September 16, 2021

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Revisiting Time at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics

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LONDON — A mere one-hundredth of a second can mean the difference between winning Olympic gold or settling for silver: Just ask the swimming medalists Michael Phelps or Dara Torres.

The ability to track time to that degree had roots in the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, when Seiko was the official timekeeper of the Games. And while athletes will strive to beat the clock in Tokyo again this summer, visitors to Japan House, a cultural center on Kensington High Street in London, can soon see some of Seiko’s groundbreaking technology in the exhibition Tokyo 1964: Designing Tomorrow.”

Simon Wright, the director of programming for Japan House and the exhibition’s curator, says the display explores the lasting impact of the ’64 Games in fields like architecture, branding, “bullet train” transportation and satellite broadcasting, as well as time-measuring technology. It is to run from Aug. 5 through Nov. 7.

The ’64 Olympics — the first to be held in Asia — “became somewhat of a watershed for Japan,” Mr. Wright said, “after the reconstruction of its democracy and economy after the Second World War.” It also was the first time a watch company with headquarters outside of Switzerland was the Games’s official timekeeper, a role now handled by Omega.

For the exhibition, the Seiko Museum Ginza in Tokyo lent four of the more than 1,200 precision timing instruments used at the ’64 Games, which Mr. Wright said were “a catalyst to advance Seiko’s technical research.” (In 1969, the company introduced the Astron, the first quartz watch; an avalanche of inexpensive quartz timepieces followed, all but obliterating the Swiss watch industry.)

The Seiko loans include “the world’s first quartz crystal chronometer, measuring times of up to one one-hundredth of a second,” Mr. Wright said.

Described as the first portable timepiece of its kind that is accurate to within plus or minus two-tenths of a second per day, the quartz crystal chronometer’s two long-lasting size-D batteries made it suitable for use during long events, like marathons. The device is about 8 inches tall and 6.5 inches wide. And, Mr. Wright said, it “was key to the later development of Seiko wristwatches which would stay more accurate over a longer time.”

Another Seiko piece on loan is a mechanical stopwatch that measures one one-hundredth of a second. Tag Heuer had patented the first mechanical one one-hundredth stopwatch in 1916, but Seiko’s own patented mechanism used a heart-shaped cam on the balance wheel, eliminating the timing errors of traditional stopwatches.

“That was revolutionary,” Mr. Wright said, “because it was common for stopwatches then to have errors of one-tenth of a second.”

The Seiko museum also provided a desktop stopwatch with a 12-minute timer, made for the boxing, gymnastics and weight lifting competitions, and a mechanical stopwatch that measures tenths of a second. Used in track and swimming competitions, the two-hand watch has the ability to stop the split-second hand while the other one continues, giving split-time measurements.

Last month Seiko introduced a seven-model Presage Style60s collection inspired by its 1964 Crown Chronograph, the first Seiko (and, it said, the first Japanese) wristwatch to include a stopwatch function.

David Edwards, Seiko’s managing director for Britain and Ireland, wrote in an email that the developments Seiko made for the ’64 Games spurred the commercialization of quartz “as a precise and reliable timekeeping technology — driven, though not exclusively, by Japan.”

Technology that, for many athletes, can mean the difference between a silver and a gold.

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