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.