1950 - The Automatic Movement comes from Schaffhausen

In the history of IWC, 1950 marks the start of an era. For a patent registered that year has continued to play an important role in the way IWC sees itself to this day. Good enough reason to remember the date. There are important gaps in world politics just as there are in the company's history. The end of the Second World War saw the beginning of a new world order. In 1950, the formation of blocs within the nation states had become normal, as shown by the outbreak of the Korean War. In neutral Switzerland, Schaffhausen-based IWC's Technical Director Albert Pellaton developed the revolutionary pawl-winding system that featured in the company's first automatic movement, the 85 calibre. Pellaton's design was destined to go down in the annals of watchmaking history. 

A watch that could wind itself; it was a dream, and at the same time a technical challenge that had occupied watchmakers since the 18th century. Historians are still not in agreement as to whom the concept of the self-winding watch can be ascribed. On the one hand, there are those who credit the Swiss watchmaker Abraham-Louis Perrelet (1729-1826) with the invention of automatic winding for pocket watches in 1777. Others claim that Hubert Sarton (1748-1828), a watchmaker born in Liège, could have been the father of this technology and presented it in 1778.

 

Be that as it may, the idea was born but the technology failed to make its mark on pocket watches.

 

In the 1920s, as wristwatches became ever more popular, an Englishman by the name of John Harwood (1893-1965) occupied himself with the development of a self-winding system for wristwatch movements. By its very nature, a wristwatch was exposed to much more movement than a pocket watch, so the use of an automatic system held out the promise of greater success than a pocket watch. The wrist generated a great deal more kinetic energy for the barrel. In 1923, Harwood became the first watchmaker to develop a self-winding wristwatch with a central oscillating weight. On 1 September 1924 the Federal Institute of Intellectual Property in Bern awarded him a patent with the number 106583.

—Information about the Pellaton self-winding mechanism: technical brochure for Retailers from the early 60's.
—Information about the Pellaton self-winding mechanism: technical brochure for Retailers from the early 60's

Following the unveiling of Harwood's Perpetual at the Basel Watch Show in 1926, other watch companies started using his patent in wristwatch movements. Many watchmakers and others started tinkering around with self-winding systems. The Wyler brothers from Switzerland developed what was called a pump winding system and, in 1929, French watchmaker Leon Hatot (1883-1953) unveiled his so-called "wig-wag" winding mechanism. The system created a stir because generating the energy to wind the movement involved rolling the movement around inside the case. Over time, however, the system with the oscillating weight, or rotor, established itself. The mechanism was set in motion by the wearer's movements and thus "automatically" wound the watch's mainspring.

 

Building on Harwood's idea, Rolex developed the automatic Perpetual drive, as it was known, and launched it in 1931. The system was well received by the market, with the result that other watch manufacturers came under pressure to develop similar or better mechanisms. In the 1930s, however, the Swiss watchmaking industry suffered from the fall-out of the world economic crisis. Where watches to the value of CHF 307 million had been exported in 1929, that figure fell to CHF 86 million in 1932. The number of people employed by the watch industry halved from 48,400 in 1929 to 24,700 in 1934.

A watch that could wind itself; it was a dream, and at the same time a technical challenge that had occupied watchmakers since the 18th century.

During the recession and later the Second World War, the development of self-winding systems stagnated. Or, perhaps more accurately, manufacturers found it difficult to commercialize technical developments. In 1942, during the Second World War, FELSA, a Swiss company specializing in raw movements (ébauches), introduced a bidirectionally winding mechanism that was marketed under the name "Bidynator" (Felsa 692 calibre). The automatic movement with a central seconds hand had a cog-based mechanical transformer that converted the bidirectional movements of the rotor into energy for the barrel.

 

Omega S.A. in Biel likewise unveiled a self-winding movement in 1943. Initial sketches of an automatic winding mechanism first appeared at Longines in St. Imier in 1944. Then, in 1946, the first movements featuring the Longines 22A calibre with a small seconds hand went into series production. In 1948, Eterna launched another technical solution that made use of a miniature ball bearing. The development of automatic winding mechanisms became increasingly widespread among Swiss watch manufacturers during the period after the Second World War, and automatic watch movements were of much greater interest for the market.

 

Between 1944 and 1955, no fewer than 200 patents relating to automatic movements were granted. One thing was clear to designers with all the brands: the realization of such a complex mechanism was no mean feat. Producing a self-winding mechanism called for enormous dexterity, watchmaking expertise and experience. 

—Page of the "Forniture Catalogue n°7" showing the calibre 85.
—Original drawing from Mr. Pellaton showing the "Montre 62 Automatique - etats de remontage du barillet" (26.07.1945).

