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While TAG Heuer’s recent Research and Development has focused on reaching new standards of precision (1/ 100th, 1/ 1000th and 5/ 10,000th second) for mechanical Chronographs, you may not know that with these achievements TAG Heuer is in fact breaking its own records. Heuer first broke through the 1/ 100th second barrier back in 1916- not with a mechanical watch, but with a mechanical stopwatch.
The stopwatch was launched in 1916 and was an amazing five-times more precise than other stopwatches of the day. It was thanks to the this innovation that Heuer was invited to work with the International Olympic Committee, being the official timer of three Olympic Games.
Unlike today when it’s commercial relationships that dominate, the original link between Heuer and the Olympics was one based solely on the organisers wanting to access Heuer’s ground-breaking timepiece- the Heuer Mikrograph.
The Olympic Connection
In the early 1900s, the limit of precision for most timing instruments was 1/ 5th of a second, a level of accuracy that began to fall behind contemporary developments in science, ballistics, aerodynamics, industrial manufacturing and sporting events. In response, Charles-Auguste Heuer commenced a project in 1914 to better this standard. Work was completed two years later, when on 2 October 1916 Heuer received a patent for the world’s first stopwatch with 1/ 100th second precision.
The Mikrograph was so advanced that it not only made every other stopwatch instantly redundant, but it remained the pinnacle of timing until it was replaced by electronic timing in the late 1960s- the Mikrograph didn’t leave the Heuer catalogue until 1969.
Not surprisingly, the new Mikrograph was perfect for the timing sporting events, including the Olympic Games. Heuer was the official timekeeper for three Olympic Games- Antwerp in 1920, Paris in 1924 and Amsterdam in 1928.
Despite the success of the Mikrograph at these Games, it would be more than 50 years until Heuer would again be an official part of the Olympics.
The Mikrograph uses a fairly conventional stopwatch case and dial made up of two registers. The first operates on the main dial and measures 1/ 100th of a second, with the central hand rotating once every 3 seconds. The smaller register at 12 o’clock measures up to 60 seconds.
A single crown controls all functions on the watch- wind clockwise to manually charge the movement and then a single button to start, stop and re-set the timer.
The Heuer stopwatches that you see in this story belong to Gary Cutri, a Melbourne collector who has accumulated an amazing collection of rare and unusual Heuer stopwatches and timers, including the very rare Black-dial Mikrograph above.
The two Mikrographs shown above date to the early 1940s.
1/50th of a second was enough for many sporting events, so there was a market for this somewhat cheaper stopwatch rather than the Mikrograph rendering it completely redundant. While the Mikrograph could record three seconds on the main dial, the Semikrograph instead measured 6 seconds.
There are several versions of the Semikrograph, with the first model (below left- dated 1916-1918) having a separate crown and pusher.
The innovations didn’t end with those two models though. Both were also offered as split-timers, whereby two hands are provided, with the first able to hold a time from the previous lap for comparison with the current lap. The split-time versions of the Mikrograph was called the Microsplit, while the split-time version of the Semikrograph was called the Semicrosplit.
The first Mikrographs used a Heuer 601 Calibre (above), while later models (including both the Black and White Mikrographs shown in the story) use a modified Valjoux 76 movement.
Modern versions of the Semikrograph are powered by the Valjoux 57 movement.
1980 Summer & Winter Olympics
Heuer was one of several companies that provided timing equipment to the two 1980s games and released two “Olympic Edition” versions of its digital timers.
Evolution of the Mikrosplit
While TAG Heuer today has no role at the Olympic Games, the company did revolutionise timing in the early Olympic years- it was the alpha rather than the omega of Olympic timing, if you excuse the pun. While there was a brief cameo in the early 1980s, TAG Heuer today focuses on Motorsports and yachting timing, rather than athletics.
As early as 1916, we had the sophistication of timing to 1/100th of a second and persistent lap timing. It’s hard to know where timing can go from here – with the exception of a somewhat freak result like the Formula 1 qualifying, 1/1000th of a second is probably enough for most sporting events and for scientific experiments where more accuracy is required, then timing will be electronic. That said, there is something to be said for striving for more accuracy just because you can and it is that thinking that brought us the 5/ 10,000th second Mikrogirder in 2012.
Let’s see just how far TAG-Heuer can push this particular envelope in the future – although probably not as significant for the business as a whole as increased in-house manufacture of movements, it still harks back to a time of horological innovation and it’s refreshing to see that spirit return.