Research into the timekeeping properties of quartz crystals began as early as 1880, when Pierre Curie (1859-1906), the husband of Marie Curie, discovered piezoelectricity. He observed that quartz produced electricity when put under pressure. Conversely, when he applied electricity to the crystal, the quartz deformed and vibrated. These vibrations enabled quartz to serve as an oscillator, similar in function to the balance wheel of a mechanical watch.
In 1927, Canadian-born telecommunications engineer Warren Marrison used piezoelectricity to develop a reliable frequency standard for Bell Labs. His large clock was much more accurate than existing mechanical clocks. It kept time using the regular vibrations of quartz crystals in an electrical circuit. By the 1940s, Marrison’s design had become standard in laboratories across the world, but the technology was too cumbersome and expensive for household use or to integrate into a portable timepiece.
Over the next forty years, a variety of technologies were invented that proved fundamental to the modern shape, functionality, and style of the quartz wristwatch. The first watch batteries were invented in 1954 by researchers at the Hamilton Watch Company for its first electronic watch, the Ventura. In 1959, Jack Kilby of Texas Instruments and Robert Noyce of Fairchild Semiconductor independently developed the integrated circuit. Friedrich Reinitzer and Otto Lehmann discovered liquid crystal as far back as 1888, but it the material only became useful to the development of watches in 1968, when researchers at RCA’s Sarnoff Labs developed the first liquid crystal displays.
Japanese electronics company Seiko Group pioneered the production of electronic quartz watches. Over a ten year period of research, the Suwa Seikosha laboratory, headed by engineer Tsnueya Nakamura, developed the Seiko-Quartz Astron 35SQ. It was introduced to the public in Tokyo on December 25, 1969.
In 1958, the Suwa Seikosha team built a quartz timepiece for the Chubu Broadcasting Corporation in Nagoya. But the clock was the size of a filing cabinet. In 1959, the researchers began the “59A Project,” which led to the development of the marine chronometer in 1963. That year, Suwa Seikosha became the first Japanese watchmaker to enter the annual Neuchatel Observatory competition in Switzerland with a quartz chronometer. They commercialized this product in February 1964 as the crystal chronometer, and the technology found prominent roles as the official timekeeper for the Tokyo Olympics of 1964 and as the clock on board the Japanese Bullet Trains built in the 1960s.
Suwa Seikosha reduced the size of the quart timepiece considerably by 1967, and, for the first time, entered a quartz wristwatch into the Neuchatel competition. Two years later, on Christmas Day, 1969, it released a commercial version of this product to consumers. The Seiko-Quartz Astron 35SQ was an 18-karat gold watch that replaced the traditional mechanics of the wristwatch—hairspring, balance wheel, and escapement—with a quartz crystal that oscillated at a rate of 8,192 cycles per second. Its miniature silver battery lasted more than a year. But it was a luxury product, retailing for $1,250.
Nevertheless, the “quartz revolution” had begun, and within a few years the technology became affordable and ubiquitous. By 1976, Texas Instruments was selling a twenty-dollar watch line, and within a few years, it could no longer compete with models selling for less than ten dollars.