By: Jeffrey P. Hess
It seems as if just about every watch company in the world wants to stake a bit of claim for the invention of the automatic wristwatch. The reason they all want to do so is quite simple. Our grandfathers (and for many of us baby boomers, our fathers) had little or no access to automatic wristwatches. As recently as the late 1960s, Hamilton was still producing, in great numbers, finely made manual-wind timepieces. But today, even in the face of a resurgence in interest in manual-wind watches by those too young to remember them, many would concede that the invention of the automatic watch, a scant 70 years ago, was a scientific and practical boon akin to one of the more well-known inventions Marconi or Edison would have come up with.
But just who was it that invented the automatic watch anyway? Most agree that Englishman John Harwood was the main protagonist and without a doubt the genius behind the invention. (Of course, Abraham Perrelet invented the first pocket watch with an automatic mechanism, back in 1778, a feat still touted today by the company that bears the Perrelet name.)
Harwood’s invention, which was patented in 1924, was greeted with little interest by the big Swiss manufacturers. Mr. Harwood, by most accounts, was undercapitalized and scurried about to make deals with other manufacturers and brands. He used a base caliber AS (A. Schild) movement and initially did all of the rather complicated (for its day) underdial work himself. But he needed investors and financial support, so he turned to a few friends and business contacts in his home country of England and did some wheeling and dealing. And with the help of Blancpain, his investors and Walter Vogt of Fortis, production started. Many watch companies got into the act and indeed Harwood movements have been seen with names such as Blancpain, Fortis, Wyler and Selza. (A few other unconfirmed names have shown up on the market as well.) A scant few years later, thousands of patents were granted for improvements on the automatic watch – and oddball names were producing different automatic watches with such names as: WigWag, Rolls, and Autowrist. Fortis, in fact, produced the Rolls, which was a rather unusual wristwatch that had an unusual “automatic” winding system invented by Leon Hatot. (These are highly collectible and can be found occasionally with the signature written phonetically as “ATO ” affixed to the plates). Some of them had odd escapements with long clacking counterweights fitted onto tiny ladies’-sized movements that were further fitted into a larger more man-sized rectangular case. These did not work well. (Of course in 1931 another company with an odd name, ROLEX, came out with one that did work out pretty well – the “Perpetual”.)
But Walter Vogt of Fortis, a true man of vision, was one of the few “money men” who would embrace the idea of the automatic wristwatch and put forth his company’s assets and indeed its future by backing this rather new idea and concept.
At the age of 29, Walter Vogt founded his watch factory. Like many others, he struggled along, making pocket watches for the masses and specialty products with this motto as his guide: “Good quality, innovative design, affordable prices.” It only took twelve years for him to find a truly revolutionary product to get behind. He knew the world needed an automatic watch and recognized that this fellow Harwood was onto something. Vogt recognized that Harwood’s invention would not only make life easier for those who forget to wind their watch, but more importantly, that the encased winding mechanism would help to keep at bay the constant true enemies of the watch mechanism – dust and moisture!
So it happened that at the1926 Basel Fair, the more traditional Swiss watch making company FORTIS exhibited the world's first production automatic wristwatch, a patented self-winding wristwatch without a crown and a revolutionary bezel winding and setting mechanism.
However, Mr. Vogt was not done yet. His long reign continued (he lived until 1957), as he set about producing, in the late 1930’s until the late 1940’s: Chronographs, alarm watches and the ever popular (and most collectable) model, the “Fortissimo”, said to be one of the most waterproof watches of its day.
The best was yet to come of course and, according to Britton-Watches, Fortis, in 1957 pulled off a horological coupe. They won one of the leading chronometer awards given by the Swiss Institute for Official Watch Timekeeping Tests. The award was given to their water-proof alarm watch, the Fortis “Manager”. As legend has it, “every single Fortis ‘Manager’ alarm watch tested, obtained the supreme distinction “especially good results”.
