Before Apple, America Dominated Watchmaking. Then History Forgot
Originally published by Joe Thompson on Hodinkee.
In May of 1970, 36-year-old John Bergey, head of research and development at Hamilton Watch Co., in Lancaster, PA, was a guest on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. He was there to show Johnny not just a new watch that Hamilton had created, but a new kind of watch.
Called the Pulsar Time Computer, it was the world’s first digital watch. It was unlike any watch that Carson, or anyone else, had ever seen before. It had no hands or dial. Instead, it had a blank, red, rectangular computer-like “time screen” (Hamilton’s term), made of synthetic ruby, set in a gold cushion-shaped case. To tell the time, you pushed a button on the side of the case. Three (or four) red digits, indicating the hours and minutes, appeared on the screen for slightly more than one second and then blinked off. If you pressed the button longer, red seconds digits replaced the hours and minutes digits on the screen and then disappeared.
The watch was too weird for Carson. To Bergey’s horror, he declared, “This will never put Mickey Mouse out of business,” and tossed the gold timepiece over his shoulder.
Johnny’s verdict turned out to be right. Digital watches did not replace watches with hands, Mickey’s or otherwise. By the end of 1977, Hamilton had not only stopped producing Pulsars but had sold the Pulsar name.
Moreover, Pulsar’s battery-depleting, time-on-demand, light-up-display technology, known as LED (light-emitting diode), was soon replaced by a superior technology, LCD (liquid crystal display), which displayed the time constantly and is the standard for digital watches today.
But Carson’s thumbs-down review of the Pulsar was a distinctly minority view in the early 1970s. The Hamilton Pulsar was a sensation and the first star of the quartz watch revolution. True, Seiko had won the race to introduce the world’s first electronic watch; it introduced the Seiko Astron five months before Bergey bombed on The Tonight Show. But the Seiko Astron was a quartz analog, with traditional hands, dial, and hour markers and was never a commercial success.
Pulsar, on the other hand, was a hit and the most famous watch of its (admittedly brief) time. It had a number of claims to fame:
*It was revolutionary in its space-age design and solid state (i.e., no moving parts) technology.
*It was a pioneer of a new watch category that brought scores of American electronics firms into the watch business.
*It was imitated by the likes of Switzerland’s Omega, which bought modules from Pulsar for its own Pulsar-like LEDs.
*It was hailed in American business and media circles as the leader of a trend that would make America a watchmaking power again.
History, however, has not been kind to Pulsar and the American electronics firms that brashly stormed into the watch industry in its wake. They were the most radical of the quartz revolutionaries. They were out to eliminate not just mechanical timekeeping, but all analog time-telling, quartz or mechanical. They were convinced that they were ushering in a digital-only watch future. As Tom Hyltin, CEO of Micro Display Systems, told me in the late 1970s, “All the clocks in schools today are digital. Kids today only know digital time. And by the turn of the century, all watches will be digital.”
Today, the American LED makers are forgotten. “The phenomenon of the American digital watch is quite unique in the history of watchmaking,” writes watch expert Lucien Trueb, in his exhaustive 2013 book about electronic watches, “Electrifying the Wristwatch” (Schiffer Publishing Ltd.). “Hardly anybody remembers the short-lived [American] watch ‘adventure.’ Their once promising diversification into the watch business ended as a flop, which nobody really wants to remember.”
Trueb is right, and that’s a pity. The world’s first digital watch was made in America: Pulsar should be remembered for that, if nothing else. But the American LED watch adventure, which lasted from 1972 to 1981, is actually a whale of a watch tale that deserves its place in watch history.
What follows is the lost chapter of the quartz-watch revolution: a concise history of the American LED watch. Consider it an addendum to the “Four Revolutions” series of articles we have published over the past few months.
Pulsar Fever: 1972-73
The watch that Johnny Carson threw away on the air was actually a prototype, one of three or four (accounts vary) that Hamilton had rushed into production. In fact, Hamilton was nowhere near ready to produce the watch, but felt it had to announce it.
