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History of the Omega Speedmaster

The Speedmaster's history goes back to 1957 when it was introduced as a sports and racing chronograph, complementing Omega's position as the official timekeeper for the Olympic Games.

The "Speedmaster" name was chosen for its tachymeter scale bezel and following the Omega convention used for other models like the Seamaster - initially the Speedmaster was part of the Seamaster line - and the Railmaster.

This first Speedmaster model - reference CK 2915 also known as the "Broad Arrow"- was designed by the Swiss Claude Baillod and was already featuring some of the hallmarks of the model: the triple-register chronograph layout, the high-contrast index markers, and the domed Plexiglas crystal. The dial was an example of perfect balance and proportions. The model had straight lugs, broad arrow hands and the bezel was in steel with engraved black print. The case diameter was 39 mm.

Original Speedmaster ref. CK 2915 with Calibre 321 - 1958
Note the metal bezel with engraved tachymetric scale,
the straight lugs and the broad arrow hands

A beautiful Speedmaster ref. CK 2915 characterised by a brown patina - 1958
Below, the watch in its original red case

Images courtesy of Nacho

The movement of choice was the Calibre 321 that was introduced in 1942 as a joint project between Omega and Lemania, one of Omega's subsidiaries at the time, who supplied it as an ebauche (Lemania cal. 2310).  Calibre 321 is recognised as one of the best example of lateral clutch, column wheel controlled chronograph and it was used as a base movement by Breguet, Patek Philippe and Vacheron Constantin in a variety of chronographs. In 1946, the movement was further enhanced by adding protection to magnetic fields and shocks, something that later will prove to be very important to pass NASA tests.

Omega Calibre 321

In 1959, a second Speedmaster version - the reference CK 2998 - was released with alpha hands and a black aluminium bezel to improve readability. The case diameter was expanded from 39mm to 40mm and, for the first time, Omega added the so called O-ring gasket around the push buttons to improve water resistance.

Speedmaster ref. CK 2998
Note the new black aluminium bezel and alpha hands

Finally, with reference ST 105.002 in 1962 and reference ST 105.003 in 1963, Omega introduced the Speedmaster's typical straight baton hands.

Speedmaster ST 105.003 with the new baton hands but still with straight lugs -1963

That same year - with reference ST 105.012 - a 42 mm asymmetrical case, adding protection to the chronograph pushers and crown, was released. This is the case that remains, little changed, in production today. The Professional marking appeared below the Speedmaster logo on dial during summer 1965. 

The Speedmaster Professional ref. ST 105.012 with the new Lyra lugs and asymmetrical case - 1964

These were the years of the first manned space missions. 

The solo-flight Mercury space programme was almost completed (the astronaut Wally Schirra had worn his own Speedmaster ref. CK 2998 on his Mercury flight on the 3rd of October, 1962) and NASA was preparing for the Gemini (two-man) and Apollo (three-man) missions. The astronauts on these missions were expected to move about in space outside the ship so they needed a wristwatch which could withstand the difficult conditions of space.

Beginning in about 1962, NASA purchased a series of chronographs of different brands including Breitling, Longines, Omega, Rolex and others with the task of finding the best watch available for their astronauts to wear in space.

When NASA received the watches, they were subjected to a series of tests and pre-selection processes called the “Qualification Test Procedures”. Only three watches out of six chronographs successfully survived this arduous pre-selection phase. The finalists were then subjected to 11 different tests - the most rigorous trials endured in the history of horology:
1. High temperature: 48 hours at a temperature of 160°F (71°C) followed by 30 minutes at 200°F (93°C). 
2. Low temperature: 4 hours at a temperature of 0°F (-18°C).
3. Temperature-Pressure: 15 cycles of heating to 71°C for 45 minutes, followed by cooling to -18°C for 45 minutes at 10−6 atm.
4. Relative humidity: 240 hours at temperatures varying between 68°F and 160°F (20°C and 71°C) in a relative humidity of at least 95%. 
5. Oxygen atmosphere: 48  hours in an atmosphere of 100% oxygen at a pressure of 0.35 atm.
6. Shock: Six shocks of 40 G, each 11 milliseconds in duration, in six different directions.
7. Acceleration: From 1 G to 7.25 G within 333 seconds, along an axis parallel to the longitudinal spacecraft axis.
8. Decompression: 90 minutes in a vacuum of 10-6 atm at a temperature of 160°F (71°C) and 30 minutes at 200°F (93°C).
9. High pressure: 1.6 atm for a minimum period of one hour.
10. Vibration: Three cycles of 30 minutes vibration varying from 5 to 2000 Hz. 
11. Acoustic noise: 130 db over a frequency range of 40 to 10,000 Hz, duration 30 minutes.

On March 1, 1965, the test results were completed and only the Omega Speedmaster passed. At the time, NASA’s testers wrote, "Operational and environmental tests of the three selected chronographs have been completed; and, as a result of the test, Omega chronographs have been calibrated and issued to three members of the Gemini Titan III crews."

