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History of Automatic Wristwatches

History of Automatic Wristwatches

History of the Automatic Wristwatch

Abraham-Louis Perrelet (1729-1826), one of Switzerland's greatest watchmakers, is credited with fathering the idea of the automatic watch.

Perrelet introduced the concept of the self-winding personal watch, and also first developed such time keepers, in 1770. However, he was far ahead of his time, indeed too far. The pocket watch era would continue for another 150 years and, snugly carried in their owners' pockets, these timekeepers just did not move around sufficiently to cause the rotor to adequately wind the mainspring. Consequently, the system did not perform well; and Perrelet's brilliant invention would have to wait for the wristwatch's advent before finding widespread practical application.

Notwithstanding, France's greatest watchmaker at the time, Abraham-Louis Breguet (1747-1823), improved self-winding watches, which he called "perpetuelles" (the likely source of Rolex's term); and other watch making greats of the 19th century also advanced the concept – including Patek’s Adrien Philippe who in 1842 developed a pendulum winding pocket watch. But it wasn't until wristwatches became popular after World War I and Rolex perfected its 360° rotor system that automatics truly came into their own.
Thus, the modern rotor system was developed then patented by Rolex and introduced into their Oyster line as the Oyster Perpetual in 1931. Emile Borer, Rolex's technical chief at the time, is credited with inventing the modern rotor system.
Nonetheless, the decade preceding, and immediately following  Rolex’s invention also saw a number of attempts at creating an automatic wristwatch, attempts crowned with varying degrees of technical as well as commercial success.

L. Leroy & Co.

The earliest was created in 1922 by Léo Leroy, but saw very little if any commercial distribution. Interestingly, it was only patented in 1933 and then sold under the Aster trademark as described further below in the present Qunol.

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.

The Art Deco Automatic Wristwatch

For the most part, the generation of automatic wristwatches which immediately followed Harwood’s demise represented rather offbeat mechanical solutions, created largely in response to the Art Deco fashion for rectangular wristwatches which took hold in 1930.
Notably, these included the Rolls in 1930, the Wig-Wag in 1931, the Autowrist in 1931, the Frey Perpetual in 1932, the Mimomatic pumpwind in 1932 and the Aster in 1933

These rectangular pioneer automatic wristwatches - with the exception of the Aster and the Frey Perpetual which had rotor-like oscillating weights at least comparable to the Harwood - used the movement itself as the oscillating weight, sliding up and down inside the watch case to wind the mainspring... or else used the flexing movement of the wrist to apply pressure impulses and thereby wind the watch.

None of these automatic systems actually worked very well. However, by 1931, a less known company called ROLEX would come out with one that did!

The ROLLS had 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.

Invented in 1929 by Frenchman Leon Hatot (1883-1953), the ROLLS’ original Patented No. is 704.910 of 11 January 1930, with first amendment No. 38.984, second amendment No. 39.523 and completed on the 30th November 1931 by a third amendment No. 39.581.

Hatot was a graduate of the Besancon of Watch Making School, as well as subsequently of the Besancon School of Fine Art (Beaux Arts). Following his studies, in 1905, he began his own business engraving watch cases. This prospered and grew, until in short order his workshop employed a dozen craftsmen and also began producing exquisite gold clocks set with precious jewels.

In 1911, Hatot further established operations in Paris, succeeding to the firm Bredillard. Taking the reins of this illustrious company also served to firmly entrench the young jeweler cum watchmaker within the elite circle of top Paris design and production workshops. Thus, overnight, he attained the rank of privileged supplier to the main watch and jewelry stores on Paris’ fabled streets. “la Rue de la Paix” and “Place Vendome”, in the company of names like Cartier and Van Cleef & Arpels.

With the outbreak of World War I, Hatot was mobilized, and his workshops turned their attention to producing artillery mechanisms as well as altimeters, But, in the Armistice that followed, Hatot from 1919 on turned much of his attention to manufacturing top end luxury wristwatches in response to this new fashion sparked by the recent war.

Ever a “renaissance man” in both spirit and occupation, Hatot particularly interested himself in horological innovation, including the new Zeitgeist for electric clocks and also automatic wristwatches. Consequently in 1920, consolidating his Besancon Company with that of Paris to form the firm Société des Etablissements Léon Hatot, he also created a separate entity for research and development of battery powered clocks and watches.

Even more than for the ROLLS, Hatot has gone down in history for his electric clocks. Indeed, at the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs in 1925 – from which the style “Art Deco” takes its name - he won Grand Prize for an entire range of clocks cased in marble, chrome, exquisite inlay, fine wood cases and art glass by Lalique. Another groundbreaking invention was the ATO-RADIOLA electric clock which automatically reset to the correct time upon receiving radio waves transmitted from an antenna on the Eifel Tower or coded into the concert transmissions from Radio Paris… a system similar to the one recreated by Junghans some 60 years later, albeit with an effective range almost 10 times greater than for Hatot, based on appropriate transmitter power.

Thus, it was Hatot’s friend and associate in the electric clock enterprise, Marius Lavet, who announced Hatot’s invention of the ROLLS in the Bulletin of the “Société d'Encouragement pour l'Industrie Nationale” (The National Industry Promotion Society). Lavet characterized the mechanism as offering the advantage of minimal friction, as well as allowing production of extremely small sized movements perfectly adapted to the fashion for rectangular watches - particularly ladies wristwatches.

