LED watches were the first watches to electronically display the time in a digital format, the first digital watches being mechanical digital watches. The first LED watch was also the first watch in the world without any moving parts.
They changed the way we tell time, until their appearance people didn’t say “4:25” but twenty five minutes past four.
It was the first new way of displaying time in 500 years. As one manufacturer remarked at the time, they were “probably the greatest breakthrough in timekeeping technology since the sundial.”
LED stands for “Light Emitting Diode” a technology which grew out of semiconductor research in the sixties, however the problem that needed to be overcome in order for their use in watches was their miniaturization.
The light emitting diode is created by passing an electric charge through inorganic materials, in the case of the red LED Aluminium Gallium was used. Each of the LED numerals uses seven electronic switches for its display.Pulsar also came out with a green LED which used Gallium Nitride.
When they first appeared LED displays were quite power hungry and batteries were not as strong as they are now which meant the early LED watches in order to conserve power were only able to display the time briefly when a button was pressed. This was considered novel at first but consumers soon found it to be awkward and inconvenient.
LED watches were popular until the late seventies until LCD watches arrived which were a lot less power hungry and displayed the time constantly. They have in recent years enjoyed renewed popularity due to some interesting modern LED watch designs as can be seen above.
LED watches – Space Age Technology!
In the autumn of 1971 the Hamilton company released the first LED watch. This was also the first electronically powered watch to display time in a digital format as well as being the first all electronic watch. It was given the name “Pulsar“, had an 18-carat gold case and retailed for $2,100, about the price of the Chevrolet Vega at the time!
Hamilton had shown its intent earlier in terms of LED technology when Stanley Kubrick asked the company to create the first digital clock to use in his 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey.
According to the head of Hamilton’s Pulsar division, John Bergey, this was the inspiration for the development of the Pulsar watch.
The Pulsar seemed to epitomize the times, back in 1972 Space travel had not long since become a reality and technology was evolving at a fast pace and the Pulsar was one of the first consumer products to emerge out of the micro-electronic revolution.
Hamilton chose the name ‘Pulsar’ to imply space-age technology, the name derived from the “Pulsar” star which emits precisely timed radio waves, and which had just been discovered.
It was called a space-age ‘wrist computer’ by the New York Times who announced it was “a new era in the science of measuring time.”
Indeed the Pulsar was a sensation when it was introduced and despite its high price, from its launch in march 1972 until Christmas all of the first 400 watches they produced were sold.
Unfortunately the circuitry that was being made by Electro-Datas was found to be very unreliable and most of the first watches had to be withdrawn. This ended the partnership between the companies and Hamilton developed its own circuitry which was much more dependable.
Pulsar became America’s biggest watch success story selling more watches than any other company in history, reaching a point where they were selling 10,000 per month. The watch was even bought by U.S presidents Nixon and Ford as well as the Shah of Iran and numerous celebrities including Roger Moore and Jerry Lewis.
It was even featured in the then new James Bond film “Live and Let Die” with Roger Moore clearly seen pressing the button on the watch to check the time. The Pulsar also became recognised as one of the most important watches in history. Being listed as one of the “Top 20 watches of the century”
Other LEDs also came on the market, all of them quite expensive at first and out of reach to the average consumer, but by 1975 there were over 80 different types available and the competition helped to drive the prices down.
The Swiss watch manufacturers viewed the emergence of the digital watch as merely a passing fashion. Although a few did enter the LED watch market, Omega being one.
The Japanese watch manufacturers were also slow to enter the market.
At the 1976 Chicago Consumer Electronics, in true Henry Ford fashion, Texas Instruments gave the LED watch to the masses when they unveiled their line of plastic cased ones which went on sale for only $20. The lowest price prior to this for a digital watch had been $50.
As a result of the increased market competition Pulsar lost $6million and was eventually sold to Seiko and returned to making analog watches.
Texas Instruments further halved their retail price and by May 1977 introduced the first LED watch under $10 for $9.95. By this point though LED watches had started to decline in popularity due to the arrival of first LCD watches.