Omega Speedmaster: The Electronic Age

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Yes, there were electronic Speedmasters. And there still are today, but we’ll get to that in a few minutes. But it seems like heresy, doesn’t it? A watch with “Speedmaster,” even “Speedmaster Professional” on the dial while inside beats an electronic heart! And yet, we know from their pursuit of timing excellence (through their work in Olympic competition, among other things) that Omega has always looked for ways to innovate and improve.

In the 1970s, the Speedmaster was not immune. And indeed, one would have expected as much, given the recent advances Omega had made in Olympic timing, and with the quartz crisis in full swing. While the Speedmaster Professional hand wound Moon Watch and it’s mechanical brethren never went out of production, the Speedy also saw unique developments in electronic movements.

When we talk about Speedmasters of the electronic age, we’re really talking about four calibres and a closely related variation: the 1255, the 1620, the 1660, and the 1666. There was a 1666B as well, of which apparently only 12 were made.

Speedsonic_electric-watches.co.uk
Photo credit: electric-watches.co.uk
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In 1974, Omega released a series of Speedmasters called the Speedsonic F300 Hz, beginning with ref. ST 188.0001. Note, the watches were signed Speedsonic, not Speedmaster, and being significantly water resistant, had Seamaster signed case backs. The calibre inside was the 1255, essentially the ESA 9162/9164 with a chronograph module added. The 1255 was a tuning fork movement running at 300 Hz (cycles per second) which had been designed by Max Hetzel, who had worked for Bulova in the past (the Bulova’s Accutron 214 was his design).

There were five versions of the Speedsonic, the variations being in the case, bracelet or strap. The watch was produced until 1980 (although one report we found says 1975). By that time, quartz movements had come into their own. The Speedsonic was one of the few in the Speedmaster family to be certified as Chronometers. The quartz models, released a few years after the introduction of the Speedsonic, certainly could have qualified but were never submitted for testing.

SIMONH
Photo credit: SimonH on WUS

In 1977, watches with the 1620 quartz calibre appeared, beginning with ref. ST 186.0004. These watches had a digital LCD display and were accurate to 5 seconds per month. They had the typical 1970s quartz digital watch look. Some versions were signed Speedmaster Professional Quartz (nicknamed the Pro Quartz), others simply Speedmaster Quartz. In all, Omega produced eight variations of these, again with differences in the shape of the case, gold plating, and bracelet vs. strap.

Interestingly, the Speedmaster Quartz watches were only produced for a year. For better or worse, this version of the Speedmaster is not discussed much. Perhaps it’s because the watch is not well known, but we fear it’s because it has the look of a cheap drugstore quartz watch of that era.

Sadly, one often finds these Speedmasters in boxes of “throw-away” watches at flea markets and garage sales. Don’t be fooled, however. These are highly accurate timepieces whose capability is due to the use of a high quality quartz resonator, manufactured in-house by Omega/SSIH. (SSIH was the Socit Suisse pour Industrie Horlogre, which eventually became the Swatch Group.)

seamaster-speedmaster.com-1620Should you find an old Speedmaster Quartz in a junk pile, grab it. They have a unique 1970s vibe and are very restorable with a little elbow grease and know-how.

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The 1620 watches were followed in 1982 by Omega’s brief flirtation with the 1660 calibre. These prototypical pieces featured a hybrid analog/digital display. The watch was similar in appearance to the Mark V (which we’ll discuss in a future article), with an LCD window at 12 o’clock which displayed chrono timing to 1/100th of a second. Interestingly, these watches had an analog central chrono minute counter hand (like a Lemania 5100), and also a 30-minute counter sub-dial at 3 o’clock.

Sadly, 1660-based watches never saw the light of a retail day (two watches were prepped – the TI 386.0815 in titanium and the TA 386.0815 in titanium and gold), although a very similar Lemania model did, sporting a 24 hour sub-dial in place of the Omega’s 30 minute sub-dial. Unfortunately, very little additional information about these 1660-based prototypes is available.

x-33_Z-33
X-33 and Z-33

Finally, in 1998 Omega released the first version of the Speedmaster Professional X-33, ref. TS 186.1998, a titanium cased hybrid watch with both analog and digital displays. Hours, minutes, and seconds are displayed via conventional analog hands while the special functions are displayed digitally on the backlit LCD dial. Those special functions include local time, 1/100th second chronograph with effectively a 100-hour timing capacity, mission duration of 999 days, UTC in hours-minutes-seconds plus day number, a 99-hour, 59-minute, 59-second timer, alarm chronograph, perpetual calendar, a very loud 80dB alarm.

The X-33 is water resistant to 50m, shock resistant, anti-magnetic, and can tolerate temperatures ranging from -20°C to 70°C (4°F to 158°F). It’s got better-than-chronometer accuracy at -3/+5 seconds per day. With all that going for it, it’s no wonder the X-33 is, as it reads on the case back, “FLIGHT QUALIFIED BY NASA FOR SPACE MISSIONS.” For use inside space vehicles, that is.

The X-33 was updated in 2001 (ref. TS 186.1999) with a new case design, a new grooved crown for ease of operation, and new bracelet and Kevlar strap options. This is the version, with minor updates to the quartz module, still available today.

Omega-Spacemaster-Z-33-perspIn 2002 a special version was produced in an extremely limited edition of 12 pieces–the Speedmaster X-33 Special Team Edition America’s Cup, ref. TS 186.1999. Ten went to the Team New Zealand America’s Cup defender and we’re not entirely sure where the other two are. This version had no analog hands and the watch was uniquely tailored to time yacht races.

In 2012, Omega introduced the Z-33, a successor to the X-33. The Z-33’s case is a design throwback to the Pilot line of the 1960s and the MK III of the early 1970s. At this point, there’s no word on flight qualification by NASA, and the case back is mute on this point. The blogosphere seems to believe it’s more of a pilot/ travel watch, and has voiced disappointment on its relative lack of water resistance.

So there you have them–the Speedmasters of the Electronic Age. An age which, as evidenced by the Z-33, has not yet ended.

Next up, the various Speedmasters–the automatics, the Marks, the unique cases, and more–that Omega has produced over the years.

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