There followed, in a contract dated 23rd September 1930, that the Hatot Company gave to a certain “Monsieur Blancpain” exclusive manufacturing rights and sole distribution within France as well as Belgium for the autowinding ROLLS watches. However despite winning a Medal of Honor from the Société d'Encouragement pour l'Industrie Nationale, the ROLLS did not enjoy great commercial success, notably due to the competition it faced from the Harwood, as well as the economic crisis in which context it was launched.

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, also can be found in collections today. 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.

For his great accomplishments, in due course, Léon Hatot deservedly was decorated with the French Legion of Honor, as well as receiving further titles and distinctions. Additionally, there remains a rather remarkable sequel to the story of this great craftsman, industrialist and inventor. During the late 1930s, in expectation of the outbreak of World War II, a treasure trove of Hatot’s inventory of watches and jewelry was secreted into a bank vault for safe keeping. And there it remained intact – as in a time capsule – until 1989, when in bulk it was trusted to Christie’s Geneva for auction.

Your writer recalls with great pleasure being called in by the then director of that venerable auction house, to examine the watches in particular, and to provide expertise. Their fear was that, considering Hatot had never benefitted from the notoriety which would have resulted from having his own retail point of sales as did his peers like e.g. Cartier or Van Cleef & Arpels, potential bidders might not recognize these marvelous pieces for their justified worth. My conviction was that they definitely would, and this was confirmed by what on May 1st 1989 turned out to be the “jewelry sale of a lifetime” for Christie’s.

Hatot’s extraordinary company archives, comprising almost 5,000 full color drawings of watch and jewelry designs, what has been characterized as “the inestimable contribution made by Léon Hatot to the flowering of the Art Nouveau and Art Deco styles1910-1930, are today in the possession of the new Hatot Company, a part of the Swatch Group.

There were numerous other attempts at automatic winding watches during this era, including a "Wig-Wag" watch manufactured by Louis Muller of Bienne.

Interestingly the Autowrist, created in 1931, was also invented by John Harwood. The lugs to which the watch bracelet was attached were designed to be moveable on one end of the watch case. Therefore, via a link between the two moveable lugs and the watch’s winding system, each flexion of the wearer’s wrist – as long as the bracelet was strapped on tightly enough – caused the mobile pair of lugs to move in a manner which caused the watch to be wound. In effect, with the Autowrist, the wristwatch became powered by random human muscular movement.

(text in preparation)

Frey Perpetual
The Perpetual (signed Perpetual Self Winding Watch Co. of New York), produced by Frey & Co. in Bienne Switzerland, is a similar case – though more robust than the Aster. Here the oscillating weight was a relatively heavy elongated pendulum like appendage which, together with its gear train, was integrated into a three sided frame. This frame in turn slipped over a tiny elongated octagonal movement, linking it directly to the movement’s mainspring ratchet gear. Frey was principally a movement manufacturer, rather than a watch brand as such. Thus, this small base movement is the same one as was used by many watch companies in their “plain vanilla”, non automatic lady’s wristwatches.

Aster Automatic
All of the rectangular pioneer automatic wristwatches today have become rare, and much sought after by collectors. However, one of the rarest amongst them has proven to be the Aster. Created by Léon Leroy in 1922, it only was patented in 1933 and then commercialized under the Aster trademark by the Bulova and La Champagne watch factory. A further unusual aspect of the Aster Automatic is that the sub seconds track is situated immediately below "12 o’clock" on the dial, rather than in the more usual position directly above 6 o’clock.

The Aster movement, caliber 28-20, was tonneau shaped and equipped with a flat, pointed oval oscillating weight. A switching catch mechanism, directly integrated into the movement, in turn linked this weight to the gear train. As such, one of the contributing factors to the Aster’s particular rarity is that the heavy oscillating weight applied enormous force on the flimsy bearing pin to which it was attached, eventually causing the latter to fail.

The Contenders
 To be continued...

Milestone Automatic Movements
-  L. Leroy & Co. Automatic – 1922 (L. Leroy Qunol here)
-  Harwood - 1926 (Harwood Qunol here)
-  Rolls (patented by Frenchman, Léon Hatot) - 1930
-  Glycine calibre 35 1931
-  Wig-Wag (by Mars and also Aster Watch Co.) - 1931
-  Rolex Perpetual (calibre NA 630) - 1931
-  Autowrist (A. Schild SA 6 ¾” calibre 796) - 1931
-  Mimomatic – 1932
-  Leroy Aster (Bulova and La Champagne watch factory) - 1933
-  A. Schild SA 11 ½“ calibre 1049) - 1938
-  Eterna 12” calibre 835 – 1939
-  Eterna 9 ¾”  calibre 1033 – 1942
-  Felsa 11 ½” calibre 692 – 1942
-  Cyma 10 ½” calibre 420 – 1943
-  Omega 13” calibre 330 - 1943


  • Chronométrophilia No 56 (summer 2004).
  • Worldtempus,
  • Christie’s May 1st 1989
  • Horomatic : Montres à remontage automatique de 1770 à 1978, Histoire de l’Horlogie, Fasicule IVEdition du Château du Monts, Le Locle, Musée d’Horlogerie
  • Horlogerie électrique ", by R.P. Guye and M. Bossart, 1957
  • Les horloges électriques Ato ", by Jean Mirault, bulletin ANCAHA No 74, 1995
  • The ATO Clock ", by Mel Kaye, NAWCC Bulletin No 344, 2003
  • ATO Battery Clocks ", by John Locke, 2003
  • Conférence, by Marc Meyskens, Rotary Clubs of France DOUR-QUIEVRAIN-HAUT PAYS , September 2000
  • Personal interviews and numerous further documents

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Date:  5th Mar 09

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