Curiously, Omega only learned about the Speedmaster’s journey into space after seeing a photograph of Ed White taken during America’s first spacewalk as part of the Gemini 4 mission in June of 1965. The watch was attached to the arm via a long nylon strap secured with Velcro.

Following the discovery, Omega decided to add the word "Professional" to the product name, thus becoming Omega Speedmaster Professional. The new reference number was 145.012.

A perfectly restored Speedmaster Professional ref. ST 145.012 - 1967
Images courtesy of P Scott Conner

Pre-moon landing Omega Speedmaster advertisements 

NASA's  inspection document for a Speedmaster with Calibre 321 to be used for the Apollo mission

On the 20th of July, 1969 the first manned lunar landing was certainly one of the most dramatic scientific achievement in human history. Neil Armstrong was the first to step onto the moon’s surface.  Since the electronic timing system on the Lunar Module was not functioning correctly, Armstrong had left his watch aboard as a reliable backup. Nineteen minutes later he was joined by Buzz Aldrin, who was wearing his Omega Speedmaster Professional was the first watch worn on the moon. It was a Omega Speedmaster Professional with a Calibre 321 movement. A few months after this mission, Buzz's watch was stolen and never returned.

To commemorate this achievement the case backs of the Speedmaster Professional were changed. The engraved Hippocampus was removed and the phrases “The first watch worn on the moon” and “Flight qualified by NASA for all manned space missions” were engraved.  The arrangement of the text was then  changed in 1971 to incorporate the Hippocampus on the back as well. This case back design is still being used today on the Speedmaster Professional watches.

In 1968, Omega had decided to replace the Calibre 321 movement by a more accurate movement which was also cheaper to produce, the Calibre 861, also produced by Lemania. 

Omega Calibre 861, still being used in the current line of Omega Speedmaster Professional

The Speedmaster Professional models with see-through case-back adopt the Calibre 863
which is simply a better refined Calibre 861

The new Speedmaster Professional adopting the Omega Calibre 861 was identified by reference number 145.022.

Speedmaster Professional ref. 145.022 with optional bezels - 1968

In 1970, after an electrical failure caused an explosion in the Apollo 13 and the crew had to evacuate to the tiny Aquarius Lunar Module to conserve power, pilot Jack Swigert used his Speedmaster to precisely calculate the critical 14 seconds of engine boost to angle the shuttle for re-entry into the earth's atmosphere. In recognition of this, Omega was awarded the Snoopy Award by the Apollo 13 astronauts, "for dedication, professionalism, and outstanding contributions in support of the first United States Manned Lunar Landing Project."

Regarding this last topic, it must be noted that there is still some discussion on whether Jack Swigert actually used the Speedmaster Professionals to calculate the 14 seconds engine  boost or if he instead used his personal Rolex GMT Master which he was wearing before suiting up to go to the Moon as documented by some photos. Since Swigert never denied the official version, there are no reasons not to believe that he was wearing the Speedmaster during the mission.

Jack Swigert wearing the Speedmaster professional with the Velcro strap

An Omega Speedmaster advertisement following the successful Apollo XVII  mission, 
the sixth landing of humans on the Moon

As space exploration continued to break through new frontiers, the Omega Speedmaster Professional was again selected by NASA in 1978 as its official chronograph for the new Space Shuttle programme following a new series of harsh tests. The Speedmaster was later subjected to additional gruelling tests on board the Russian space station MIR between July 1993 and July 1994. The success of these exceptional endurance tests was attested by a certificate initialled by the MIR crew. The Omega Speedmaster Professional has become the most tested watch in the world.

Omega created a number of variations introducing automatic models, reduced sizes, sapphire crystal version in place of the Plexiglas, and different dial colours and case metals.

Speedmaster Professional July 20, 1969 - A limited edition of 3500 pieces with silver dial and black sub-registers released in 2004 to commemorate the 35th anniversary of the moon landing 

Omega has also launched several limited edition Speedmaster Professional watches to commemorate the anniversaries of the different NASA space missions.  In 2009 two Omega Speedmaster Professional Moonwatch Apollo 11 “40th Anniversary” Limited Edition watches celebrated the first manned lunar landing: one in stainless steel and (7,969 pieces); the other in platinum and 18 Ct yellow gold (69 pieces).

Omega Speedmaster Professional Moonwatch Apollo 11 “40th Anniversary” Limited Edition: in steel on the left, in platinum on the right

Omega is currently designing a Speedmaster capable of accompanying man in a mission, planned for 2030, to Mars where temperatures range from -133°C to 27°C.

Many models have been developed around the Omega Speedmaster Professional Moonwatch which, with its famous manual-winding Calibre 1861, an enhanced version of Calibre 861 with a high-grade rhodium-plated finish on the movement, remains the king of the Speedmaster collection.

Omega Speedmaster Professional Moonwatch ref. 3570

By Alessandro Mazzardo. First published on February 7, 2013 and constantly updated.

© 2012-2017 Time and Watches. All Rights Reserved.

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