First Automatic Watch – Harwood in the ’20s

May 1st, 2012 | 10 Comments

The first automatic watch was created in the early 1920s. It helped revolutionize the watch industry in a whole new way. In fact, automatic watches today, including the many automatic watches by Orient Watch USA can thank pioneer John Harwood for jump-starting the automatic watch back as early as 1923 with his invention and the first patent for a watch of this type.

Want to learn more? This article will answer:




The Pioneer: John Harwood

John Harwood is known as the pioneer of automatic watches. Harwood was a soldier in World War I and a great English watchmaker. In the early 1920’s, he founded the Harwood watch company. He wanted to create something new, something better; something that inevitably linked his name forever with the watch industry.

Harwood understood that both dust and dampness were severe problems leading to watch’s inaccuracy and typical problems. He hoped to create a watch with a winding mechanism inside the watch to avoid this primary predicament. With a winding mechanism already inside of a watch, there would be no need for an opening in the case for the winding shaft (which brought in dust and dampness).

One day, John Harwood observed some children playing on a see-saw. This single observation was astounding and fueled him with the idea for his soon-to-be legendary self-winding mechanism: the automatic watch.


How the First Automatic Watch Worked

The first automatic watch used a small weight inside the watch. This weight swung back and forth hitting a small gear within that would wind the watch. The weight did not rotate a full 360°. Spring bumpers restricted its swing to about 180 degrees to encourage a back and forth motion, like a see-saw. This early type of self-winding mechanism is now referred to as a ‘hammer’ or ‘bumper.’

The watch had no crown and was set by rotating the bezel (note: a bezel is a rim that is rotatable and has special markings on a watch). A special mechanism would undo the watch’s automatic “bumper” movement and engage the hands for setting.
When setting the watch, a white dot in the dial opening above the “6″ appeared. Once set, the user of the watch would then have to rotate the bezel in the opposite direction, re-engaging the movement, and a red dot in the dial opening above the “6″ would appear, signaling the readiness of the movement.

When the watch was fully wound, it would run for 12 hours autonomously. It did not have a conventional stem winder though, so the hands were moved manually by rotating a bezel around the face of the watch. While today’s watches are attributed to this first model, many new creations and improvements have been made to current automatic watches, such as the addition of power reserve indicators.


What Happened Next?

On October 16, 1923, John Harwood registered his invention at the Federal Office for Intellectual Property of the Swiss Confederation at Berne. He had traveled to Switzerland to locate the perfect “technical conditions” to help him understand his invention.

On September 1, 1924, he was issued with patent No. 10 65 83 for this pioneering invention. At the 1926 Basle Trade Fair, Harwood exhibited the world’s first automatic wristwatch in serial production.

With his patent, the Harwood Company produced watches through factories in Switzerland, London, France, and the United States. The Harwood watch first went on sale in 1928. It was produced and marketed to the public primarily between 1929 and 1931.

About 30,000 watches were made before the Harwood Self-Winding Watch Company collapsed in 1931 because of the Great Depression.

Despite the company’s collapse, the further and future development of the automatic watch is attributed to this early invention, and John Harwood is known throughout history as having pioneered it. To the watchmaking community, the Harwood is still an exceptionally important watch historically and an extremely prized collectible.

  1. 10 Comments | Tell us what you think!

  2. By BaiBai on Oct 1, 2009

    This was a fun and informative article to read.

  3. By Ricky on Oct 1, 2009

    Very interesting site! :)

  4. By pete on Oct 1, 2009

    Thanks for sharing Harwood history.

  5. By Jamie B on Dec 18, 2009

    I love the site and articles! Always very informative with a touch of vintage.

  6. By stephanie on Dec 18, 2009

    very interesting!

  7. By Steve Djurik on Dec 18, 2009

    Inreresting and informative automatic watch article.

  8. By Corey on Dec 18, 2009

    This is an excellent read. Thank you for the historical background; it’s nice to be educated about a product I love.

  9. By Vladimir on Dec 18, 2009

    Thanks, it is a very interesting fact.

  10. By Tracy Edwards on Dec 24, 2009

    This shows how the automatic watch changed for the better. You had hand wind watchs for a long time, before Harwood changed the automatic forever. Today’s watchs have come a long way, thanks to Harwood pioneer invention.

  11. By James Fiddler on Dec 26, 2009

    How very interesting! I have always been fascinated with automatic watches, though I have never owned one. Some day I will.

10 comments | Tell us what you think!