Timepiece Chronicle

In-depth, passionate and entertaining articles that explore the stories behind great watches

The watch that traveled 34,000,000 miles: The Seiko Ref. 6139 "Pogue"

The watch that traveled 34,000,000 miles: The Seiko Ref. 6139 "Pogue"

Photo courtesy of analog/shift

Photo courtesy of analog/shift

What watch can claim to survive travelling thirty four million miles around the Earth? What watch was used to time engine burns on the Skylab space station? What watch might have been the first self-winding chronograph ever? The Seiko Speedtimer Ref.6139.

In January of 1969 Zenith had introduced their first prototypes for what would become their "El Primero" automatic chronograph movement and a few months later TAG Heuer, Breitling and Hamilton-Greun collaborated to manufacture their own self-winding movements. On the other side of the world Seiko quietly released their first self-winding chronograph, the Seiko Speedtimer Ref.6139. The prize of being the first to create a self-winding chronograph is impossible to award as the definition of being "first" is surprisingly loose. Does it mean the first to start manufacture, the first to make a prototype or the first to bring it to market? We'll never have an answer to the question but without a doubt the Seiko was the first Japanese self-winding chronograph.

In fitting with late sixties early seventies design the aesthetics of the Speedtimer are...interesting. The odd 41mm UFO shaped case is exaggerated by short lugs that end very abruptly. The top and bottom of the tachymetre bezel peek over the lip of the lugs just enough to make the case seem slightly too small and the thin chronograph pushers seem to stick out at odd angles without the balancing presence of a visible crown. The chronograph on its own was only able of recording up to thirty minute intervals with the subdial at six o'clock but with the aid of the inner rotatable bezel it could time longer events.The tachymetre is easily one of the most recognizable parts of the watch with the strange color scheme of three quarters blue and one quarter red. It is only once you look closer at the bezel does it become obvious that the red section is used to mark the extended tachymetre section allowing speeds down to fifty miles an hour to be recorded on the second pass of the central second hand.

The watch came with three dial options each over time having their own unique quirks and traits that sought after by collectors. The blue and silver dials are desirable in their own way but are never as eye-catching as the golden hues of the yellow dial. Depending on the year of production the dial will have various markings with the left hand side of the dial either staying blank or having "Water 70M Resist" or "Water 70M proof" printed upon it. The Japanese market had it's own variants with the words "Speed-timer"  at 12 o'clock replacing "Chronograph Automatic" on the dial. There are models with "5 Sports Water 70 Proof" at 9 o'clock as well.

The bracelets also differ depending on country and time period. Most commonly the watch is now seen on the H-Link or Tapered H-Link bracelet which is sometimes referred to as the "Oyster bracelet" due to it's similarity to the Rolex Oyster bracelet. There is the "Stelux" bracelet also called the Fishbone which when squinting can sort of look like the Rolex Jubilee bracelet. Again the Japanese domestic market got something different, now just commonly called the "JDM bracelet" which is a series of thicker links connected by three vertical parts that for me is the most pleasing to look at.

As nice as the watch is, it would not have the affection of the watch community if not for one man. Colonel William Reid Pogue was born in Oklahoma in 1930 and up until his death in 2014 led a truly adventurous  life. He flew fighter bombers during the Korean War before return to America to fly as a group and solo member of the Thunderbirds. Not the International Rescue Organization but the United States Air Force display team, one of the oldest continuous aeronautical display teams to this day. 

After leaving the USAF he served as support crew for Apollo 7,11 and 14 and would have been the command module pilot for Apollo 19 if the mission had not been cancelled. In 1973 the first space station made by the United States, Skylab, was sent into orbit and the astronauts stationed upon it were tasked with performing scientific research about the effects of zero gravity on the human body along with solar observations. Colonel Pogue was the pilot of the fourth Skylab mission and was on board the space station from November 16th 1973 to February 8th 1974. During the months of preparation before launch Pogue had not yet been issued his Omega Speedmaster so took it upon himself to find a suitable interim chronograph. He decided on the Seiko 6139 and paid the grand sum of $71 for it on June 13th,1973. Over the following months he became used to the feel of the watch and on launch day, without asking NASA's permission, pocketed the watch in his space suit and brought it aboard Skylab. 

For the time, the fourth Skylab mission team was the longest manned flight in space clocking in eight four days, one hour and fifteen minutes travelling over thirty four million miles. It is commonly believed that an automatic watch is not able to work in space due to the lack of gravity. Needless to say that Colonel Pogue's time on Skylab with his automatic Seiko debunks this myth quite thoroughly. Rather than gravity pulling down on the rotor, it is actually the inertial force of the watch that causes the rotor to spin on its axis. Though the watch can move in three dimensions, the rotor can only move along its two-dimensional plane; when the watch has been in motion and stops, the inertial force created by its movement is passed onto the rotor causing it to spin. A slightly awkward alternative would be to float the watch perfectly horizontal in front of you and spin it on an axis. The rotor would stay in the same place but the watch would move around it providing the same effect of winding the mainspring.

Coincidentally the production of the Seiko 8139 was stopped in 1979, the same year that the Skylab space station hurtled down through the atmosphere to land somewhere in Australia. The station had been left in orbit since Pogue's crew had left in 1974 and there had been plans to establish astronauts on board however these never came to fruition due to budget constraints. Having looked through the Seiko cataloges from the time, it is interesting to see a parallel happen with their mechanical watches. Whilst automatic watches stayed in Seiko's catalog for a long time, they were gradually getting pushed back further and further to the back with cheaper and more accurate quartz watches taking pride of place nearer the front. Colonel Pogue eventually retired his piece after many years of faithful service and it was sold at auction in 2008 for $6000 with the proceeds going to the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation.

The one downside to Colonel Pogue wearing the Seiko in space was that it was thought indestructible by watch owners. If it went to space surely it can survive a few knocks and scratches on my wrist? Many pieces you see on eBay will either be sold for parts, scratched all to hell or will have been repolished to within an inch of their life. Finding an unpolished case with original hands and inner bezel can be difficult but by no means impossible. A cursory search on eBay sees numerous 6139s available ranging from $150 to $500.  The Seiko "Pogue" is a fascinating watch; it contributed to the advancement of mechanical watchmaking in the sixties, it aided to pioneers of space travel in the seventies and now it popularizes mechanical watches to a whole new audience today. It is a piece of horological and space history that is far less expensive than any Speedmaster new or vintage and has far more. Better start counting to 34 million miles when you get one.

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