There were two reasons for Hamilton’s hurry. First, Seiko and the Swiss had already made headlines with their new electronic quartz analog watches and Hamilton wanted to signal that it was also a quartz-watch player. (The Swiss announcement came at the Basel Fair in April 1970.) The second reason was that Hamilton was in serious financial trouble in 1970. It lost $24 million on sales of $74 million that year, due to a slow economy, a drop in its military products business, and stiff watch competition. Management hoped an announcement about its avant-garde watch would offset the bad news.
Hamilton’s 'Space Odyssey' Timepieces
Pulsar was not Hamilton Watch Co.’s first futuristic watch. Three years before Pulsar’s launch, Hollywood director Stanley Kubrick and science fiction writer Arthur Clarke visited Hamilton Watch Co. in Lancaster, PA to ask for help on a science fiction film they were working on. They wanted Hamilton to make wristwatches and table clocks for the film, “2001: A Space Odyssey,” that would show next-century styling.
Hamilton agreed. It created two “Odyssey” clocks and several wristwatches for use in the film, all sporting the Hamilton name and logo.
The experience had a direct influence on the design of the Pulsar Time Computer. Ironically, Pulsar got its look from the clock, not the watch. The watch featured a traditional round face with hands and numerals in a large curved rectangular case. Beneath the dial were three small circular windows with digits for GMT time, date and month.
The clock, on the other hand, had a streamlined, ovoid- shaped case that reminded one of a UFO. It had an elliptical console with five small screens showing light-up digits. The whole effect was very space-age and was the inspiration for Pulsar.
As it happened, the watches are seen prominently on the wrists of the astronauts throughout what became one of the most celebrated movies of all time. The clock, alas, was left on the cutting room floor; it does not appear in the film.
It did. Hamilton’s marketing of Pulsar was brilliant. In May 1970, it ran full-page ads announcing the development of the watch and held a press conference at New York’s posh Four Seasons restaurant. In addition to the Tonight Show, Bergey and Pulsar appeared with Hugh Downs on The Today Show. The media blitz created big buzz about the watch. Trueb calls it “a planetary sensation” in his book. “The Emperor of Abyssinia [Ethiopia], the King of Jordan, the Shah of Iran, Roger Moore, Sammy Davis, Jr. and many other celebrities placed orders right away,” he writes.
Hamilton presented Pulsar as the epitome of space-age cool.
Horologically, Pulsar was more revolutionary than even the new quartz analog watches. So revolutionary that, in its press announcement, Hamilton did not call it a watch, but a “wrist computer”: “The Pulsar is a solid state wrist computer programmed to tell time. It has no moving parts, no dials, hands, gears or springs; nothing to wind up, run down or wear out, and it never needs routine maintenance or cleaning. Simply press a button to see the time displayed in numeral form on the screen of the computer.” The notion of an all-electronic timepiece driven by transistors, integrated circuit, quartz crystal and a battery captured the public imagination.
So did Pulsar’s Space Odyssey styling. In fact, Pulsar’s design was influenced by a clock that the company had created for the 1968 blockbuster movie “2001: A Space Odyssey.” The movie’s producer Stanley Kubrick and screenwriter Arthur Clarke had visited Hamilton in Lancaster in 1967 to request timepiece props for the movie that would scream 21st-century. (See sidebar.)
Hamilton’s marketing subtly linked the watch with space. After all, it was only 10 months since newspapers around the world had blared the greatest headline in human history: MAN WALKS ON MOON. Hamilton’s promotional literature pointed out that Pulsar made no noise. It did not tick like mechanical and quartz analog watches. Pulsar was “silent as space,” Hamilton said.
The clearest link to space was its name. Bergey came up with it after seeing an article on pulsars, short for “pulsating stars,” in an astronomy journal. Bergey saw a parallel between pulsars, which emit radiation at extremely precise intervals, and his watch, which used bursts of energy to tell time and was extremely accurate.
Worth The Wait
It took Hamilton two years to actually bring Pulsar to market. On April 4, 1972, a full-page ad in The Wall Street Journal announced that the wrist computer was on sale. It was, the ad said, “A completely new way to tell time, modestly priced at $2,100.” That, Trueb notes, was “$150 more than a gold Rolex.”
Apparently, the watch was worth the wait. Pulsar prepared 400 watches for the launch. They were sold at selected upscale retailers like Tiffany’s and Neiman-Marcus, and sold out in three days. Pulsar fever was on.
