The First LED Watch

Perhaps it is because I am in my fifth decade of life that I’ve become recently attuned to the passing of several historic 50th anniversaries. Very recently it was 50th anniversary of Apollo 15 and my last blog covered the relevance of that event. This year we will continue to celebrate 50 years of Disney World, the death of Jim Morrison of the Doors, the Lamborghini Countach, Let it Be – the last album of the Beatles actually released well after the group disintegrated, the Royal Canadian Air Force acrobatic aircraft team – the Snowbirds, and the leaking of the Pentagon Papers. This last example is so painfully poignant as I write. The West failed to learn the lessons of the Vietnam War and results in Afghanistan today are tragically comic. An entire country fell within a week and now none of the NATO allies have enough time to even evacuate all of its own citizens as well as those Afghani nationals promised immigration visas because they are sure to be targets of Taliban reprisal murders.

Although I lived through all of these events, I was far too young to remember or appreciate any of them. And so I’ve spent a lifetime discovering and learning my history which makes this milestone anniversary a way to relive the experience.

Another 50th anniversary passed last year, or will pass next year depending on how you mark the occasion. And it’s another watch story, but one that went from literal boom to bust in only …. 5 years.

The Hamilton Watch Company of Lancaster, PA was one of the last surviving American watch companies during the 1960s despite a legacy of innovation and manufacturing success. Both the Swiss and Japanese watch companies were racing to develop the first super accurate quartz analog watches while diminishing sales revenue left Hamilton simply struggling to survive while fending off hostile corporate attacks.

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The iconic 1957 Hamilton Ventura featuring the first electric component, a motor that replaced the need to rewind the spring. The boldly asymmetric watch case suited this new technology, but in 3 years Bulova would introduce its Accutron technology with the sales shattering effects of a sledgehammer.

Hamilton was desperate to develop and market a quantum leap in watch technology and they were inspired by the digital clock based on Nixie vacuum tubes that they were commissioned by Stanley Kubrick to build as a set prop for his film, 2001: A Space Odyssey. They were determined to introduce the first fully digital wrist watch. They were racing against the 1969 announcement of Seiko’s first quartz watch and the announcement of the Swiss equivalent earlier in the year, plus the need to tie in their new product with the jubilation of the first Moon landing only 10 months earlier. The company was also $24 million in arrears despite $74 million in sales. You can read this story on many Internet sources and it goes like this. John Bergey, head of research and development at Hamilton, appeared in May 1970 on The Tonight Show with then host, Johnny Carson, to debut the new digital Hamilton Pulsar LED watch. At the time Hamilton only had a handful of fragile working prototypes. Fortunately the watch worked for Carson but he was unimpressed, quipped that “this will never put Mickey Mouse out of business” and tossed the watch over his shoulder where the drop fatally damaged it. It never happened this way and Internet writers perpetuate the same story from the same single unverified source. Take a look at the footage of that show from June 6, 1970. Carson never disparaged the watch but was impressed and was completely misquoted. And he treated the watch as gently as you would expect a watch would be practically treated. And why would Bergey appear as an actual guest on Carson’s coveted couch? Remember, in this era Carson was a kingmaker and to be invited to sit with him was to assure any fledgling entertainer’s success.

PulsarAd
I don’t know if the watch was on The Tonight Show on May 6 or June 6th.  Likely this full page ad that appeared in multiple publications has the date correct … but it would be almost two full years before any watches could actually be purchased. The first 400 examples (Model P-I) were in 18k gold and sold for $2100, some $150 more than a gold Rolex.  That is over $13,000 in today’s dollars. There are stories that the last two Pulsars in stock at Tiffany & Co. were sold just before Christmas and on their way out the store, each received higher offers from other frustrated customers.   A basic stainless steel model (P-II) appeared in the Fall for $275.   Celebrities and famous statesmen had or wanted a Pulsar watch. Running at 33 kHz, Pulsar could also claim it was 10x more accurate than any mechanical watch, including the Accutron.  In 1975 a calculator watch version appeared for $4000.  Analog watch sales plummeted and for the first time in decades America became a watch manufacturing power again with Omega purchasing 30,000 LED display modules from Pulsar for their own watches.  Pulsar was producing 10,000 watches and a 100,000 display modules per month with revenue of $25 million on 150k units sold in 1975.

Foreshadowing the watch mania that would benefit Omega Seamaster sales beginning in the Pierce Brosnan years of playing James Bond, Roger Moore gave the Pulsar priceless screen time in the opening minutes of his first Bond movie in 1973, Live and Let Die. People reported that theater audiences would gasp with amazement at seeing its digital LED display in action.

