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Review: TAG Heuer Mikrograph

Back in the early 1900s, racing timer manufacturer Heuer decided to do something pretty revolutionary. Where watches had previously been able to record up to an 1/8 of a second and in rare cases 1/10, Heuer saw an opportunity to push that all the way to 1/100 of a second, ten times the accuracy. The resulting 1916 Mikrograph secured the manufacturer such prestigious timing responsibilities as the Indianapolis 500 and F1—but it took the watchmaker almost a century to be able to recreate it. Why?

What stands in the way of a watch breaking the 1/100 of a second barrier is, well, plain old physics. Where to you and I the second hand of a mechanical watch, unlike a quartz one which operates in discrete one second ticks, appears to be continually moving, the truth is rather different. It is, in fact, exactly like a quartz second hand, ticking from one point to the next—only there are many more smaller ticks, eight and even ten times as many.

Instead of motors, a mechanical watch has a spring-driven locking mechanism that releases power evenly over time. This is called the escapement, and it’s the heart of soul of the accuracy of a mechanised calibre. How are the pauses between each tick determined? By storing a bit of the energy from the mainspring in a smaller spring, the balance spring.

Imagine a pendulum, that you can push freely. If you give it a swing, it will take a fixed amount of time to arc away, change direction and come back. If you give it the same amount of push every time, you’ll be able to keep a steady rhythm and the swings will be regulated. A balance wheel behaves exactly like this, with each swing taking around 1/10 of a second.

So how about a watch capable of ticking one hundred times per second? Simple maths tells you the beats need to be ten times as fast. Back to the pendulum, intuition also tells you that to make the pendulum swing there and back faster for the same input, it must be much, much smaller—and that’s exactly what TAG Heuer did back in 1916, make a stopwatch with a very small balance wheel, and thus the 1/100 of a second Mikrograph was born.

And here’s where we stumble upon the problem behind its recreation: the reason a quartz watch ticks once per second is to save energy. Early quartz watches attempted to mimic the sweep of mechanical, but the net result was a very short battery life. The ability to wind a mainspring either automatically or by hand every few days means efficiency is less of a problem, allowing a faster, more precise beat.

Take a two-day power reserve and divide it by ten for your 1/100 of a second watch and you’ve got an unusable watch. Fine for a stopwatch, like the original Mikrograph, whose duty need not be called upon for more than a few hours at a time, but for a wristwatch? That just isn’t practical.

So, TAG Heuer thought about it. And thought about it. And thought about it some more. Four years shy of a century the puzzle was considered, trying to fathom how a watch could be able to tick one hundred times per second yet still be usable day-to-day. There had to be an answer, some way of combining the functionality and practicality of both into one movement. Turns out, there wasn’t an answer—or at least, not the answer anyone expected.

It was 2011 when TAG Heuer cracked it, and the Mikrograph name was finally seen again. Here, in this very watch, lies the capability to not only record time to 1/100 of a second, but also to operate with a healthy 42-hour power reserve as well.

The road wasn’t easy. The concept Calibre 360, shown in 2005, demonstrated the idea, but the watch wasn’t yet ready for the rigours of daily use, delicate and unreliable. The movement was a hodgepodge of bought-in parts, a proof-of-concept that was costing the company a lot of time and money that could have easily been for nothing. Fifteen of these concept pieces were sold at a very high price to discerning collectors keen on being part of this journey, with the caveat that its performance was to be used with caution.

But four more years of research and development finally paid off: in a gold, 43mm case, with a cream and brown dial, the limited edition—this time to a more sensible 150 pieces—Mikrograph was released into the wild. This time there were no caveats; the movement was entirely TAG Heuer’s own from the ground up, capable of demonstrating its mind-bending stunt time and time again without limitation.

So, the solution. Physics put a stop to the idea of increasing efficiency—I mean, come on, that was never going to happen—but what TAG Heuer could do was cheat. It could quite happily make a movement with a normal beat that could last a normal amount of time, and also quite happily make a faster beat that lasted no time at all—so all that was needed was to glue them together.

That wasn’t far off the truth for the concept calibre, but for the final thing, a little more thought had to be used. There would be two escapements, one big, one small, two mainsprings, one with a 42-hour power reserve for the timekeeping, one with a ninety-minute power reserve for the chronograph—but the watch itself had to operate like it was all one seamless mechanism. Two movements, one watch. Wind the time with the automatic rotor, wind the chronograph with the crown. There’s even a power reserve indicator for the chronograph at twelve, although it is, rather confusingly given the ninety-minute reserve, displayed in percent.

The result? A blue chronograph second hand that whizzes around the dial once every second. It’s so fast there has to be a sub-dial at six to keep track of the good old second. Chronograph minutes are at three, running seconds at nine—of course, there’s no need to track the hours as I think most operators will be quite capable of counting up to one. The start/stop pusher even gets a locking screw just so you don’t wind down your ninety minutes by accident.

But the display of wizardry doesn’t stop there, because flip the watch over and the Mikrograph’s calibre has another treat for you, the twin display of balance wheels used to make the watch’s capabilities possible. There’s one, labelled 28,800 beats per hour—that’s eight per second—and then the one that caused all the fuss, the one that makes 1/100 of a second possible—and that beats 360,000 times per hour.

You might be thinking to yourself that this all seems quite familiar, and that’s because it probably is. The technology was revisited by sister brand Zenith for the Defy El Primero 21 six years later in 2017. But TAG Heuer’s not worried. Far from it, in fact, because 1/100 of a second is only the warm-up. Take the Mikrogirder, for instance. How’s 5/10,000 of a second for you?

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