified. Lemania produces the wonderful 1340 movement and the practical 5100 movement. Omega borrowed Lemania to make an excellent 1040 movement. Soon afterwards, an observatory-grade 1041 movement was introduced. Valjoux responded with a classic 7750 movement. All of them are excellent automatic movements, equipped with excellent chronographs. However, for the Swiss watchmaking industry, it was a difficult period full of crises. Many companies went bankrupt and went out of business, and they were forced to sever their arms and give up important production tools and machines. So although the technology is full of flowers, the actual output during that period is very low, which is somewhat ironic.
Zenith El Primero, 1969
The Zenith El Primero is perhaps the most important self-winding chronograph movement in history, and it is proud of its peers. This is a fully integrated chronograph movement with high vibration frequency (5 Hz, improved timing accuracy), accumulative timing up to 12 hours, breaking the original pattern and opening up a whole new world. It wasn’t until 19 years later that the Frederic Piguet Cal. 1185 caliber was able to match the watch industry. In addition to technical advantages, Zenith El Primero is a compact movement. Rolex chose to use it for the Daytona watch, as this did not require modification of the Oyster case. Zenith developed the movement from scratch, while Breitling / TAG Heuer / Buren / Dubois-Depraz added to the existing foundation, but the concept of the latter application has not been continued.
Zenith El Primero Chronomaster
In the competition for the title ‘First Automatic Chronograph (Watch) Movement’, Zenith El Primero’s main rival is Seiko 6139. After all, the Seiko 6139 was developed by a single company and launched into the market immediately after the introduction of the full pendulum column wheel automatic timing chronograph movement, it even applied the vertical clutch produced by Pierce. However, from the perspective of technical achievements, Seiko 6139 is slightly inferior to Zenith. To this day, Zenith El Primero is still the leader in automatic winding timing. From the doctor’s pulse meter in 1690, the timing mechanism has evolved for three centuries, until El Primero 3019PHC reached Everest. Visionary, rational planning, and dedicated investment, a small company can achieve such brilliant achievements. In the Swiss watchmaking industry, there are certain things that are sacred, and El Primero is one of them when there is no doubt about Zenith.