Many improvements and accolades were to follow in the years to come – and in the next decade, their reputation carried them into what has proven to become their destiny. In 1962 they became involved with the members of the American Astronauts team. Fortis decided to enter the space race by wooing these astronauts with a watch called the “Spacematic”. The Fortis “Spacematic”, a water-resistant, precision automatic date watch was immediately chosen by our astronauts. A strong watch that lived up to its name, this Fortis (Fortis means strength in Latin) was water-resistant to 25 ATM’s!
Today, that pivotal, if faint, connection in 1962 with American Astronauts has lived on and defines what the company is all about. In the USA, under the able guidance of Jeffrey Roth and Steve Holtzman, Fortis continues to perpetuate this space legacy with constant advertisements touting not only the brief dalliance with the American Space Program but their coziness with other space programs as well. The company cites the following triumphs:
1992: Fortis becomes the first to go into space on an advertising laden spacecraft, a Russian Rocket with their Fortis “Stratoliner.” Fortis and the Russians start a continuing relationship that further defines Fortis as the “Space Watch.”
1994: FORTIS becomes a part of the “official equipment handed over to the cosmonauts before launch” after exhausting tests and studies with the help of Yuri Gagarin and the Russian State Scientific-Research Test Center for Cosmonauts Training in Star City. It is the FORTIS OFFICIAL COSMONAUTS CHRONOGRAPH that is the “Chosen watch.” The Fortis web site notes that, “The space mission EUROMIR I crew was the first to which the FORTIS Official Cosmonauts Chronograph Sets were presented. During the Soyus TM19 mission which took place to prepare the docking manoeuvre STS 71 between the American Spaceshuttle Atlantis and MIR station, the FORTIS automatic chronographs improved their reliability during several extra vehicular activities in open space.”
1995: FORTIS chronographs are reportedly on pilots’ wrists during a world height record flight on a MIG 25 PU double seater – non experimental – aircraft with a civil passenger, flown by Alexandre Garnaev and Alexandre Parringaux, honoured by the “Guinness book of records.”
1997: The FORTIS OFFICIAL COSMONAUTS CHRONOGRAPH was chosen to be the official watch of the Russian-German space mission MIR 97.
1998: FORTIS sponsors the legendary Italian motorcycle manufacturer Ducati, whose driver Carl Fogarty had won the title of World Champion Superbike Class Ducati. World Champion. Fortis, then makes a limited-edition Ducati watch to great fanfare and to intense interest to collectors of watches and motorcycles worldwide.
Simultaneously they became involved in the marketing of one of the world's first automatic chronographs with integrated mechanical alarm, Swiss Patent 689470.
1999: On a Millennium expedition to the South Pole New Year's Eve 1999, a Fortis “Official Cosmonaunt Chronograph” is worn by Austrian Ernst Zinnhobler as he become the first European to make an extreme jump over the South Pole from a height of 15,000 feet!
In 2001 according to their web site, Fortis put it all together with hyper space speed: First with the announcement of the fruition of an experiment with the “Global Transmission Services” (GTS) the first experiment on board the International Space Station (ISS) was tested on the global synchronization of wristwatches from space. Deeply involved in the world of aviation and space, FORTIS takes part in the development of a new radio-controlled signal in cooperation with the European Space Agency (ESA), the German agency for air and space travel (DLR) and DaimlerChrysler.”
The first ISS crew: Sergei Krikalev, Bill Shepherd, Yuri Gidzenko
Nr.1 International Watch Award In Japan the FORTIS Official Cosmonauts Chronograph won the watch magazine Begin's Grand Prix in the category for space watches.
'Star of the Blue Planet' FORTIS was presented this Medal of Honor from the space agency Rosaviakosmos for commitment to the development of mechanical chronographs for space travel.
All of the above, along with various art design awards, the announcements that the F16 pilots of the Portuguese Air force “Squadron 201” have also chosen the FORTIS Pilot Professional Chronograph as part of their equipment and that Bernardo Villar became one of the top riders at the Paris Dakar – Cairo 2000 race – and one can plainly see that Fortis has arrived.
If Walter Vogt is watching, he cannot help but smile as he views, from ultimate space, what his little company has accomplished. Indeed, “good quality, innovative design, affordable prices” his mantra, has been kept pure.