In commemoration of the 56th anniversary of the XVIII Olympiad, here is an excerpt from my book “1964: The Greatest Year in the History of Japan – How the Tokyo Olympics Symbolized Japan’s Miraculous Rise from the Ashes.”
In 1959, when Tokyo was awarded the XVIII Olympiad by the IOC, Seiko’s President, Shoji Hattori, was determined to make Seiko the official timer of the Olympic Games. In 1960, he sent a telegram to one of his watch design section managers, Saburo Inoue, with instructions that would forever change the fate of the Japanese watch company—”Intend to handle official timing duties. Go to Rome Olympics in August and observe timing procedures.”
Inoue was deeply skeptical of the idea, and for good reason. “I’d never seen timing devices for the Olympics,” he said. “I didn’t know how they used their stopwatches, or what types they would need. We couldn’t do computer simulations, so we had to work out every single thing by trial and error.”
But again, as explained in the 2012 The Daily Telegraph article, ignorance proved to be bliss.
In those days, it was the prerogative of the local organizing committee to select the company that would supply the timers, and it was likely they would choose the tried-and-true Swiss watchmakers—Omega or Longines. Up till then, they were the only firms trusted with ensuring accurate times in Olympic competition.
In contrast, Seiko’s experience in building timers specifically for sports was zero. Such was the confidence of Hattori and Japan at the time—that anything was possible if they tried.
Without assurance of a contract for the Olympics, Hattori asked his three group companies to work on Olympic-related projects: large clocks, stopwatches, crystal chronometers, and a new idea, a device that could print the times of competitors right after the end of a race. They were called printing timers, and this revolutionized the way results of competitions were determined.
In only two years, Seiko was producing sports stopwatches that passed the standards of the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) Technical Committee. In a track and field competition in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, the IAAF was witness to a successful test, as the Japanese-made stopwatches proved accurate and reliable.
Seiko had already successfully developed quartz technology for small watches, and used this crystal technology for long distance races, like the marathon among others. Developing this quartz technology was key to developing Seiko wristwatches of the future that would stay accurate over longer periods of time.
More significantly, perhaps for the athletes, was Seiko’s development of the printing timer, a machine that would electronically time and print the results of an event, up to 1/100 of a second for track events.
This machine had a significant impact on a high-visibility competition at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics—the women’s 80-meter hurdles final.
On October 19, at the National Stadium, Karin Balzer of Germany and Teresa Cieply of Poland settled into their starting blocks. When the pistol shot rang, an electric signal was sent via wire to a printing timer, as well as a signal to a camera that would take special photo finish pictures, and a signal to a large spectator clock that set the second-hand in motion.
In a stunning finish, Balzer, Cieply, and Australian Pam Kilborn hit the tape seemingly in a dead heat, all three timed by officials at 10.5 seconds. Despite numerous officials with hand stopwatches that measured in tenths of seconds, officials could not determine a winner.
The officials preferred not to hand out three gold medals, and fortunately, had a fallback plan—the latest timing technology from Japan.
When the runners arrived at the goal, a picture was taken by a slit camera, manufactured by Japan Photo Finish Co. Ltd. After thirty seconds, the image’s negative was transmitted as a reflected image, and converted in three minutes to a positive print. The information from Seiko’s printing timer was integrated into an image noting times in hundredths of seconds. The photo would show not only the athletes, but time, and thus the order in which they finished.
Thanks to the printing timer, it was revealed that Balzer completed the race in 10.54 seconds, 0.01 seconds ahead of Cieply, who was also only 0.01 seconds ahead of Kilborn. While the IAAF officially recognized times to the tenth of a second, in this case, they accepted the recorded electronic time to the hundredth.
The printing timer contributed mightily to the evolution of timed sports, and led to the creation of the famed, global printing company—EPSON—its name a simple mash-up of the words “son of electronic printer.”
1964 was Seiko’s time.
1964 was Japan’s time.