Hamilton soon followed the original gold watch with gold-filled-case models priced at $1,275 and steel-case models at $275. It could not keep up with demand. Don Sauers, author of a history of Hamilton, “Time For America: Hamilton Watch 1892-1992” (Sutter House, 1992), describes Pulsar fever. “Consider the customer who bought the last Pulsar in stock at Tiffany’s in New York just before Christmas, 1972, and received two offers for the watch before he could get out of the store. Or the plight of Senator [Wallace] Bennett of Utah, who wanted to be the first member of the U.S. Senate with a Pulsar, and then discovered in a committee meeting that Senator Mike Mansfield already had one. And there were rumors that one of President Nixon’s daughters had dropped into Tiffany’s and picked out a Pulsar as a Christmas gift for her father.” (The rumors were true.)
An original advertisement for the Pulsar LED watch. (Photo: Courtesy The Advertisement Gallery)
“The Shah of Iran was a repeat buyer,” Sauers continues. “He had a standing order for each new model as it was introduced.” Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie was so happy with his Pulsar that he sent a Certificate of Excellence to Hamilton. Sammy Davis Jr. was distraught when his Pulsar was stolen. “Thunderbird Jewelers in Las Vegas telephoned Hamilton with a frantic rush order. Mr. Davis wanted a replacement ‘immediately.’”
In late 1972, Hamilton reorganized and made Pulsar its own subsidiary (Time Computer Inc.) separate from the watch division, with Bergey as president. In early 1973, Sauers writes, “Bergey reported that orders were pouring in so rapidly the company could hardly keep up with them. Production had been stepped up to 1,000 units weekly and, even at that pace, they were sold out through April…. Pulsar was a runaway best seller. By the end of that year, they were producing 10,000 units per month and retailers were begging, ‘Send us more.’”
The Semiconductor Stampede: 1974-75
Inevitably, Pulsar’s solid-state success piqued the interest of American electronics firms, who could easily compete with Pulsar on price. A 1985 Harvard Business School study on the global watch market described what happened: “Consumer demand for digitals began to grow in 1974, when National Semiconductor announced that it would sell an LED watch at $125, about half the prevailing price. Immediately afterward, Litronix, Texas Instruments and Fairchild Camera and Instrument – all manufacturers of integrated circuits – introduced their own LED watches. Each firm invested in high volume, fully automated watch manufacturing plants.”
That trickle soon turned into a stampede, including the biggest names in the American semiconductor business: Commodore, Intel’s Microma, Hewlett-Packard, Hughes Aircraft and scores more. Trueb estimates that as many as 30 American manufacturers produced their own LED and/or LCD modules. Another 50 or more U.S. companies produced digital watches using modules purchased from others. (See sidebar.) There was no barrier of entry into the digital watch business. “These companies had no experience in watchmaking,” Trueb notes. “No horological know-how was needed for this type of product, which had no mechanically moving parts aside from pushers for setting the time.”
Almost all of the newcomers produced LEDs. LCD displays, introduced in 1973, had legibility problems; they became cloudy after a few months. The surge of LED watches on the market drove prices down and demand up. The result was an LED boom. Prices in 1974 ranged from $100 to Pulsar’s $275. Bergey had anticipated lower LED prices. That year he predicted that prices would hit $20 by 1978. Meanwhile, Pulsar remained king of the digital hill.
One episode in October, 1974, illustrated Pulsar’s power. President Gerald Ford was a big Pulsar fan. As vice president, he had been given one by White House counsel Philip Buchen, who also owned a Pulsar. “Ford’s Pulsar was prominent in a photo that appeared in the Washington Post,” wrote Norma Buchanan in a 1997 profile of John Bergey in American Time magazine. “The picture showed the president testifying about the Nixon pardon before the House Judiciary Committee on Criminal Justice. During that year’s Christmas season, jewelers displayed the photo in their windows.”
Pulsar sales doubled in 1974 to $17 million; profits more than doubled. (That year, HMW Industries, parent company of Pulsar and Hamilton, went all in on the LED. It sold the traditional watchmaking division, Hamilton Watch Co., to Switzerland’s SSIH, a precursor to what is now the Swatch Group. Today, Hamilton remains one of the Swatch Group’s 19 watch brands.)
