It is generally accepted that the death knell for the mainstream mechanical watch sounded in 1969 with the introduction of the world’s first quartz wrist watch, the impossibly exotic and fearsomely expensive 18K gold Seiko Astron.
However, the twinkle in the eye of that death knell sounded 11 years previously with the introduction, possibly prematurely, but introduction nevertheless, of the Hamilton Ventura electric wristwatch. The idea that electrical energy might be used to power a watch seemed at the time an astoundingly futuristic technological concept. The impact of the Ventura was compounded by its revolutionary asymmetric case design but its commercial success was undermined by reliability issues and the challenges that its complexity presented to watchmakers in repairing and servicing the movement.
The landmarks that bridged the gap between the first electric watch and the first quartz watch followed thick and fast, so much so that Hamilton found themselves overrun in the technological stakes. Just a year after the Ventura was released, LIP introduced the world’s first watch to employ an electronic component (a diode to reduce sparking) and then two years later in 1960, Bulova Introduced the famous Accutron ‘Hummer’, the first watch to employ a transistor, and therefore the first electronic watch. ESA’s Dynotron movement of 1968 is widely credited as the first to employ a balance wheel and a transistor but there is a more than credible case that in fact Citizen were the first to that landmark in the commercial release in 1966 of the Cosmotron, ‘the world’s first genuine electronic wristwatch that has adopted a moving-magnet type balance motor, driven by transistor on the regulating device’.
Seiko’s entry to the electronic watch market appeared to lag slightly behind their main domestic rival but that is probably because they were keeping their powder dry, devoting considerable resource throughout that decade to the development of the Astron quartz watch. Nevertheless, in 1967, they joined the electronic watch fray and by 1969 the El-370 Electronic Series was being actively marketed in the USA as “Up to the minute watches for the man who looks to the future”. These watches featured the 3700 series of transistorized balance movements and played a stopgap-role during the period in which the new quartz technology was finding its feet. The EL-370’s lasted until about 1974 when they were replaced by the Elnix series of electronic balance watches, featuring the last iteration of Seiko’s take on the transistorized balance movement, the 0703A.
The Elnix model line appeared in the 1974, 1975 and 1976 domestic Seiko catalogues but by 1977, all traces had vanished.
Indeed, it is difficult to find any reference at all to the electronic watch in official Seiko historic timelines, although examples of an EL-370 and Elnix are on display at the Seiko Museum in Tokyo.
This extended preamble brings us finally to the subject of today’s adventure: A Seiko Elnix 0703-7010 dating from March 1974 and resplendent in its outrageous 1970’s colour scheme of vibrant green, mixed gold and chrome highlights and even a splash of red into the bargain. Not content with flamboyant colouring, this particular watch also sports a multifaceted crystal standing erect and proud, although in this instance, bearing the scars of at least some of the 43 years that have passed since it emerged from the Daini factory in Tokyo.
I actually had no intention of buying this watch but it came in a job lot of three watches, one of which had caught my eye and the lot attracted sufficiently little attention that mine was the winning bid. Somewhat to my surprise though, it was the Elnix that ended up pushing my buttons a little more than the other two. So here we are in completely unfamiliar territory, in marked contrast to the comfort zone of our previous post.
Externally, the watch has a lustre of ‘used but well cared for’ with no signs externally that it has been abused in any way. Freed from its bracelet, the Elnix presents its obvious 1970’s styling credentials with some brio.
The positivity exuded by its external face was quickly undermined on taking a look under the lid. With its somewhat ancient battery removed, it is clear we have an(other) electrolyte spillage on our hands.
The crusty state of the movement distracts momentarily from the conflicting visual cues: on the one hand, this is clearly a movement that exploits electrical energy as its power source and yet there too clearly a balance, albeit one of rather more robust construction than we are used to.
Extracting the movement from the case requires the stem release button to be located. Nothing obvious presents itself until the crown is pulled out at which point the release lever emerges into view.
