An automatic watch is a complicated thing. It’s simple enough to talk about their general operation: you move your arm, and a weight in the watch winds the movement. But if you ask for more detail, not many people could tell you. Unless, like me, you’re sat in a room full of watchmakers.
It’s complicated enough now, so you’ve got to appreciate the level John Harwood must have been at when he invented it.
Harwood was born in Bolton, not 10 miles from our workshop. Though he repaired watches by trade, during the first World War he served as an armoury staff sergeant, developing an automatic pistol and a screwdriver with an impact-triggered rotating blade. The man was an inventor through and through – when the war ended he created a wind-powered sawmill, a fraud-proof card shuffling table, and most importantly, an automatic watch.
The automatic watch was patented by Harwood in 1923. The story goes that he was searching for a way to create a hermetically sealed watch, one that wouldn’t get clogged up with dust and other foreign elements, and thus wouldn’t need to be serviced as regularly. But sealing it completely meant no stem to wind the watch. So how would you keep it wound?
Harwood observed children playing on a seesaw, and developed a prototype automatic movement. The rotor in this movement didn’t rotate a full 360 degrees, instead, spring bumpers were fitted to restrict it to 180 degrees – this was done to encourage a back and forth motion with the movement of the arm. A sliding coupling (drag spring) was used to prevent overwinding the mainspring. To set the time, you rotated the watch’s bezel.
Bumper Automatics became the watch industry’s Next Big Thing™️, and every company was racing to create their versions. Rolex’s Oyster Perpetual was touted to be the world’s first automatic wristwatch (a ‘fact’ perpetuated ever since), and as such Rolex and Harwood had some lengthy correspondence about whose design had come first, and where credit was due.
Eventually, an agreement was reached and Rolex changed its advertisements, adding a portrait of Harwood looking quite pleased with himself. A sincere apology by Rolex via the Sunday Times gave Harwood full credit as the inventor, as well as apologising for ‘any injury to his feelings’. It was a very sincere apology.
Harwood set up the Harwood Self Winding Watch Company in 1928, with Fortis and Blancpain assisting in the manufacture of the watches. The company sadly failed just three years later, unable to survive the Great Depression. I’m struggling to find a source, but there are claims that Harwood died in a car accident in 1964.
The take away here, though, is one of legacy. Harwood created something truly impressive; the foundation for every single automatic watch in the world today. It's something he should be remembered for.