History and developments were reflected in a similar way at IWC, which had remained loyal to the classic hand-winding system throughout the 1930s. But then, in 1944, Albert Pellaton (1898-1976) took over as Technical Director at IWC and, by May 1945, had already started on the development of an IWC automatic wristwatch. The project went by the name "Montre 62 Automatique". As a manufacturer of high-quality timepieces, the company on the Rhine had a strong interest in making a self-winding watch for its customers. In Albert Pellaton, IWC had appointed a Technical Director who was not only capable of handling the design of an automatic movement but would also be able to organize its series production with the required precision.

 

His first design ideas bore fruit. On 14 June 1946 a first sketch of an IWC automatic watch – "Mécanisme de remontage automatique à masselotte oscillante pour mouvement de montre à remontoir.“ – was patented under the number 254578 in Switzerland. Pellaton had revived an idea first hatched in 1780, which foresaw the transfer of energy via two pawls. In principle, this mechanism was a solution based on very sound technology. But there was still room for improvement. Albert Pellaton continued to work on modifications to the design, mainly with a view to obtaining a complete revolution and guaranteeing optimum shock absorption for the rotor. The result was another patent, dated 7 June 1950, under the number 284841. Effectively, it marked the birth of the Pellaton winding system that has remained such a central feature of IWC's automatic movements to this day. 

But how did this particular design achieve such a splendid reputation among IWC's peers in the watch industry? By using a heart-shaped eccentric similar to the one already found in watchmaking as the cam for resetting a chronograph, it was possible to maximize the energy yield. Other designs used a complicated reducing gear to transmit the energy produced by the movement of the rotor to the barrel. But this led to losses of power and efficiency. The heart-shaped, eccentrically mounted cam adopted by Pellaton was by far the best design to date because it converted the revolutions of the rotor into the to-and-fro motions of a rocking bar. 

 

This movement was then transferred to the winding wheel by two pawls. While one of them pulls the wheel (i.e. winds it), the other glides smoothly over the top of it until the roles are reversed. The design was not only rugged and efficient but was also considered extremely service-friendly. Wearers of an IWC automatic watch with Pellaton winding can experience the same level of efficiency to this day. Every single movement is transmitted as energy via the Pellaton winding to the barrel, and the watch is wound up very quickly.

 

In the late 1940s, Albert Pellaton and his team set about putting the innovative designs for the self-winding mechanism to work in the development of series-production watch movements. From the records, we know that IWC was subsequently planning to make three movements with automatic winding: the 81, 85 and 99 calibres. All that remains of the last-named movement are a few of Pellaton's sketches, and development never got beyond the project stage.

 

The plan was to go into production with one movement featuring a small seconds hand, the 81 calibre, and another with a central seconds. The first of these, however, was never to be realized, despite the fact that designs had been drawn up and plans made for parts production and other components. In the company movement number records, 1800 numbers had been reserved for the movement with the small seconds hand. The records, however, contain no indication of a single sale. We can only assume, therefore, that the 81 calibre never went into series product and that IWC immediately started focussing all its efforts on production of automatic movements with the 85 calibre.

 

For most people back then, the 81 and 85 calibres were very closely related. In the movement number records, the "C 81" entry for the 2250 series was summarily replaced by a "C 85". We can only speculate as to the reason series production never got under way despite the fact that development was so far advanced. It was probably thought that an automatic movement with a small seconds hand would never be a market success. Another possibility is that the production costs were higher than for the 81 and a spontaneous decision was made to shelve sales of the 81-calibre movements. The 85 calibre with a central seconds hand went into production in 1950 and further improved in the course of time.

The process by which Pellaton's invention came into being is also very interesting. Pellaton was an industry insider and thus had a clear idea of the stage reached in the development of the automatic movements in Switzerland. Apart from this, he had not only advanced technical understanding and skills but also the necessary watchmaking talent and a high intelligence. This explains why the development of the self-winding mechanism and its integration in a movement was achieved so quickly, namely within five-and-a-half years. Following their launch, the 85 calibre and subsequent models were to remain a central feature of IWC watches for almost 40 years.

 

In the year 2000, the Pellaton winding system enjoyed a revival in IWC's pocket watch-sized 5000-calibre automatic movement. This movement featured the pawl-winding system developed by ingenious watchmaker Albert Pellaton in the late 1940s. The 52000 calibre unveiled in 2015 likewise featured the mechanism, which transformed even the slightest movement of the wearer's arm into energy for the watch.

 

The legendary, bidirectionally winding Pellaton winding mechanism comprised winding pawls, an automatic wheel and a ceramic rotor bearing. In watchmaking technology today, this represents a unique selling point. The white or black coloured zirconium oxide reduces abrasion to virtually zero. The Albert Pellaton patent registered on 7 June 1950 has ensured the technological lead of IWC automatic watches for decades and will continue to do so in the future. 

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