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Facing the Sun (Xiangyang) -
China’s 1st Generation Electronic Watches:
Balance Wheel Electronic Watches in 70s (1)
向阳 - 记七十年代国产摆轮电子手表

5 September 2010

by Youfang (游方)

In 1957, The Hamilton Watch Co of Lancaster in America produced the world's first electronic watch. Instead of mainspring, a battery was used to power mechanical system. In 1960, Bulova invented a U-shaped piece of nickel alloy with a vibration frequency much higher than the traditional fly wheel thus offers a better accuracy than conventional mechanical watches, which is considered as the second generation electronic watches. In 1967, Swiss Centre Electronique Horloger produced the first of third generation electronic watches - quartz watches. In 1972, the first of fourth generation of electronic watches with a digital display was produced by Hamilton.

China’s development of electronic watches began in the mid to late 1960s. According to The Chronicle History of Shanghai Light Industry, Shanghai clock and watch industry has produced all four generations of electronic watches, from coil balance wheel system, turning fork device, quarts movement to digital display.

In 1967 at the height of the Cultural Revolution, a small plant called Shanghai Metal Watch Bands Factory, that only had a few very basic and simple mechanical equipments in its workshop, amazingly produced the first balance-wheel electronic watch in China. A year later the production line was transferred to Shanghai Ballpoint Pen Plant which was at the time working on developing button mercury battery for electronic watches. Mr Ye Gonqi was appointed as the principal engineer for the pilot project, and the endeavour soon yielded positive results.

In March 1974, a meeting to assess the pilot project was hosted by Shanghai Light Industry Bureau with the authorisation of the Light Industry Ministry of China, evaluating the design for model SD2 coil balance wheel electronic watches. The meeting took 6 days from March 25 to 30 and was attended by 107 people from 44 relevant plants and related organisations nationwide, among which 24 were technical workers and machine operators from factories.

After a careful examination, the meeting determined that the model has a sound design structure to ensure a good accuracy and low power consumption, thus a decision to launch pilot production run was reached. Shanghai Ballpoint Pen Plant was required to prepare for mass production as soon as the trial was complete.

The meeting also coordinated research project on button cell battery for watches which helped to bring notable progress in increasing battery capacity and suppressing electrolyte creepage.

Before long, China’s first balance wheel electronic watch (model SD2) was successfully produced by a special task force at Shanghai Ballpoint Pen Plant which was consisted of not just researches, engineers but technical workers. It is a turning point for China’s watch manufactory marked by a shift from the era of mechanical timepiece to the age of electronic watches.

The test run for this model had continued for quite a few years. In the meanwhile, in 1972, Wuxi Clock Watch Plant in Jiangsu Province set for trial assembly of 17-jewel balance wheel electronic watches with components provided by Shanghai Ballpoint Pen Plant. The product is named “Red Star” but never proceed to commercial production stage due to the lack of special equipments to allow large scale production.

The watches produced in Shanghai named “Facing the Sun” eventually put into commercial production. The precise date when the products hit the market could not be specified now, but judging by its name that bears a distinctive trait of the Cultural Revolution, it should be no late than 1976, the year when the Revolution was officially ended.

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Admin: The article has also been published on Beijing Collectors magazine (2009-1) and Clocks & Watches magazine (2009-2).

[1] [2] [3] [4] [5]

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