Saturday, September 17, 2005

Seiko Spring Drive - Akahane's Pointless Marvel

First Spring Drive Prototype 1982

When I was a kid I modified a Smiths clock movement to run without an escapement - whoooooosh. I could make the clock run fast or slow with my finger as a brake on the escape wheel; it hardly took any force, I was fascinated. That was 1977 when Yoshikazu Akahane invented Spring Drive, the Summer Star Wars came out. I wonder if we were briefly connected by The Force and this too was his inspiration behind the Spring Drive! He was an electronics genius and sadly didn't live to see it produced (Dying in 1998, it was the year the watch was shown at Basel.).

I haven't posted on this yet because I was waiting to see how I felt about it longer term, let the impact of it sink in a bit. Well, my initial gut reaction to it hasn't changed and it's not good. I mean, who IS Spring Drive targeted at? People who want more accuracy from a mechanical? Or people who want a mechanical quartz watch. The first group is entirely understandable, but the concept falls at the first fence of the emotional. We debated the 'rules' for the development of mechanical watches a while back and quartz enhanced regulation of an otherwise mechanical watch was flagged as a no-no. Not an improvement on a good quartz watch either, Spring Drive doesn't even satisfy quartz standards with a rubbish guarranteed accuracy of 1s/d. Even some lucky enough to have them running 1s/w is still rubbish in my view. What is the point of a mechanical quartz watch; especially at the expense of accuracy and servicing aggro....what were they honestly thinking at Seiko? Neither appealing emotionally or functionally, Spring Drive's neither one thing nor the other. They simply failed to heed these words about research:
" It requires all one’s strength of mind to break off, when cool judgement counsels the abandonment of a project to which one has grown very attached and on which one has lavished years of thought and painstaking research; but such decisions have sometimes to be made and, speaking for myself, I find it easiest when the demon of doubt becomes insistent, to suspend all work and thought on the project for a few days or weeks and then review it afresh. It is surprising how coldly and dispassionately one can review and, if necessary, reject one’s own most cherished schemes after they have been banished from one’s mind for a decent interval.”
If they'd done that, they'd have abandoned this pointless marvel before The Empire Struck Back.

As the measurement of time developed from water clocks and candles, the driving force was always accuracy. With the plethora of precise timekeeping available for tuppence ha’penny now, I think it’s hard to appreciate the lost importance of this in our age and you have to go back and ask pre-quartz (PQ!?) people what it was like when it was different to understand the issue. For my dad, brought up with no option, the appearance of quartz was a revelation, cheap as chips and accurate beyond belief; some kind of gift from benevolent aliens. He was fascinated by them and taught himself how to repair them, buying up non-runners from a weird shop in Tottenham Court Rd. Does he wear a mechanical now? No. He stills see the point of a watch as to tell the time – as accurately and fuss free as possible and quartz gives that. Strangely, it was listening to his earlier wristwatches and staring in the back of my Grandpa’s pocketwatch that got me into mechanicals….. Anyway, I digress.

With the advent of quartz, yes, the mechanicals ‘gave up’ and stagnated at a certain ‘acceptable’ accuracy level and concentrate on aesthetics, emotions and branding and we rightly applaud 2s/d. However, despite the burden of accuracy being removed, and although academic, futile, and arguably ‘pointless’ the development of some mechanicals continues; mostly from a gadget perspective, but often with genuine improvements in timekeeping, e.g. coaxial. When I hear that a certain well know haute horologer is satisfied if his new gizmo manages 20-30s/d believe me I shake my head. And I think, part of our role is “to sort the feats from the gaffs?” and debate and discriminate between where timekeeping is improved rather than just achieved in a novel way (or even worsened); we should be rating the scale of achievement.

Because it is a continuation of a line of evolution, it makes sense, at least to me, that developing better mechanicals remains valid; the logic being “in the absence of quartz where could we be?” And this is where I start to struggle with Spring Drive. It was never the bridge between mechanical and quartz, so it has no historical place, it’s novel, but not an improvement (yet). As a hybrid, it should surpass both of its parents’ abilities, and it doesn’t. Quartz is routinely available at 15s/year accuracy. So, once you’ve leapt to the quartz demon, I see no sense in a watch like this unless it is blindingly accurate. So sorry, but 1s/d or week IS rubbish if a watch contains a quartz oscillator. But hold on, I’ll be holding out for when Seiko make the maintenance-free, radio-controlled version. Now that would make Akahane-sama smile.

Spring Drive reviews and analysis links on ThePuristS and Timezone1 and Timezone 2.


John F. Opie said...

Hi -

I think that the SpringDrive watches are appealing to those who would also buy one of those ETA calibers that are electromechanical, i.e. use a automatic winding system to power a quartz watch.

Sure, it's neat to be able to build such a thing, but it's neither here nor there. And you could indeed add a radio-regulation function to the watch without much difficulty.

And you're right: what's the point?

The point, of course, is that the Japanese are facing exactly the same challenge as the Swiss for their low-end and mid-tier watches from the Chinese and have to branch out into high-end watches.

Having a completely unique caliber is sort of a prerequisite for high-end, right? One recent post over at WatchUSeek said that some Seiko salesmen are touting it as being the equivalent of a $10k watch while "only" costing $3k.

That's not the point of having a high-end watch: a high-end watch should be of horological significance. This isn't horological significance, the spring drive is a horological curiosity.

Best regards


Velociphile said...

John, thank you for that. Interesting to think of the Japanese as having their own mini crisis. And yes, that's a very important distinction: "horological significance" as opposed to "horological curiosity". Of course too often, the high end watch is neither....

