The life of our recent college graduate and our story have moved on from Tokyo to Nagano as a decade has passed. Nagano is located in the middle of the Japanese Alps about a two hour train journey from Tokyo.
Nagano is the Japanese heart of making and eating Soba; a noodle made from buckwheat grown in the surrounding area and eaten with seaweed and tempura fried seafood and vegetables. Connoisseurs also add the yolk of a quail egg to the soy based dipping sauce. Soba noodles are eaten cold, a seemingly strange practice in this wintry mountain town.
Nagano is also the location of the Seiko Epson Corporation which is the reason for our visit. Seiko Epson (Seikō Epuson Kabushiki-gaisha as the Japanese say) traces its history from Daiwa Kogyo Ltd. and the Suwa factory of Daini Seikosha. These operations were merged in 1959 to form Suwa Seikosha Co. Ltd. located in Suwa, a small town by the Suwa lake just outside of Naganao.
Photograph by Epson.jp
Suwa Seikosha has always been the core of Seikos electronic development and has produced technological breakthroughs such as the QC-951 for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics; the world’s first quartz timer which was not as big as a shed.
Due to its high status in the world of electronic research, the Suwa factory attracts the best engineers from Japan and the rest of the world. One of them is our hero from the previous story; now a respected electrical engineer in his mid 30’s. He is here to take up his new position and is being introduced to the factory by Dr. Tokei, one of the most esteemed researchers in the factory.
“Our work here with quartz based timing devices began in 1959 with the 59A Project” explains Tokei-san. “We quickly found out how to make large clocks and ships chronometers, but to produce a reliable quartz watch turned out to be a completely different challenge. There were problems with both the size of the movements and power consumption. For a few years, the project was going nowhere. However, in 1968, the company president Mr. Shoji Hattori declared that a marketable wristwatch must be available wihin a year. So we then reformed the team and started again from scratch. Our engineers managed to develop the three core components of a quartz watch internally; the quartz oscillator, the integrated circuit and the stepping motor. On Christmas day, 1969, the first quartz watch was released to the Japanese market.”
The watch, developed by Tokei-sans team was the Quartz Astron, produced in only 100 units with a selling price of JPY 450,000; about the same as a Japanese family car. The 8kHz caliber 35 used in the Astron was then refined first into the 16kHz 35A calibre and later into the 38 calibre introduced in October 1971 as the Quartz VFA at a price of JPY 150,000.
Eager to learn more about the watch industry, you ask Dr. Tokei about what the competition is doing. “Our main competition is probably our sister company Daini Seikosha. They are presently developing the Quartz 39 series; an excellent watch with +-5seconds per month accuracy. Our best watch, the 38 series VFA also has +-5 seconds per month accuracy but I think our power management is better. However, I do not fancy the styling of the 39 series.”
Tokei-san continues “At this time, Citizen has not yet committed fully to quartz development and produced both electronic and tuning fork watches. Its tuning fork watches, including the flagship Hisonic, are based on Bulova developments from the mid 1960’s. Together with Bulova, Citizen is building a large factory for the production of these tuning fork watches. When it opens in 1975, this factory will be able to produce more than 500,000 watches per year.”
The tuning fork watch, with its characterestic 360Hz hum (slightly above “Mid C”) had been the preferred method of movement accuracy during the 1960’s and had reached a level of 1 minute per month timekeeping; better than most mechanicals. However, these watches were very sensitive both to shocks and external sound interference, so this was not a path Seiko chose for its development.
Both Seiko and Citizen were making electronic watches during the latter part of the 1960’s and the early 1970’s. These watches, which essentially replaced the mainspring with an electrical motor, acheived slightly better accuracy than a fully mechanical watch but still relied on a balance for accuracy. Seiko’s electronic watches included the 3102 calibre from 1968 and the 0723 Elnix SG from 1972. Now, in 1973, most research and development at Seiko is directed towards quartz watches.
Having learned about the competition, your next issue concerns your daily work. Currently, the Suwa factory is producing mainly watches of the Q series and you will be working with a unit on Q series development. These are the QT and QR 38 series calibres along with the new 09 series QZ. The QR is already selling with the QT slated for a release early in 1974 followed by the QZ one year later. Seiko had been able to significantly reduce production costs allowing them to sell the QT’s at around JPY 75,000 and the QR’s at about JPY 50,000. This was a big reduction of the JPY 150,000 38 VFA’s price and the JPY 100,000 Daini 39 series models.
Tokei-san then goes on to discuss the state of development. “We have recently improved the movement’s efficiency allowing us to improve battery life from less than one to almost two years. Also, we are developing accuracy standards. Our initial watches were very accurate. The 38 VFA’s accuracy was 5 seconds per month, and the QT was accurate to 15 seconds per month. Now we are trying to find a better balance between cost and accuracy. Our goal is to continue to lower prices while mainting a 15 second per month accuracy standard.”
“What do you see in the future?” You ask Dr. Tokei. “As I said before, our most important focus is cost reduction. One of our development teams is working on the Type-II watch in which we hope to produce a watch that costs less than one tenth of today’s quartz watches. It is not until we get below JPY 10,000 that a quartz watch will be affordable for the general public.
One of my dreams is that we can one day attach an auto wind system to a quartz movement so that there is no need to ever exchange the battery. I do not believe that we will be able to achieve this within the next 20 years, but perhaps, you will be one of the engineers on that team that produces such a watch.”
Photograph – Seiko
With that thought in your mind, you exit the Suwa factory complex returning back to the train station. The future truly looks like it belongs to the quartz watch. Perhaps in a decade or so, no one will ever wear a mechanical watch again as they are relegated to museums as reminders of a period when time was not very important.