WHEN GEARS AND SPRINGS STILL DETERMINED GOLD, SILVER AND BRONZE
A Brief History of Stopwatches at the Olympics
We’ll always have a soft spot in our hearts for those large, pocket watch-looking things called stopwatches. Whether it’s for trying to get a free pizza from Domino’s or timing laps for your driver at Road America, the mighty mechanical hand timer has proven its worth again and again. Even the venerable CBS News broadcaster Walter Cronkite wasn’t immune to their charm; that was no mere pocket watch he checked at the end of each newscast. It was a stopwatch.
The use of stopwatches to time Olympic events began at the first Modern Games in 1896 and ended in the 1960s with the coming of electronic timekeeping. Touch pads were quicker than timers’ thumbs and electric eyes became more reliable than human eyes. In reality, electronic timing did not replace mechanical timing so much as it replaced human fallibility.
But these workhorse timers that fit so nicely in hand deserve more than a passing note. Let’s take a look back at some Olympic moments during the golden era of mechanical timekeeping.
In 1916, Heuer invented the “Micrograph”, the world’s first sports stopwatch precise to 1/100th of a second. Prior to its introduction, the limit of precision for most timing instruments was 1/5th of a second. Ultimately, Heuer used the revolutionary Micrograph to time events for the Olympic Games in Antwerp in 1920, Paris in 1924, and Amsterdam in 1928. Heuer once again contributed timing gear to both Summer and Winter games in 1980, but those electronic timers bore little resemblance to the mechanical pieces used in the 1920s.
Omega made its first appearance in Los Angeles in 1932. Thirty stopwatches were distributed by one watch technician to tackle 117 events in 14 sports contested by 37 nations. Seems a tall order, but of course Omega was up to the challenge. They’ve been an innovating presence at virtually every Olympiad since.
But lest you think Omega and Heuer have had Olympic timing sewn up for 94 years, Minerva’s revolutionary 1/100th of a second stopwatch with split seconds functionality was the timer of choice for the 1936 Winter Games. And Japanese horological giant Seiko was the official timer for five Games, including — you guessed it — the 1964 Tokyo Summer Olympics and the Winter Games in Sapporo in 1972 and Nagano in 1998. In fact, Seiko is the company responsible for the electronic starting pistol innovation. But we’re talking mechanical hand timers here, and Seiko’s contribution to that technology arrived in 1964. In their quivers one could find stopwatches capable of both 1/5-second and 1/10-second precision.
As we mentioned, the end of mechanical timekeeping at the Olympics arrived in the 1960s, done in by the increasing precision of electronic timekeeping and the growing recognition of human fallibility. But that doesn’t diminish the Olympic stopwatch as a unique member of the mechanical tool watch genre. Several companies made significant contributions to the niche, and a watch nerd — or an Olympic sports junkie — could do worse than assembling a collection of these historical pieces.