To the best of my knowledge, no technical documents exist for the 0703 (or at least none are in circulation) and so I will be flying blind from this point. I do have a technical guide for the predecessor 3703A but the two movements share no parentage and the layout is quite different. Looking at the two designs, the 0703A looks by far and away the better resolved of the two, a matured technology rather than one in flux. So, let’s get to it. Setting the movement onto a case cushion, we can appreciate the very nice state of the dial and handset.
With the hands off, we need to determine how the dial feet are secured to the movement. A quick scout about to the rear and we see that the two feet are held in place by a pair of eccentric screws. Rotating each by 180 degrees anti-clockwise frees the feet from their shackles.
It is probably worth describing at this point the operation of these movements now that we have sight of the key components. All transistorised movements employing a balance work on the same principles and in doing so operate in a way in which the train wheels are driven in the reverse sense to a conventional mechanical movement. Where a mechanical movement employs a mainspring as its source of power with the escapement acting to regulate and measure out that power to the gear train, in an electronic watch, it is the balance itself that drives the movement as a result of the interplay of magnets located on a pair of parallel balance wheels and a pair of fixed coils sitting between the two wheels.
Rotation of the balance causes the magnet to move across the coil, inducing a current in the primary coil and the transistor completes the circuit to the second induction coil. The balance then receives an impulse kick as a result of the induced magnetic field. As the balance swings back, the primary coil generates a reverse current and the transistor breaks the circuit. The crucial development employed in these movements over earlier electric balance driven watches was that the transistor acts as a switch without the need for physical contacts and the problem that can result from wear caused by sparking.
The fact that the coil sits between the two balance wheels means we need to exercise a degree of care in extracting the two from the movement. The balance cannot be removed before the coil is out but it is easier to remove the coil if the balance is no longer fully secured to the movement. I found it easiest to remove them together with some concerted cooperation to avoid damaging the delicate coils. In the photo below you can see the coil partially swung out from between the two balance wheels.
With the balance and coil safely out of the way, we can inspect the escapement. The reversed direction of operation of the movement means that the job of the pallet and escape wheel is not to measure out the power from a mainspring via the balance but rather to transfer power from the balance to the train wheels. The roller jewel on the balance wheel enters the fork of the pallet, driving it in one direction and causing the impulse surface of one of the pallet jewels to come into contact with one of the teeth on the escape wheel. The pallet then stops when a permanent magnet located at the apex of its fork comes into contact with one of the two magnetic banking pins, at which point either the entry or exit pallet jewel sits between a pair of teeth on the escape wheel and the pallet is then in its halted condition. As the balance swings the other way, so the process continues.
You may also have noticed that the escape wheel sports a second serrated click wheel at a level slightly higher than that of the escape wheel itself. This click wheel works with the retaining pawl – the thin straight spring indicated in the inset in the photo above – and its purpose is to prevent the reversal of the escape wheel when reverse torque acts upon it as a consequence of the operation of hands setting or the operation of the date driving wheel. We’ll get a better view of this in a bit once the train bridge is removed.
Next step, remove the friction spring for the sweep second pinion, followed by the train wheel bridge.
That snap caused the only significant impediment to further progress, proving remarkably resistant to my attempts to liberate it from its grip on the hour wheel post. I prevailed in the end but the snap emerged somewhat the worse for wear and will require a fresh replacement when reassembling. Dismantling of the calendar side then proceeded as follows, without further incident.
Armed with the unflinching optimism of the seasoned watch smith, confident that wormholes do not in fact lie in wait, ready to hoover watch parts off to infinity and beyond, I whipped out my torch, got down on my hands and knees and performed a grid search of my immediate surroundings. Five minutes invested and a glint caught my eye at the periphery of the Persian rug sitting in the middle of the room, and there lay my errant spring. Phew.