John F. Opie said...

Hi -

The high-end watches are indeed often neither significant or a curiosity.

I've started collecting and have just recently understood what horological significance really is: it's something that nobody else does. Not because no one else is crazy enough, but rather because no one else *can*.

Most of the watches I've accumulated - around 30 - are junk watches, horologically speaking. Poljot 3133s or even a Valjoux 7750 in its modern incarnations aren't significant: a Gruen 510SS from 1960 or so starts to be. A Stowa from 1970 is just a watch; a Stowa Ancre from the 1930s with an original Bauhaus-inspired face design starts to be significant; a Gruen Triple-Date is more a curiosity.

Any fool with money can buy an Omega Speedmaster Professional. But finding a Speedmaster pre-professional, the one that NASA bought that beat out all the competition, that's a significant watch.

The problem is determining significance and finding significant watches. They're out there, but are hard to find.

And they are usually so damned expensive!

Your site has been part of my ongoing horological education, thanks!

Best regards,


Clovis said...

Consider this. Perhaps the spring drive is the most accurate watch in the world. Why? Because it shows time with a precision greater than any quartz watch - which move only once per second leaving the wearer in ignorance as to how much time must pass before another second has elapsed. And it also outperforms every mechanical watch - whose second hands move only a handful of times per second. Is such a precision useful or necessary? No. But neither is whether a wristwatch gains or loses one second per day v. 15 per year. What is notable, however, is that it is this very precision of the spring drive - the perfectly sweeping second hand - that appeals on an esthetic/emotional level to many who have the opportunity to handle one. Put another way, the spring drive is a technical breakthrough and triumph. And its appeal - at least for those to whom it holds an appeal -is the very expression of that technical breakthrough and triumph. This seems to me to be a fairly horologically significant achievement. But feel free to consider it rubbish if you wish.

Anonymous said...

I agree, a year later. Time, like all the best myths; truth, justice etc, is all about the attitude we take to it.
Any attempt to measure time is futile as we have no independent criterion.
what is important is that we try - in a post religious world that is all we have.

This watch is an attempt to remove the discrete, digital aspect of our attempts to measure time. In this it fails, while the second hand moves in what appears to be a smooth arc this is an illusion.

It in fact is regulated 8 times a second by the stator. As such it is actually further from analogue that a mechanical 'fastbeat' 36000 which beats 10 times a second so, by it's own terms it is a failure ... but what a glorious failure.

I wish I had the skill, determination and outright vision to achieve something like this, to me it is sciences equivalent of a cathedral - a thought in action.

Tommy said...

I wear a 1970 Accutron (214 caliber) partly because I like the smooth motion of the second hand--not because it represents "the true motion of time" (to use a phrase from Seiko Spring Drive ad copy) but rather for aesthetic reasons. I just like the look of the smooth motion. (I realize it's not an inherently smooth movement--the index wheel is nudged 360 times a second--but it's smooth to the eye.)

I agree that Spring Drive is more curious than it is significant.

Anonymous said...

There seems to be a difference between “regulated 8 times a second”, which may apply to both a mechanical movement and the spring drive, and “oscillates 8 or 10 times a second”, which applies to a mechanical movement but not to the spring drive. The spring drive second hand is not stopped by any oscillation, and does not jump 4 or 5 times a second. The obvious advantage is that, when used as a chronograph in measuring elapsed time, the spring drive does not round up fractions of a second to the nearest one-quarter or one-fifths of a second. Hence, while it is “regulated 8 times a second” like the vast majority of mechanical watches, the spring drive remains extremely accurate as against a mechanical watch that “oscillates 8 or 10 times a second”. Whether people consider this difference significant or insignificant is purely emotional, folks, but it is a difference nonetheless.

Anonymous said...

If I may add, “oscillates 8 times a second” actually translates to just “regulated 4 times a second”, or just half the number of regulations per second in the spring drive. In a mechanical watch, the stopping and releasing of the second hand by the balance wheel (or two oscillations) complete just a single regulation. One stop is not by itself a regulation because at that moment, the whole movement (except maybe the balance wheel) is at a standstill. Likewise, one release by the balance wheel is not by itself a regulation of the watch because at that moment the movement is actually freewheeling. It is the succession of one stop and one release (or vice versa) that complete one regulation in a mechanical watch, as such succession approximates (when the stop and release are rounded off) the passing of time. To sum up, in one second, a mechanical watch that beats 8 times a second is regulated 4 times asecond only, not 8 times. And a high-beat watch that beats 10 times a second is regulated 5 times a second, not 10 times.

In contrast, the spring drive is regulated 8 times a second, as its magnetic regulator controls the speed of the glide wheel 8 times a second; that is, it either slows the wheel down or allows it speed up (depending on the wheel's relative speed to the vibration of the quartz) 8 times a second.

It is thus not accurate to say that the spring drive is a failure because a “fastbeat” mechanical watch trumps it as to the number of beats involved per second. The spring drive is a much more regulated watch per second than a “fastbeat” mechanical watch.

Anonymous said...

One major problem I have with watches is the tick of the seconds hand.

Automatics tick at 8 to 12 times per second. While it is nice to watch the spin of the seconds hand on automatics, it is hard not to notice the ticks and I typically get vexed by the short and fast ticks eventually.

This makes me go after quartz instead, as the one tick per second is much less an annoyance to me.

When Spring Drive arrives, I was just mesmerized by the sail of the seconds hand across the dial. This is another quality of Spring Drive watches that we shouldn't neglect.