The Omega Speedmaster is a chronograph wristwatch that was first introduced in 1957. Omega launched the watch in part because it wanted to leverage its role as official timekeeper for the Olympic Games. The Speedmaster complemented Omega’s Olympic connection, as it was a watch meant for precise timing of sports and racing.
The first model of the Speedmaster featured many of the hallmarks that would come to define the watch. Perhaps most distinctive was the bezel, which bore a tachymeter scale for precisely measuring speed. (The tachymeter feature gave the Speedmaster its name). The early model also boasted several other design features that would become standard on future incarnations of the Speedmaster, though, including the three-register chronograph layout, and the simplistic, high-contrast index markers on the watch dial.
The initial Speedmaster model is known by the reference number CK 2915, but it’s perhaps more commonly referred to as the “Broad Arrow” Speedmaster. The watch features an hour hand that looks like an arrow shot from a bow. Not all future versions of the Speedmaster would feature the same big, bold hands.
The second Speedmaster model arrived just two years after the first, in 1959. The most prominent change was the bezel, which kept the tachymeter but tweaked the design to improve readability and usability. On the original model, the bezel had been steel with black engravings for the tachymeter’s numbers and markings. The redesign inverted the color palette, replacing the bezel with a black aluminum design that boasted silver numbers and markings. Other significant changes included a size tweak (from 39mm to 40mm) and improved water resistance (thanks to Omega’s O-ring gasket design).
In the early 1960s, Omega updated the Speedmaster once more, this time giving it the final major changes that would define the watch for the next half-century. First, Omega ditched the Broad Arrow hands for slimmer, more elegant baton hands. Second, Omega redesigned the case, expanding it from 40mm to 42mm and adding extra protection for the chronograph pushers. These features—represented on the Reference ST 105.012 from 1963—are the same as what you will find on an Omega Speedmaster watch today.
Though the Speedmaster was initially designed as a sports watch, it became most famous for its association with a different highly strenuous task: space travel. It just so happened that Omega was perfecting the Speedmaster design just as the space race was picking up speed. As manned space travel missions became more common, NASA started casting about for a watch that its astronauts could wear in space.
NASA’s search for the ideal space watch was one of the most rigorous watch-testing trials in history. The agency purchased six watches from some of the most acclaimed, iconic watchmakers in the world, including Rolex and Breitling. Three watches made it through a pre-test phase, with the remaining three being put through 11 extremely intense tests to determine durability and performance under a range of extreme conditions. NASA tested the watches under high heat, low temperature, high pressure, extreme vibration, shock, rapid acceleration, loud noise, and other strenuous conditions.
Of the watches tested, the Omega Speedmaster proved to be the most suitable for space travel. NASA issued Speedmaster watches to members of its Gemini program. In June 1965, when Ed White took the first spacewalk in American history as part of the Gemini 4 mission, he was wearing a Speedmaster watch.
Even more significant, on July 20, 1969, when Neil Armstrong became the first man ever to walk on the Moon, a Speedmaster was present. Armstrong himself left his watch on board, but when his crewmate Buzz Aldrin followed Armstrong onto the lunar surface 19 minutes later, the Omega Speedmaster became the first watch ever to reach the moon. The watch, stolen a few months later, could well be the most valuable timepiece in history, as well as one of the biggest mysteries in watch history.