Before transferring all of the parts to the cleaning machine, I wanted to remove all traces of the spilled electrolyte knowing that it would not be soluble in the watch cleaning solutions. As a pre-clean then, I immersed most of the affected parts in distilled vinegar, a strategy that proved extremely effective at eradicating all traces of the electrolyte salts and preserving the finish of the movement.
With everything squeaky clean, we can swing into reverse and start to build the movement up again. In doing so, some care is required because the order of play will follow a slightly unconventional path, dictated by the slightly unusual architecture of the movement, rather than the fact that I am working largely free of guidance from any technical manuals. The first step though is straightforward enough in fitting the main setting components.
It’s all looking rather spruce. We are two steps away from proving the pudding to be worthy of the eating. The circuit is fixed into position next, and topped off with the power switch lever that forms a mechanical link between the second setting lever post and the cut-off terminal on the circuit board as well as an electrical connection to the power supply.
The final step is to fit the day disk, secured into position with a brand new snap.
The case is next on our agenda, this one presenting one major problem at the outset: the sourcing of a correct crystal. You will have noticed in the opening photos that the crystal is faceted, with a large central square facet surrounded by four curve-edged facets reaching to the outer diameter of the crystal’s circular edge.
The availability of such crystals will depend on the number of watch models sharing the same part and the rarity of those models. In this respect, we have the double whammy of a watch with a short production run and therefore thin on the ground, and one which did not share its crystal with (m)any(?) other models. In fact, a significant part of my problem was that this model does not show up at all in either of the Jules Borel or Cousins databases, nor does it appear in any of the Seiko Casing Parts catalogues in my possession. I’ve actually lost track of how I eventually managed to obtain the part number (295V05GC) but having done so, I could find no trace of it anywhere: not on eBay, Cousins, Jules Borel, Yahoo Japan nor any of the numerous smaller watch parts suppliers I have been in the habit of using. However, Instagram came to my rescue. One of my Instagram friends is a watchmaker based in the Netherlands and he offered to see if he could source the crystal I needed from his local parts supplier, and fortunately for me and my watch, he was able to do. So very many thanks to him!
Here is the new crystal, now fitted, with the outgoing there to contrast not only its shabby condition but also the fact that the central square facet on the old crystal is much larger than that of the new. A quick comparison with the marketing photos in the catalogue shot four photos into this entry show that the new crystal is correct and the crystal fitted to the watch as received must have been a handy substitute rather than the correct part.
This is perhaps a good point to reflect on the position these electronic movements occupied in the historical development of the wristwatch. A good opening question might be: What was the point of them? In hindsight, given the massive impact of the quartz technology that was to follow, a reasonable answer might be: a historical curiosity, a stop gap, a holding position. But at the time that they emerged onto the market in the 1960’s, it is not difficult to see how they might have been viewed as some sort of vision of the future, an example of the white heat of technology. Seiko’s marketing blurb suggesting that these were ‘for the man looking to the future’ backs that up but in order to be a sales success they needed to be something more than a marketing flimflam. They needed to offer something tangible in terms of performance and they did just that. Where the timekeeping of a mechanical watch will usually vary with the power reserve of the mainspring, an electronic watch supplies a constant power to the balance and so in principle its timekeeping should be much more consistent. There is also the added appeal that they will keep running until the battery runs flat, regardless of whether they are worn or indeed, in comparing them to an automatic mechanical movement, of how sedentary or active the wearer might be. The proof of that proposition lies in the fact that in the 2 weeks since completing the watch, it has gained a total of 12 seconds.
Having now worked on one of these watches, I find myself very favourably disposed, not least for the fillip of pleasure I received when the movement sprang into action as soon as a battery was pressed into place. You may enjoy a glimpse of that experience in the following short video.
We have come to a conclusion I think. The remainder, as always, is to fit a strap or bracelet – the latter in this case – and survey the result.
These are watches that deserve to be recognized, not least for their period style and personality but also because they represent a stepping point in the evolution of horology, albeit one that is all but forgotten (or at least neglected).