What Is a Radio-Controlled Watch?

Wristwatches with "atomic timekeeping" have unexpected German origins.

wysk junghans mega 1
Junghans

Welcome to Watches You Should Know, a biweekly column highlighting important or little-known watches with interesting backstories and unexpected influence. This week: the Junghans Mega 1.

The "perfect" watch should be as convenient, practical and accurate as possible. This notion largely drove watchmaking innovation for centuries, but as watches have taken on a luxury role in modern life, there are now only a few companies that invest in the technology that can genuinely realize such an ideal. We're not talking about watches that do what a smartphone or computer does, but those that use the latest technology to autonomously deliver the best possible timekeeping experience.

This is a field dominated by the big Japanese companies — Seiko, Citizen and Casio — each of which has vast resources for research, development and production. But tucked away in the Black Forest of Germany, the 160-year-old brand Junghans is quietly developing its own tech like quartz movements with radio-synching and solar charging. Not only do they continue to offer something interesting and unique today, but they pioneered the radio-controlled watch with the Junghans Mega 1 back in 1990.

junghans mega 1 wristwatch
Bukowskis

We're looking at a wonderfully funky timepiece, an excellent specimen of the space-age design that quartz and digital watches had engendered over the preceding decades. With a digital display and asymmetric case developed with Frog Design, the Mega 1's strap incorporated an antenna for receiving radio signals. Quartz movements used by Junghans and everyone else were already highly accurate, however, so what does this radio-synching tech actually do? Well, it makes watches even more accurate.

Once a day, a signal from a transmission station will update your watch with the exact current time. That signal is itself synched with an atomic clock, and there are six such transmission stations around the world. (For example, the atomic clock that's the basis for standard time in the United States is in Boulder, Colorado, and will be accurate to better than one second in over 100 million years. Accurate enough for ya?)

Even though Junghan's current quartz movements promise accuracy to within about +/- 0.02 seconds per day without radio synching, that negligible deviation can't compete with a radio-synched watch — so long as you're in North America, Europe or East Asia and in range of the signals. You get it: your watch stays really, really accurate.

meister mega wrist watch
Junghans

There are now also systems that use GPS satellites and the internet to keep your watches and other devices more or less synched with atomic clocks anywhere on the planet, but Junghans' story remains compelling: In 1985, five years before the Mega 1, the brand released the "first radio-controlled, series production table clock for private use" and followed it up a year later with a solar-charging version. These features combined in the Mega Solar wristwatch in 1993 and are part of the brand's lineup today in a modern form.

Junghans isn't the only European brand making quartz movements — and you can even find solar-charging ones from brands such as Tissot and Cartier — but you'll be hard pressed to find many making a real effort to offer something as unique and pragmatic as Junghans' offerings by combining features like radio synching and solar charging: a "problem-free wristwatch" that "runs forever and is never wrong," as the brand describes its goal. These movements are also notable because they're developed totally in-house with notable features such as hand alignment that syncs every minute; a perpetual calendar; a seconds hand that jumps twice a second and more.

A "perfect" watch should be convenient, practical and accurate — but many would argue that its elegance is equally important. This is where Junghans particularly stands out from its Japanese competitors: Although its technology and history deserve more recognition, Junghans is primarily known for its stylish Bauhaus designs like the famous Max Bill line. And if you want that German construction and iconic look for not a lot of money, you can get it with a mechanical movement or one that's made in-house and synched with atomic clocks.

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