STORIES Record Time: How Richard Sapper Designed the Heuer Microsplit 520 in Just Four Months

10 min

To tell the tale of the TAG Heuer Microsplit, we first have to turn back the clock… to the beginning of the 20th c., and a certain milestone in our human relationship to time.

The Heuer Mikrograph, also known as the very first stopwatch accurate to 1/100th of a second, was released in 1916 by Charles-Auguste Heuer. Though this micrograph would be ten times more precise than anything available to the public, Heuer watchmakers managed to develop the prototypes in a mere matter of months.  

Fast forward to the late 20th c., and one of the most important transformations in micrograph history – the birth of the Heuer Microsplit 520 stopwatch in 1976. The world’s first LCD pocket-size stopwatch accurate to 1/100th of a second, the TAG Heuer Microsplit was groundbreaking in both function and design, crafted by world-famous industrial designer Richard Sapper. With a strange kind of synchronicity, Sapper somehow managed to create this cutting-edge design (and prototype) with the same super-human speed as his Heuer predecessors – again in a matter of months.

 

 

Considered to be one of the most significant designers of his generation, Sapper was known for creations that seamlessly combined simplicity of form with great technical innovation. His signature style often displayed a certain sense of humour, elements of surprise, and a unique imagination – which led, in turn, to multiple international design awards, and inclusion in the permanent collections of many prestigious museums from MoMA to the V&A. His success was, in part, due to his pragmatic approach:

“What drives me in all of my design work is the desire to find a logical solution to a problem […] I have either encountered in my own life or that could occur in other people’s lives. I then try to find a logical solution to this problem.” Richard Sapper – “The Process of Design,” in Pacific Design Center News (Los Angeles, 1987). 

 

 But how did he apply this pragmatism to his design for TAG Heuer, to create such an extraordinary design in such a short space of time? During the 1960’s and 70’s, an atmosphere of change prevailed in the field of electrical engineering; Sapper explained,

“[Heuer] was one of the first to understand that the era of the mechanical watch was coming to an end, and that industrial design was absolutely necessary…” – Richard Sapper, “The Process of Design,” in Pacific Design Center News (Los Angeles, 1987). 

 

In the spirit of rapid change, he took on the challenge of creating an electronic watch design – to high standard and at high speed. He reported,

“the design of the watch only took me four months. Usually I require at least one year between the date of the assignment and the finishing of a product. After six months, the profiles were ready and, one month later, they could use it. All in all, eleven months: a record time.” – Richard Sapper, “The Process of Design,” in Pacific Design Center News (Los Angeles, 1987). 

 

The rate of change – both in engineering and computing – was also increasing to such a degree that electronic mechanisms could evolve more rapidly; 

“When the watch appeared on the market, it contained an electronic system that was three generations ahead of other watches; it worked better, only cost half as much, and required only a tenth of the space that I had originally planned for the watch’s shape.” – Richard Sapper, “The Process of Design,” in Pacific Design Center News (Los Angeles, 1987). 

 

Sapper’s innovations in the creation of the Microsplit 520 not only altered the watchmaking world – their influence even extended to the early era of personal computers. The products that Richard designed for Heuer would have a profound effect on the designs he later created for IBM – for instance, his design for the Microsplit stopwatch involved a revolutionary hinged box, which would later become a key concept for the famous ThinkPad. Richard even credited his relationship with Heuer as a significant factor in his professional development, 

“The collaboration [with Heuer] was a very good project for me… and the Microsplit 520 was very important for me. The arrangement of parts, with the batteries in the front and the push buttons and controls under the lid – this all seemed logical at the time, but this arrangement became a sort of a guide for all my laptops. I mean […] dimensions aside, it’s like a laptop; it contains electronics. You can open and close it. You can carry it around.” – Richard Sapper, “The Process of Design,” in Pacific Design Center News (Los Angeles, 1987). 

 

But apart from talent, hard work, ingenuity and – let’s face it – more than a little bit of genius, one well-documented key to success that Richard Sapper possessed was the ability to cultivate great friendships. And one friendship in particular may have played an important role in the creation of the Heuer Microsplit, not to mention the other remarkable creations born out of the relationship between TAG Heuer and Richard Sapper:

“Jack Heuer was a great guy and an extraordinary person, and we spent a lot of time together. He was a great person to work with, because he [knew so much]. It’s not that friendship is a prerequisite for good design work, but it helps. I have had projects […] where the client was really just uninterested. Not so with Jack.” – Interview with Michele de Lucchi Uffizio Stile 14, no. 4 1982

 

 

Today, the Microsplit has undergone many transformations and reincarnations; but Sapper’s original design has stood the test of time (so to speak) impeccably. An incredible piece of history, the 520 is a now a highly collectible timepiece (not to mention a 70’s vintage statement that’s bang on-trend), marking not only a celebrated collaboration between Heuer and the world-class designer, but a friendship that would change the course of watchmaking forever.