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The Automatic Wristwatch

by Jordan Ficklin

The automatic wristwatch is a fantastic invention, but sometimes it gives me a headache.

automatic wristwatchAbraham Perrelet produced the first automatic pocket watch in 1778. The wristwatch didn’t show up on the scene with any popularity for more than a hundred years later (around the turn of the twentieth century.) About 20 years later the first automatic wristwatch (developed by John Harwood) was exhibited at Basel in 1926. In 1931 Rolex introduced their “Perpetual” wristwatch and the world never turned back. The first automatic chronograph didn’t come around until 1969. If you want to know more about these developments try the following articles:

Heuer Carrera Chronographs:
A Brief Overview: Then, Now and the Future:

Fortis By: Jeffrey P. Hess
An Introduction to Automatic Winding Mechanisms
Automatic Watch

So, why do they give me a headache? The automatic watch is not the right fit for some people. Some people would do better to have a quartz or a manual wind. Probably the most common problem I encounter is a watch that is stopping because the automatic module isn’t winding the watch enough. This can be due to many factors. The most common factor is that the watch is in need of a full maintenance service. When the oils get dry or gummy the automatic mechanism no longer functions efficiently and no amount of movement will wind the watch enough to keep it running overnight.

There are other factors which can keep a watch from winding:

A watch worn too loosely will not wind efficiently. When the watch shifts around on the wrist the watch moves instead of the oscillating weight. For the weight to move and wind the mainspring the watch needs to be securely fastened to a moving object (like your wrist) which brings us to the second problem. You must be active to wind your watch. While I have typed this post my watch has not stored any energy at all, because I type with my wrists at rest. During a normal day however I move around more than enough to keep my automatic watches wound fully.

Some activities serve to better wind a watch than others. Some types of exercise may be the best but many people will take their automatic watch off while at the gym so this motion isn’t captured. As a general rule if you wear your watch 10-12 hours a day and are moderately active your watch should become fully wound. If you are a “strong wearer” or very active you can get away with wearing it less. If you are a “weak wearer” you may need to wear it longer to keep it wound. Some individuals just can’t keep their watch wound.

WOSTEP provides a cryptic table which provides a relationship between certain activities and their “winding rate” in their book “Theory of Horology.” The numbers may be impossible to decipher given the amount of information in the table (I think they left out a legend) but the order and magnitude will give you an idea of how the different activities compare.

Activity> Winding Rate
Sleeping 1.2
Driving a car 3.4
Walking 8
Having breakfast 13
Morning Wash 19
Washing one’s hands 41
Dressing 63
Putting on or taking off a coat 92

Once again, I’m not sure what these numbers represent but clearly moving your arms around winds your watch more. And you don’t move your arms very much while sleeping.

Automatics are intended for full day wear. They don’t make very good dress watches or evening watches. They are to be used. If you aren’t going to wear them all day every day a watch winder may be in your best interest, or you could get a nice dress watch. Most “dress watches” on the market will be either quartz or manual wind.

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  1. Posted August 26, 2008 at 5:59 am | Permalink

    VERY interesting, thanks!

  2. J.Peter
    Posted August 26, 2008 at 6:07 am | Permalink

    Thanks, Speedmaster

    Sometimes I like to just write about the stuff I encounter every day.

  3. Posted December 1, 2008 at 11:18 am | Permalink

    Nice post! You should be aware that most self-winding watches of today can also be manually wound.

  4. J.Peter
    Posted December 1, 2008 at 11:56 am | Permalink


    Thank you for adding that comment. I should have mentioned that an automatic watch can be manually wound as well and if it stops it is a good idea to give it about 20 winds before you put it on. The trouble is that customers who complain about their watch stopping because they are not active enough usually want a watch they don’t have to bother with winding and don’t accept that as a solution.

    For myself, I love automatics! Most of the ones I encounter present few problems but there are the occasional encounters that require a special touch.

  5. Posted June 17, 2010 at 9:25 am | Permalink

    I have heard so many complaints about watches not winding like they were supposed to. I think you did a great job of explaining some of the main issues!

  6. Ian Nisbet
    Posted September 9, 2012 at 3:37 am | Permalink

    I have an automatic watch that I bought in Greece earlier this year. The watch worked fine for over a week until I came home, then it stopped working. It did nmot stop working suddenly, it stopped working over about two days.
    The problem that I have is that the watch will work for over 48 hours if I leave it alone on a flat surface. If I put it on my wrist it will start to lose time about 10 minutes in an hour, If I leavbe it on when I go to bed it will only work for 4 hours before stopping completely.
    Any ideas would be welcome.

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