Omega Speedmaster: The First 15 Years

The Omega Speedmaster is one of a handful of watches that can truly be called iconic. Known as the first watch on the moon, the Speedmaster began its career in space exploration with Wally Schirra’s Mercury Atlas 8 mission in 1962. It was formally flight qualified by NASA in 1965. The Speedmaster’s role in space–and its legacy–was cemented when it was used to time the course-correcting rocket burns during Apollo 13’s harrowing return to earth in 1970. Now, over forty years later, it’s still the only watch NASA has approved for extravehicular activity/space walks.

Photo credit: analog/shift

But what makes this watch special, besides its heritage? Was it specially designed to withstand the rigors of space? Uniquely specified by NASA for the job? Well, no. This iconic chronograph began life in the late 1950s, originally conceived as a motor sports watch. Thus, the name Speedmaster rather than “Spacemaster” or some such moniker.

This article is the first in a series of four. The “Speedy,” as it’s affectionately known to its fans, has a long rich history, and we’d like to take our time with it. The other week our compadré Mr. Enloe took a brief look at the Speedmaster in the movies. Here we explore its genesis and roughly the first 15 years of its evolution. In future articles we’ll look at the electronic (read: quartz) versions, the variations of the Speedmaster from the 1970s to the new millennium, and we’ll conclude with a look at current releases which include homages to some of those early models.


27 CHRO C12

The movement that would eventually be installed in the first Speedmaster began life as a research project in 1942. Known simply as the 27 CHRO C12 (27 for 27mm diameter, CHRO for chronograph, and 12 indicating the calibre had a 12 hour totalizer) the movement joined several others in the Lemania chronograph lineup: the 28.9 CHRO, the 33.3 CHRO, and the 39 CHRO.

Known as the 321 in-house at Omega, the movement was the first to feature a 12-hour totalizer. It’s still one of the smallest chronograph movements ever designed. The 321 is a column wheel design and the initial version had no form of shock resistance. That, along with an anti-magnetic balance spring, was added in 1946.

Photo credit: Shane Lim

The case design was led by a group of three: designer Claude Baillod created the first model. Georges Hartmann made the initial prototype. Désiré Faivre handled machining tasks.

Originally, the case was 39mm and there was no crown guard incorporated. The black dial was there from the outset, as was the tachymeter bezel. Early versions had the tachymeter engraved in steel. Also there from the start were a screw-in case back, a protective inner cover for the movement, and a domed plastic crystal. In 1960 the case grew to 40mm and the black tachymeter bezel insert was added.

Photo credit: WUS member OCK2915

Production of the Speedmaster began in 1957. In early 1958, “A new type of chronograph, with a tachometer[sic] and production meter, designed for research, industry, and sport” first appeared on retail shelves. The initial price tag? 410 Swiss francs on an expandable metal bracelet, SF380 on a leather strap. About $93.75 and $86.90 at the time.

1962 saw the Speedmaster available with several bezel scale permutations: tachymeter, pulsometer, telemeter, telemile and decimal scales were all available.

Photo credit: William Bright @billfactor

Twisted lugs appeared in 1963, along with the larger asymmetrical case which measured in at 42mm and provided protection for the pushers and crown.

The 861

In 1965, due to large demand, Omega and Lemania began work on a new calibre to replace the 321. Changes were made to simplify the movement and cut production costs. The column wheel was gone, replaced by shuttles (button activated cams) to stop and release the chrono seconds hand. The rate was increased from 18,000bph (beats per hour) to 21,600bph. Accuracy was slightly better as well.

This new movement was given the Lemania designation of 1873. Omega called it the 861, and it’s basically the same movement found in the Speedmaster Professional today. The first movements were assembled in 1968.

The Speedmaster Professional

For the first several years, a Speedmaster was just that: a Speedmaster. However, with its newfound status as NASA’s watch of choice for the space program, Omega added the word “Professional” to the dial lettering in October 1966.

