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The Harwood Automatic Wristwatch

The Harwood Automatic Wristwatch

Rare Blancpain Harwood, produced for the French market

The Harwood Pioneer Automatic Wristwatch
 
As such, the first commercially marketed automatic wristwatch “officially” was invented in 1926 by John Harwood (1894-1965), an English watch maker.

Of course, the origins of Harwood’s invention lay several years further back. As a soldier during World War I, Harwood experienced the short comings of the wristwatches available at that time. Being an experienced watchmaker, he knew that problems, such as dust and moisture, were the most common factors in the watch movement repairs he encountered. He had the vision of a new type of a reliable wristwatch without the opening for the winding stem, which he identified as the point of failure. For this reason, Harwood paid particular attention to the development of a different winding and setting mechanisms, which needed to be located inside the watch. After observing children playing on a seesaw, he began to envision the basics of his self-winding mechanism.

For financial backing, Harwood initially turned to friends and business contacts at home in England. However, although up until the previous century England and Switzerland had been engaged in a battle for predominance in watch manufacturing, by this time the watch making center in Europe unmistakably was Switzerland, and Harwood was convinced that only there he could find the technical conditions required to realize his invention.

Therefore, in 1923, Harwood registered his Swiss patent application and received patent N° 106583 on September 1st 1924.

Harwood’s automatic wristwatch was characterized by an oscillating weight composed of an annular segment attached concentrically to the movement by two plates. These in turn formed a pivoted strut at the center, one over the movement’s bridges, the other under the dial. Two solid buttresses limited the rotor’s movement to approximately 130°. Further linked to the movement’s winding mechanism by ratchets, the rotor thus wound the watch in only one oscillation direction, declutching in the other. Unfortunately this double support system for the oscillating weight eliminated the possibility of a seconds indicator.

No winding/setting stem and crown was incorporated. Indeed, setting the hands was accomplished by turning the watchcase’s bezel; and, when wound down, the only way to restart the watch was through vigorous shaking until the rotor had wound it sufficiently to start ticking again.

Patent in hand, Harwood travelled to Switzerland with his two working prototypes and his detailed construction plans.

But Harwood’s invention, met with scant interest from the traditionally conservative big Swiss manufacturers and brands. By most accounts, he was undercapitalized and frustratingly attempted to knock down closed doors in an attempt to make deals with the various watch companies.

One exception to this lack of interest was Walter Vogt of the Fortis Watch Company. He had founded his factory twelve years earlier at age 29, and with the motto “Good quality, innovative design, affordable prices”, initially joined the melee to produce pocket watches for the mass market, plus a scattering of specialty items. But Vogt truly was an horological visionary, and one of the few who concretely would embrace the dream of automatic wristwatches. That is, by engaging his company’s assets in pursuit of the goal.

Thus when John Harwood approached him with a truly revolutionary product, he seized the opportunity to stand behind it. For him it was a no-brainer; he knew the market was calling for a self-winding watch, and also recognized that eliminating the need for a protruding winding stem would help to combat the watch’s main enemies: dust and moisture!

Another manufacturer to back Harwood’s automatic was French company Blancpain; and ultimately several others also jumped on the bandwagon. Thus Harwood movements signed with names that include not only Blancpain and Fortis, but also Perpetual, Wyler and Selza – as well as a few other unconfirmed names - can be seen in pioneer automatic wristwatch collections today, or are said to have been produced.

Starting in 1924, Harwood worked together with Swiss watch movement manufacturer Anton Schild (A. Schild SA) to develop his automatic winding movement for production. A base caliber AS (A. Schild) movement was employed; but from the onset, it was a challenging undertaking, fraught with many difficulties. The design broke sharply with tradition, and was especially delicate as well. Thus initially John Harwood carried out the rather complicated (for its day) under dial work personally.

Georges Dubois, Technical Director of A. Schild S.A. at the time when John Harwood first approached the Company described his memories of that encounter to R. Carrera of the magazine “La Suisse horlogère revue international”. These observations were published in an article entitled “Evolution of the Automatic Watch”, December 1972.

“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.”

Thus, as of 1926, A. Schild SA produced the raw movements, and Fortis SA finished them. Harwood and his business partner Harry Cutts commercialized (and also produced) these automatic watches in England, whilst the Perpetual Watch Co. marketed them in the United States and Canada. In parallel, Blancpain – who’d traditionally had business relations with AS -  built prototypes using Harwood's patent under license, adapted it on one of their own movements, and according to Roland Ranfft, went on to produce 140’000 of these watches for France. Other sources suggest that the Harwood Blancpain watches only enjoyed very limited production.

Whatever the case, at the 1926 Basel Fair, Fortis displayed the first Harwood Automatic for large series production, engraving the Fortis name in watch making history for bringing the first line of automatic winding watches to market in industrial quantities

However, along with industrial production also came quality control issues as the movements proved to require hand retouching in significant numbers. Consequently, reliability also became a problem, and soon led to customer dissatisfaction.

The Harwood automatic clearly was ahead of its time, and served to point other manufacturers – such as Rolex - towards more efficient solutions. Indeed, Harwood’s “rotor system” already showed the form that automatic wristwatches ultimately would all take, albeit numerous improvements including 360” rotation and winding in whatever direction the rotor might turn, as perfected by Rolex.

Today, John Harwood is recognized as the inventor of the automatic wristwatch, and in all fairness provided the basis for Rolex's and other companies’ subsequent developments. In fact, an early Rolex prototype, built around a Harwood movement, even has been documented.
 
But, like a comet passing across the horizon, in 1929 Harwood declared bankruptcy after only three years production, and was liquidated in 1931. Yet, the first production automatic wristwatch had existed, and others soon would follow.


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Date:  5th Mar 09

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