LED Mania: 1975
In 1975, the LED was America’s hottest watch. As more and more watch companies introduced new models, prices fell below $100, stimulating even more demand.
Today, it is impossible to imagine the grip the LED had on the U.S. watch market at that time. Seiko was making a huge push in the United States, on its way to becoming the world’s largest watch company (that happened in 1978). But the LED stopped the Seiko juggernaut here. Seiko did not produce LEDs: its R&D team considered it technically unreliable and bet on the LCD instead. Spurning the LED turned out to be a smart move. But it seemed crazy at the time and caused panic in Seiko’s U.S. operation. Jack Norvell, of Norvell-Marcum, in Tulsa, one of Seiko’s 15 U.S. distributors, later described the situation to me. “When the LED hit the market,” Norvell said, “the distributors were begging for LEDs. We told Moriya [Seiko’s legendary U.S. boss, Hideaki Moriya] ‘We have to have it. That’s what the market wants.’ But he said ‘No, this product will pass.’ And it did.”
“My sales fell off in 1974 and 1975 due the LED,” Milton Putterman, head of Seiko’s private label division, which sold watches to department stores, told me. He had just joined Seiko and feared he would be fired. Moriya told him not to worry: the LED fever would eventually pass and department stores would want his quartz analog watches.
It wasn’t just mid-priced brands that were affected by the LED phenomenon. Hank Edelman was a salesman for Patek Philippe in those days. Today, he is chairman of Henri Stern Watch Agency, Patek’s wholly owned U.S. subsidiary. He vividly remembers customers asking for LEDs and their chagrin when he told them Patek did not have any. “Half of our customers asked me, ‘If you guys don’t come out with an LED, I’d like to know what you plan to do in your next job.’”
Timex also did not have any LEDs. It had introduced an $85 LDC in 1974. The watch bombed. Kathleen McDermott in her book “Timex: A Company and its Community: 1854-1998” notes that Timex vice president Fred Nelson told his customers that 1975 “was the most competitive year the watch business has ever seen.”
At Christmas time in 1975, Gerald Ford had Pulsar back in the news again. Asked what he wanted for Christmas, the President told White House reporters he was hoping to get the new gold Pulsar Calculator Watch as a gift. When reporters told Betty Ford of her husband’s wish and its price – $3,950 – she politely poured water on the idea.
Pulsar revenues soared in 1975, up 47% to $25 million on sales of 150,000 watches. Another sign of the boom times for push-button timers: Hughes Aircraft, a supplier of LED modules to both traditional and electronic watch companies, which had entered the market in 1973, was producing 100,000 LED modules per month by the end of 1975. Its Newport Beach, CA, watch plant employed 500 people.
Business Week captured the sentiment of the times in the headline of the cover story of its Oct. 27, 1975 edition: “Digital Watches: Bringing Watchmaking Back to America Again.”
It reported that there were 77 digital watch brands on the U.S. market. The vast majority were American LEDs. America was leading the global quartz watch revolution. Texas Instruments was supplying LCD modules to Switzerland’s Ebauches SA (now called ETA). From 1972 to 1974, Trueb reports, Omega had purchased about 30,000 LED modules from Pulsar to use in Omega Time Computer watches. Editorial cartoons showed the Statue of Liberty with a Pulsar on her raised wrist. Watch wise, America was back. Or so it seemed.
The Collapse, 1976-77
A Commodore LED watch.
The first sign of trouble came early in 1976. You could see where the digital market was headed at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in January. “For the first time, the show was crowded with buyers from mass merchandise retailers such as Sears, Montgomery Ward and J.C. Penney,” wrote Buchanan in her Bergey profile. “The digital had headed down a one-way street from class to mass, from distinctive symbol of status to faceless commodity. And although the LED-type digital still had the upper hand, LCDs had started to put up some real competition.”
When the end came, it came quickly. The LED boom of 1975 led to an LED glut in 1976 and a bust in 1977.
Memory Lane: American Digital Watch Producers Of The 1970s
The book, “Electrifying the Wristwatch,” by Swiss writer Lucien Trueb, with co-authors Günther Ramm and Peter Wenzig, offers a rare list of numerous U.S. firms that made digital watches, primarily LEDs, in the 1970s.
