50th Anniversary of Seiko’s first automatic chronograph - 6139

This year represents the 50th Anniversary of the first automatic chronographs that were released by multiple companies in 1969. Seiko’s first automatic chronograph calibre was the 6139 and it was available in a number of models. There has been much debate over the years as to which companies products were “first” so I try to look at the evidence to determine when Seiko models were first produced and released to the market.

At the end of the 1960’s there were multiple companies who were working on bringing an automatic chronograph to the market. The companies included Zenith as well as a collaboration between Heuer, Breitling, Hamilton-Buren and Dubois-Depraz. For more details on the Swiss companies and their developments check out the article by Jeff Stein - In-Depth How Heuer, Breitling, And Hamilton Brought The Automatic Chronograph To The World 50 Years Ago.

Concurrent with the Swiss companies developments Seiko was also designing its own automatic chronograph. The first automatic chronograph calibre from Seiko was the 6139 and it was launched in a couple of different designs each with a pair of colorways. The movement has a 30 minute register at the six o’clock position, start/stop and reset pushers on the right of the case and a crown centrally located on the right as well. The movement is an integrated vertical clutch and column wheel chronograph design, if you are after a more specific breakdown on the movement take a look at the Seiko 6139A and 6138A Chronograph Technical Guides.

The 61SP 014 and 61SP 016 (6139-6000) models featured a red/blue external tachymeter bezel and an inner rotating ring that could be manipulated via the crown allowing up to sixty minutes to be measured. The second design was used in the 61SP 022 and 61SP 024 (6139-6010) models that featured a fixed inner tachymeter chapter ring.

Determining the production date of a specific Seiko watch is relatively easy as the serial number can provide the year and month. This is a simple system with the first digit indicating the year while the second digit indicates the month. The month is listed as 1-9 for January to September, then 0 for October, N for November and D for December. More information on the various Seiko case back markings can be found here.

The earliest example of a 6139 that I am aware of is this 6139-6010 owned by Indera Sadikin. The watch has a serial number showing it was manufactured in January 1969. This watch was purchased in early 2014 from Japan as part of an auction job lot and is pictured in as found condition.

I am not aware of any other January production examples but they are likely out there in limited numbers. Examples produced in February 1969 are much more commonly seen with many examples of these in collections and auction sales. Below is an example of a 61SP 014 6139-6000 from February 1969 that was provided by user Pappi from the Seiko & Citizen Watch Forum (SCWF). In addition here are another couple of February examples again provided by Indera Sadikin.

Unfortunately I do not have a February example in my collection but instead just have a unit produced in March 1969 and another from April.

While the date of production for the units is relatively easy to establish one thing that can not be determined from the case markings is when the watches were actually released to the market for public sale. Obviously before models can actually be sold in stores they need to be produced and this can occur a few months before the initial public sale. To determine when this first occurred we need to consult some of the official published records from Seiko. I have found a couple of official references that detail the release of various products.

The first reference is the Seiko Watch Postwar History Reference from 1995 that I was able to view during one of my visits to the Seiko Museum in Tokyo. This reference lists the various models that were released with details on the year and month, movement, accuracy and movement dimensions. The reference is divided into different tables that are separated between models from Suwa/Epson and Daini/SII. The table columns are in the following order: Year Month, Calibre, Name, Specification, Movement Size, Accuracy Grade, Frequency, Remarks.

The ninth row shows the reference to the 6139. The year is listed as Showa 44 which was 1969 and the month shown is March. The name is listed as 12 type, indicating the movement size and 61 Speed Timer. The specification column states Automatic Winding CG: [chronograph] 30 minutes D/D [day/date] 21 jewels (17 jewels).

Unfortunately the Year Month reference does not explicitly state that this is when the watch was released to the market, but the reference to March would seem to indicate this, as it is clear production of 6139 based models had occurred prior to this date.