And what led to that selection by NASA? The story goes that two NASA staffers drove into downtown Houston and visited several jewelers. They bought chronographs from five different brands, never positively identified. Their goal was to put each watch through a rigorous series of tests to determine which, if any, would be suitable for future missions.

photo credit: analog/shift

The references for this story are sufficiently obscure that this author hesitates to put it down as fact. What we do know is NASA wrote to Omega’s US importer in New York and requisitioned a dozen watches “for testing and evaluation purposes” in late September 1964. Presumably they did this for four other brands as well.

Two brands were eliminated in the first round of testing. Two more were eliminated in the second round. Testing was completed by March 1, 1965. Only the Speedmaster had passed all tests set forth by NASA technicians. Astronauts Virgil “Gus” Grissom and John Young wore Speedmasters on the first Gemini manned mission three weeks later. A little over two months after that, Ed White became the first American to walk in space, and he did it with a Speedmaster on his wrist.

Ed_White_performs_first_U.S._spacewalk_-_GPN-2006-000025The irony here is that Omega apparently did not learn of the selection of the Speedmaster as NASA’s space watch until April 1966. References differ on exactly when the word “Professional” was added to the dial. Some say 1965. Others claim it appeared in October of 1966. The later date seems to be corroborated by the April 1966 date of revelation of the Speedmaster’s status at NASA.

The Speedmaster Professional and Apollo

Beyond Ed White’s history-making space walk in 1965, two stories loom large over all the rest when discussing the Speedmaster’s adventures in space. Whose watch was first on the moon, Neil Armstrong’s or Buzz Aldrin’s? And the watch’s critical role in getting the Apollo 13 astronauts safely home after an explosion on-board crippled their spacecraft.

BUZZ_ALDRINLate in the evening of July 20, 1969, shortly after touching down on the lunar surface, Neil Armstrong noticed the timer in the lunar module’s cabin had stopped working. He made the decision to leave his Speedmaster in the LM when he and Aldrin descended to the lunar surface, to guard it against possible damage should a backup for the vehicle timer be needed. Thus, Aldrin’s watch was the first watch on the Moon, where it performed flawlessly.

Exactly what happened to Aldrin’s watch after the Apollo 11 mission is another point where stories differ. One states that Aldrin was asked to send the watch to the Simthsonian’s Air & Space Museum, and the watch went missing during the subsequent shipment. Others report that Aldrin’s residence was burglarized and the watch was taken in the theft. What is clear is that the watch went missing and has never surfaced.

And of course, the 1970 story of Apollo 13 is legendary, retold in the eponymous 1995 movie which starred Tom Hanks and Kevin Bacon. When the command spacecraft was severely damaged by an exploding oxygen tank, the attached lunar module was repurposed as a living quarters and main engine. The jury-rigged setup was used to swing around the moon and power the spacecraft back to earth. Due to the severe need to conserve electrical power, all systems had been turned off. Jack Swigert used his Speedmaster to precisely time two critical mid-course correction burns of the Lunar Module’s engine.

Omega_Speedmaster_Professional_1969_Cal_861_Lugs_1024x1024The Speedmaster’s critical role in saving the crew of Apollo 13 earned Omega NASA’s Snoopy Award, citing “dedication, professionalism, and outstanding contributions in support of the first United States Manned Lunar Landing Project.”

An Interesting Side Note
The famed CBS newscaster Walter Cronkite is often thought of as the unofficial voice of the space program. Certainly he was an unabashed fan. A few years back, I came across an old issue of Life Magazine from March 1971. Cronkite’s photo was on the cover. The great man was relaxing, smiling and enjoying a day of sailing off the New England coast aboard his beloved yacht. And on his wrist in the photo? An Omega Speedmaster Professional. The same watch worn by the astronauts he admired so much.

What’s Next?

While the Speedmaster Professional has remained nearly constant since the mid-1960s, the Speedmaster line has grown and evolved. We’ll explore that growth and evolution over the coming weeks.

Thanks to William Bright and Analog/Shift for additional photography

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