The book lists 23 American companies that produced LED or LCD modules. For readers of a certain age, they may ring a bell, if not for watches, then perhaps computers or calculators (or razor blades!). The companies were American Microsystems, Bowmar, Commodore, Fairchild Semiconductor, Frontier, Hewlett-Packard, Hughes Aircraft, Integrated Display Systems, Litronix, Micro Display Systems, Microma (a division of Intel), Motorola, National Semiconductor, Ness Time, Nortec, Optel, Pulsar, Ragen Semiconductors, Siliconix, Suncrux, Texas Instruments, Timex, and Uranus.
The book covers another 36 U.S. firms who purchased LED or LCD modules from others and assembled their own digital watches. They were Advance, Alcor, Armitron, Arnex, Avatar, Benrus, Bulova, Chronex, Collins, Concord, Cronex, Croton Time, Datatime, Duratime, Elgin, Gillette, Helbros, Innovative Time, Jupiter Time, Majesty, Marcel, Mercury Time, Microsonic Digital, Quantum, Saturn, Savant, Sensor, Speidel, Stanford Scientific, Timeband, Unitron, Waltham, Water Watch, Westclox, Windert, and Wittnauer.
The lists, Trueb writes, are “certainly incomplete.”
The culprit was Texas Instruments. TI had major watch ambitions. Digitals gave it a chance to challenge Timex’s position as the mass-market watch king. Timex, whose watch output through the 1970s was still mostly pin-lever mechanicals, had become the world’s top watch company in sales through a policy of cut-throat price-cutting that wiped out competitors. Texas Instruments’ strategy came right out of the Timex playbook.
In 1976, in a startling development, TI dropped its LED prices to $19.95. The LED had hit $20 a full two years before Bergey’s pessimistic forecast. The next year, TI cut LED prices again, to $9.95. It could afford to offer such low prices because economies of scale had dramatically lowered the cost of digital modules. “Between 1973 and 1980, the price of a complete digital module dropped from well over $300 to $3 or even less,” Trueb writes.
The TI price cuts sounded the death knell for the LED. Two American LED producers, Bowmar and Ness Time, went bankrupt in 1976. Casualties started to mount. The most prominent was Pulsar. The market for expensive LEDs evaporated. In 1976, Pulsar sales dropped 14% to $21.6 million. Through the first half of 1977, Pulsar, whose prices never went below $249, lost $5.9 million on sales of $13.5 million. That year 42 million digitals were sold worldwide, but only 10,000 were Pulsars. With no hope of recovery, HMW pulled the plug on the trailblazing digital in July 1977 and sold the name to Rhapsody Inc., a Philadelphia watch and jewelry distributor.
Hughes and many others abandoned the digital watch market in 1978. Business Week, in another cover story on watches (June 5, 1978) offered a contemporary account: “The digital watch field is littered with casualties of the LED disaster in early 1977, when buyer preferences shifted to LCDs and left manufacturers with costly inventories.”
LCDs inherited the digital mantle, but their prices plummeted, too. In 1978, Commodore introduced a collection of 15 LCD watches priced from $7.95 to $19.95. They were sold in blister packs in department stores, grocery stores, drugstores, and electronics shops.
By 1980, only one American electronics firm was still in the watch business: Texas Instruments. It threw in the towel in 1981, laying off the 2,800 employees in its watch division.
One American company went on to enjoy enormous success with LCD digital watches. Ironically, it was Timex, the traditional watch producer. Its Triathlon watch, introduced in 1984 and Ironman watch (1985) were big hits. Timex still produces them.
In 1978, Rhapsody Inc. sold the rights to the Pulsar name to Seiko. In 1979, Seiko relaunched Pulsar as a quartz analog watch priced below Seiko. It remains a sister brand to Seiko to this day.
After getting burned in the watch industry, the American electronics firms turned to more lucrative consumer electronics products, like computers, video games, smartphones, and, these days, watches again.
A final note: John Bergey remained in Lancaster after retiring from HMW. He owned a fine collection of Pulsar watches. But sometimes around town, he would wear a different digital watch. When asked why, he said, “People often ask me what happened to Pulsar. I point to this and say, ‘This is what happened! I paid $3.79 for it and it works great.’”
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