While this date would seem to provide a definitive date for the release, and it is from an official Seiko publication, I do have a slight reservation on this as the document was not published until 1995. I would prefer to see documents published around the original period. It also differs from the more commonly referenced date of May that is generally thought of as the market release for these models. The date referenced in this document may instead be the month when Suwa delivered the initial batch of watches to Seiko prior to their distribution to dealers.

The other official document that lists market introduction for the various calibers is a table that can be found in the rear of some Japanese market dealer catalogs. These catalogs were published by Seiko traditionally twice per year and show the models available at the time. Beginning in the 1976 Volume 1 issue a reference table was added at the rear of the catalog that showed current and recent movement types, features, dimensions, if an international warranty was available (indicating it could be serviced by Seiko in other countries) as well as a column that explicitly states Released Year & Month.

By 1976 only the B version of the 6139 calibre was available so the table lists 6139B as the calibre type but the release year and month are listed as 44.5 referring to May Showa 44 aka 1969. As this table was created just seven years after the launch of the 6139 it is possibly more accurate than the document created in 1995, but without knowing the source material used for these documents it is impossible to confirm which is the release month. Either way it is safe to state that market release for general public sale had occurred by May 1969. There are numerous examples of 1969 produced 6139 export models that can be found but I have not to this point been able to identify a specific time for the first international sale of these models.

If you look at the time when automatic chronographs were being released widely to the public for purchase it would seem that the Seiko 6139 came to market by at least May 1969. The Heuer, Breitling and Hamilton “Chronomatic” models were announced on March 3rd and public sales began from July. The Zenith El Primero was publicly announced in January but ended up being the last of the three to reach the market when it went on sale in the third quarter of the year.

The 6139 proved to be a very popular model from Seiko and it graced the cover of the 1969 Number 2 catalog that was released mid-year showing the initial four models that were available at that time. The calibres popularity can be seen by the rapid growth of models, and a year later the 1970 Number 2 catalog shows five new 6139 based watches including another example featured on the cover. In addition to these models there is also a model based on the newly released 6138 caliber that added a twelve hour register at twelve o’clock.

The last of the 6139 models to appear in the Japanese market catalogs were the SAG161, SAG162 and SAG195 in the 1978 Vol.2 issue. Later examples of 6139 models have been seen with production lasting till at least 1979.

Lasting a decade the 6139 proved to be a very popular calibre for Seiko and there were many models released that utilized this. It is interesting to see that Seiko positioned the 6139 as a general workhorse model and introduced it as part of the Seiko Five Sports line up. This was targeted towards a wide audience and was affordably priced. The models were introduced at 16,000円 and 18,000円 and this was the same price as a mid-level dress watch, such as a Lord Matic (LM), from the same period. Higher end models like the King Seiko and Grand Seiko were multiple times the price of the chronograph models.

Interestingly if you look back over the coverage of Seiko’s developments and milestones the company rarely makes any significant fuss over the launch of the 6139. I believe this is because Seiko likely saw the creation of an automatic chronograph as an inevitable development. Self winding watches were very rapidly becoming commonplace and this was seen as a standard feature being demanded by customers at that time. Another reason this may have been downplayed in the company history is because it was undoubtedly overshadowed by a more significant milestone. Later the same year Seiko launched of the world's first quartz watch, the 35SQ Astron. The Astron would mark the start of a massive change on the watch industry that had significantly more impact than adding automatic winding to watches that feature a relatively common existing complication.

References:

Seiko Watch Postwar History Reference, Seiko Corporation, 1995, p.5-3
Seiko Watch Catalog 1969 Vol.2, Seiko Corporation, 1969, p.22
Seiko Watch Catalog 1970 Vol.2, Seiko Corporation, 1970, p.27-28
Seiko Watch Catalog 1976 Vol.1, Seiko Corporation, 1976, p.118
Seiko Watch Catalog 1978 Vol.1, Seiko Corporation, 1976, p.52
Jeff Stein, “In-Depth How Heuer, Breitling, And Hamilton Brought The Automatic Chronograph To The World 50 Years Ago”, Hodinkee, March 6 2019, https://www.hodinkee.com/articles/chronomatic-heuer-breitling-hamilton-50th-anniversary