Hamilton Chrono-Matic Caliber 11: 1st Auto Chronograph
I love vintage Hamiltons. I’ve already written about the Hamilton Thin-o-Matic and the Hamilton Ventura. This post is on the the Hamilton Chrono-Matic Caliber 11 chronograph. The year is 1969. And, Omega has just sent a Speedmaster Professional chronograph to the moon strapped to the wrist of some NASA astronauts. Sadly, the Omega Moon Watch was simply a manual wind. Had it been an automatic, Neil Armstrong’s famous declaration may have been “One small step for man; one giant leap for mankind and to wind my watch.”
But, while the great Space Race was raging between the United States of America and the Soviet Union, another technological race was being run on a far more terrestrial track. Two consortiums of watch brands, team Zenith and Movado and team Breitling, Buren, Hamilton, Heuer, and Dupois-Dupraz, raced to create the first automatic chronograph… in the world. (As usual, please read that last sentence in Jeremy Clarkson’s voice.)
The great auto-chrono race culminated with a photo finish in March 1969, just in time for that year’s Baselworld fair. The winner… team Breitling, Buren, Hamilton, Heuer and Dupois-Dupraz (henseforth known as Team BBHHDD), which spawned the Hamilton Chrono-Matic.
Team BBHHDD began in 1965 with the goal of creating the first-ever automatic chronograph, which would become known as the Caliber 11 Chrono-Matic (although the code name was simply “99”). The concept was simple, combine the best components from each manufacturer to create an auto-chrono as quickly and efficiently as possible.
Hamilton/Buren would develop the automatic winding mechanism for the Caliber 11 based off of the Buren “Intramatic”. The “Intramatic” used a planetary winding rotor which would in both directions via a gliding pinion. Dubois-Depraz modified their caliber 8510 with 12-hour and 30-minute registers, an oscillating pinion and coulisse-lever switching to serve as the Caliber 11’s chronograph module. And, Breitling and Heuer would handle the rest.
After only about two years of development, team BBHHDD filed for a patent for the Caliber 11 automatic chronograph movement. While the patent wouldn’t actually be granted until August 31, 1972, Team BBHHDD completed the first successful tests on the Caliber 11 Chrono-Matic prototypes in 1968.
So, it’s 1968 and the world’s first automatic chronograph movement works, and it works well. Actually, one year after filling for the Caliber 11’s patent, in September 1968, Breitling made a one-off, pre-production Caliber 11 Navitimer Chrono-Matic. That watch is actually the first-ever self-winding chronograph. Obviously, the Hamilton Chrono-Matic came a bit later.
Fast forward to March 3, 1969 and, after spending 500,000 Swiss Francs in development money, the consortium of Breitling, Buren, Hamilton, Heuer and Dupois-Dupraz unveiled the Caliber 11 automatic chronograph, a full month before Baselworld 1969. The brand new 17-jewel, unadjusted Caliber 11 Chrono-Matic movement beat at steady 19,800 vibrations-per-hour.
Team BBHHDD beat Team Movado-Zenith by a month, as they unveiled the El Primero self-winding chronograph during Basel that year. While the Caliber 11 may have been first, there is no question that the El Primero has been more successful.
The Caliber 11 may be most famous as a Heuer Monaco (Steve McQueen’s watch) or as a Breitling Navitimer Chrono-Matic, but this particlar watch right here is the Hamilton Chrono-Matic Caliber 11. And, I think it’s probably the best looking version of a Caliber 11 Chrono-Matic. Measuring 37mm in diameter by 41mm long (lug-to-lug) and 14mm thick, the Hamilton Chrono-Matic’s stainless steel case was pretty big for 1969.
The Hamilton Chrono-Matic Caliber 11 wears extremely comfortably. It fits my wrist perfectly. And, I’m a lefty, so the crown on the left side and right-hand pushers are pretty much ideal. This example has a blue dial with white outer tachymetric scale and blue jump-date window. But, a white dial with blue scale was available, as well.
In 1969, this watch cost $200 new, a bit less than $2,000 in today’s money. Coincidentally enough around $1,900 is exactly what an original Hamilton Chrono-Matic Caliber 11 in good condition is worth in today’s vintage watch market.
In late 1969, however, people started to realize there were some issues in terms of reliability with the Caliber 11. So, at the end of 1969, the Caliber 11-I was introduced as an improvement. The 11-I ran strong until the Caliber 12 came out in 1973. So, if you can get your hands on a working and perfect 1969 Caliber 11, you have a truly rare watch on your hands. But, if you spot any Caliber 11 Chrono-Matic watch (Hamilton, Heuer, Breitling, or otherwise) for not too much money, be sure to pick one up.
Oh yeah, check out the original ad from 1969 for the Hamilton Chrono-Matic below. It’s hilarious. Apparently, in 1969, 3-minute eggs were quite a big deal.