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If the public had known the turmoil behind the scenes they would have realized the Pulsar watch was effectively built on a house of cards and its fall would come far sooner than anybody anticipated.

Hamilton contracted Electro/Data of Garland, TX to develop the watch display module for $330,000.  The prototype watch used individual LEDs arranged in a dot matrix array and sourced from Hewlett Packard and consisted of 44 integrated circuits (ICs)  and interconnected with over 2200 gold bonding wires embedded in epoxy to stabilize the components against normal forces encountered by a watch wearer.  The board operated at 4.5 V and was powered by 3 hand made zinc carbon batteries which kept leaking and leaving chemical skin burns on the wearer. 

prototypeboard
Three prototypes were delivered to Hamilton.  One appeared on The Tonight Show and was destroyed by Johnny Carson.  The second failed to work the next day during a press conference at the Four Seasons Restaurant in NYC and the third broke down after the presentation.  Electro/Data simplified the circuitry to only 25 ICs and these modules appeared on the first 400 watches sold in 1972.  Due to the high consumption of power of the LEDs, the display could only be powered momentarily otherwise batteries would only last 20 minutes.  Operating voltage had dropped to 3V allowing the use a pair of silver oxide button batteries.  A seven segment numerical LED display was sourced to replace the HP display from a company called … Monsanto.

We are familiar with Monsanto as that giant agrobiotech firm which manufactures genetically modified corn seed and pesticides.  Monsanto has origins as a chemical company but somehow saw the possibilities of LED based displays in the early 1960s and began manufacturing quantities of the critical component for LED fabrication, gallium arsenide phosphide.  When they couldn’t interest HP in manufacturing LEDs, Monsanto began making their own LED displays for the burgeoning calculator market in 1968.  One of its engineers defected to form his own company known as Litronix and that later became the actual provider of the 7 segment LED display to the Pulsar P-I and P-II.

The markup for the retailer was 100% and each Electro/Data module cost $700 leaving Hamilton only $450 to pay for the gold case, gold strap and synthetic red sapphire display crystal from Switzerland. The first 4001 watches, despite their lofty price was a terrible money loser for the company. After a few months, some owners reported the display module failing and Hamilton was able to quietly recall all the watches and have the latest display module (Caliber 201) now entirely made in house in Lancaster, PA retrofitted onto the first 400. The new module had finally achieved reliability with the introduction by RCA of one IC able to control all the timekeeping functions and was formally introduced in the P-II model. The watch became very profitable as module costs dropped to $74 each (and to as low as $10 later on) and the switch to gold ruby glass made by Corning.

By 1974, American semiconductor companies saw the runaway success of Pulsar and decided that they could manufacture their own LED watch modules cheaper and better. How much harder would it be to then include watch cases and straps and go full boar and become digital watch manufacturers? Industry experts tried to warn them that the watch business is actually a jewelry business – and with all the volatility that goes with that. About 30 American companies began producing modules and as many as 50 American companies entered the digital watch making business. Prices for the modules began to drop as manufacturing began to exceed demand and in 1976 Texas Instrument cut its unit price to $20, and then to only $10 in 1977. There were 77 brands of LED watches for sale in the US and they all began discounting their prices. 42 million watches were sold worldwide but Pulsar only sold 10,000 units because they refused to drop their prices below $250. The company closed and the brand sold to Seiko. The Hamilton brand had been bought a few years earlier by the Swiss. Over at Litronix, the business was so devasted by its entry into the watch making world that it was purchased by Siemens in 1979 at a bargain price.

In only the next few years, LEDs watches would completely disappear as even cheaper and battery friendly LCD watches with constant time displays appeared.

As all watch companies have a propensity to do, the 50th anniversary means it’s reissue time! The new Hamilton company has introduced a remarkably faithful modern interpretation of the P-I. In gold plate it will be limited to 1970 copies but the stainless steel ones will be churned out as long as demand exists.

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This one for about $1000, the stainless steel version for about $700.

BUT, you don’t have to spend anywhere near that amount to get something similar, and something with real vintage provenance and with real shared DNA to the original Pulsar.  And is also from a bankrupt company that no longer exists.

Litorix
Brand new unused and complete Litronix LED watch available from eBay. From the $40 pricing likely marketed in 1976, just before the market collapse. The watch takes Rayovac RW44 or the modern Duracell 301/386 (with the back off I was able to short the time display pusher and keep the display on for the photo)

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This is the classic cautionary tale of success.  Because on Earth, what goes up must inevitably come down.

1 Actually an additional 50 P-I were made due to the insane demand. 37 gold plated watches were made and given to important sales agents whom we would refer to as “influencers” these days.

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