By Troy Barmore
In 1969, alongside the nuclear arms race of the Cold War, there was another fierce competition going on in the world of watchmaking: the race to create the world’s first automatic chronograph movement. The contenders were Zenith, which had quietly been working on their movement for several years, and a consortium of Swiss watch companies including Heuer, Hamilton-Buren, Breitling, and Dubois-Dépraz. Unbeknownst to the Swiss watchmakers, Seiko was busy crafting their own secret weapon in Japan: the . This watch was very likely the first automatic chronograph to hit the market. It would go on to become one of the most important and underappreciated vintage watches of the 20th century.
The Birth of the Seiko 6139
Zenith had begun developing their chronograph back in 1962, but the project was put on hold until later in the decade. Then, in early 1969, the company announced the upcoming El Primero (“the first”) caliber. Meanwhile, the group of Swiss watch companies headed by Heuer was developing the Chronomatic under the codename Project 99. The Chronomatic was a modular chronograph movement that would later be known most prominently as the Calibre 11 in the iconic square Heuer Monaco.
Seiko had simultaneously set its sights on the same goal. The manufacturer had released their first chronograph movement in 1964 in the Seiko ref. 5717. As an aside, the beautifully simple and elegant 5717 serves as inspiration for Seiko’s new Presage Style60’s collection. In any case, with that achievement still in their rearview mirror, Seiko got back to work. With a hefty dose of determination and ingenuity, Seiko was able to do what even the Chronomatic group – with the combined resources of multiple companies – was unable to do, build an automatic, fully integrated column-wheel chronograph movement.
While Zenith’s El Primero was also fully integrated (the Heuer Calibre 11 was modular), it had taken nearly a decade to develop and wouldn’t make it to the market until much later in the year. Heuer’s Calibre 11, in turn, debuted in the iconic square Monaco that Steve McQueen would later wear in the 1971 film Le Mans. This watch was released at the Basel fair in April 1969. It was undoubtedly the first watch to become available to global markets. Still, unbeknownst to the Swiss group at the time, Seiko had already been producing their 6139-6000 for the Japanese domestic market. While we don’t know the specific month that these watches were first sold on the retail market, there are caseback serial numbers dating back to January and February 1969.
Pogue, Cevert, and the Making of an Icon
In the modern age of vintage watch collecting, several things lead watches to become highly desirable and, thus, very expensive. These include, among other things, groundbreaking functionality, a celebrity owner, or involvement in a historic event, for example. For Omega, it was NASA’s choice of the Speedmaster as the official watch for the Apollo program. The Rolex “Cosmograph” Daytona was initially a commercial failure. Nevertheless, an exotic dial variant owned by actor Paul Newman would change the face of vintage watch collecting and become one of the most expensive watches of all time.
With stories like that in mind, the Seiko 6139 Speedtimer is nothing short of an enigma. Its historical significance is not limited to the timing of its release nor the complexity of its movement. Until its ultimate retirement in 1978, the watch adorned the wrists of the rich and famous. It went on to embody its adrenaline-fueled namesake by careening around Formula 1 racetracks and soaring beyond the stratosphere into outer space.
Seiko on the Moon: Astronaut William Pogue and His Seiko Speedtimer
As the story goes, during training for the Skylab 4 mission in 1973, NASA astronaut Colonel William Pogue used his 1971 Seiko 6139-6005 with a yellow dial to time various maneuvers and engine burns. While the Omega Speedmaster was the standard-issue watch for NASA astronauts at the time, Pogue didn’t receive his Speedmaster during training. When it came time to embark on the Skylab mission, both watches accompanied him into space: one as standard equipment; the other, a timepiece he knew and trusted. Thus, despite not being NASA-certified, the Seiko 6139 became the first automatic chronograph in space. This is how the watch earned its nickname, The Pogue.
In the same year back on Earth, a young French racing driver named Francois Cevert was rapidly making a name for himself as one of the brightest rising stars in Formula 1. Cevert could often be seen sporting a 1970 Seiko 6139-6009 with a blue dial that perfectly matched his beautiful blue Tyrrell race car. Cevert wasn’t the only one on the racetrack to appreciate the Speedtimer. Tetsu Ikuzawa, one of the first Japanese drivers to ever race at Le Mans, also wore a blue 6139-6000 dating back to 1969. Pink Floyd drummer Nick Mason and the “Dragon” himself, Bruce Lee, also wore watches powered by the 6139 movement.
From Obscurity to Collector’s Darling
Given all this history, you would be forgiven for scratching your head at the current market value of the Seiko 6139. While there is a prevalence of lower-priced watches with aftermarket components, you can still find higher-quality examples with authentic parts for between $1,000 and $3,000. And yes, there has been a slight rise in prices in recent years, but they still pale in comparison to the low to mid-five-figure prices of Zenith El Primeros and Heuer Monacos.
Apart from the enthusiasm of a relatively small group of collectors, the wider vintage watch community has generally regarded the Seiko 6139 as something of a starter piece, i.e., the watch you buy before you can afford something more grandiose. In all their quiet reserve and steadfast focus, Seiko has similarly neglected to celebrate the storied history of this monumental timepiece. While it is a bit of a shame that the 6139 has yet to take its deserved position in the annals of horological history, the bright side is that – if you are so inclined – these remarkable watches are still within reach – for now.