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The Mystery of the Red Heuer Photocell

This post started to form in my mind when I hit "search" on Instagram and out popped a picture of a curious item.
The Heuer photocell in question. Credit @heuercollectors
It looked like a closed-circuit camera. It was in a striking shade of red embellished by the Heuer mark and stood atop a black tripod. The poster, @heuercollectors, offered a caption:
... I bumped into this wonderful red colored racing track device, a heuer (sic) formule (sic) 1 photocell. Just couldn't resist buying it from a friendly Belgian owner. I can't find a lot of information on these devices so all additional info (when, where, how it was used) is very much appreciated!
Challenge accepted.

I almost immediately began to understand why the original poster was having such a hard time learning more. A metal tag on the base of the object provided a "Mod" number which read 2-21. I couldn't find anything about that model but I did find a model 2-31 photocell that looked more modern.
The more recent 2-31 photocell from Tag Heuer.
It was made by "Tag Heuer Professional Timing." So, I went to Tag Heuer's web page thinking I could find some materials about this subsidiary or department. A FAQ made it clear, though, that the brand had shuttered the Professional Timing line. There was no additional information available there.

I caught a break, though, when I looked at the Wayback Machine. There, I found an archive of which opened with the following text:
As a manufacturer of the finest professional sports watches, TAG Heuer has always been closely associated with the world's elite sporting events. Since timekeeping requires absolute mastery of the technique of translating human exploits into minutes, seconds and thousands of seconds, TAG Heuer has chosen to put its extensive experience at the service of all those who must sanction the performances.
Sometime in the past, Tag Heuer Professional Timing clearly provided precision timing devices for races of all sorts, including skiing, horseback riding, running races and car racing. However, even on the archived web page, I could not find information about the model 2-21. Out of desperation, I searched for the manufacturer name given on the metal tag: Heuer Leonidis SA. At that point, I believe the puzzle was solved.

The search brought me to, a web page run by renowned Heuer expert Jeff Stein. There, I found materials from a 1973 book entitled Business Policy: Text and Cases by Harvard Business School faculty (Andrews, K., J. Bower, C. R. Christensen, R. Hamermesh, and M. E. Porter). The chapter in this book on Heuer Leonidas is a masterclass in the brand's history. A good portion of the discussion describes the development and sales of nechanical chronographs. A subsection of the material, though, focuses on "Heuer Electronics Corporation." The efforts of a German electronical engineer named Christian Nitschke are brought into focus by this material. Nitschke developed business for many of the electronic timing deviced offered by Heuer, including a product called the Centigraph. It was so named because it could measure time down to 1/1000 of a second. Timing results were also printed on paper. The Centigraph was part of a bundled product sold under the umbrella of Heuer's "sports development" efforts. Car racing teams were offered
a complete, portable system for auto mobile timing, using as a base the previously-developed Centigraph printing timer and a series of photocell actuators. Several automobile racing teams were contacted about the developmental effort, and Ferrari was sufficiently interested to request a timing system that would permit `pit' crews to time Ferrari and competitive cars.
Further articles on the subject confirmed that Ferrari used this device at their home track (called The Fiorano Circuit) as well as during races such as Le Mans.
Components of the Heuer Centigraph package for professional car races.
Allegedly, the team believed that host nations were possibly depriving them of accurate speed measurements and they wanted to check official records with their own device.

Inspection of the Ferrari-deployed Centigraph system strongly suggested that @heurcollector's red device was a photocell forming part of the whole. First, the color seems to match quite well. Second, in a piece published in GQ, the Centigraph's operator, Jean Campiche, indicated that in the earliest years of the Centigraph, 45 photocells were used to record a race car's speed. Later, the system transitioned to transponders fitted to the cars. These would transmit signals to an antenna when the vehicles passed, obviating the need for the photocells. For this reason, it seems unlikely that a later product employed a photocell resembling the 2-21.

The "portable" Centigraph system at work.
There is, nevertheless, some residual uncertainty over whether @heuercollector's device was, indeed, part of the Ferrari Centigraph system. I could not obtain indisputible evidence, photographic or otherwise. However, it is certainly exciting to see the likely emergence of an important bit of kit from a noteworthy period in the history of timekeeping, racing and Ferrari motorsports.


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