A New PulseBy Kevin Cureau
The 1970s were an era of great positive change for the US and around the world. Countries were still experiencing high and sustained growth from the post-World War II economic expansion, activism for women and minorities continued from the previous decade, environmental issues became more important, and rock and disco music dominated the charts.
Entering the ’70s, it was clear that the United States had won the coveted “Space Race” with the success of the Apollo 11 mission which landed humans on the Moon in July of 1969. Only 10 months after that historical achievement, in May of 1970, another American company would make an announcement and reveal a ground-breaking product unlike anything that had been seen before: the Hamilton Pulsar, the very first digital wristwatch.
Named after the pulsating neutron stars that emit beams of radiation at ultra-precise frequencies, this “solid state wrist computer” seemed like an object straight out of science fiction and perfectly in sync in terms of design with the Space Age period that the world was experiencing. The Pulsar was developed by Hamilton in its hometown of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and would change the way we tell time. With no moving parts, no ticking sound and unmatchable durability and accuracy, this was something no one had ever seen before. At the push of a button, red LED numerals would light up the dark screen displaying the time. Holding the button for longer revealed the passing seconds. Setting the time was done using a magnet bar stored in a hatch inside the bracelet’s deployant clasp. Placing the magnet on two grooves found on the watch’s caseback allowed it to cycle through the hours and minutes.
The public received its first glimpse of the Hamilton Pulsar prototype on one of the most popular US TV programs, The Tonight Show, when host Johnny Carson demonstrated its unique functionality. What followed was an undeniable Pulsar fever. It took two more years for Hamilton to release a consumer-ready version of the Pulsar, the Hamilton Pulsar P1 with an avant-garde cushion case and bracelet in 18ct yellow gold, but the product just flew off the shelves. Even with a price tag of US$2,100 at the time (the cost of a family car), the initial 400 watches prepared for the launch all found homes in three days. The Hamilton Pulsar P1 was the first true star of the emerging Quartz Revolution and a breath of fresh air among mechanical analog watches. It was taking a centuries old technology and propulsing it straight into the future.
Celebrities couldn’t get enough of it and names like Elvis Presley, the Shah of Iran, Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia, Sammy Davis Jr, and Yul Brynner are some of the famous owners of the Hamilton Pulsar. According to author Don Sauers’ tome, Time for America: Hamilton Watch 1892-1992, Selassie was so impressed by his P1 that he granted Hamilton a Certificate of Excellence. Davis Jr was so distraught after his P1 was stolen that he had retailer T-Bird Jewels in Las Vegas call Hamilton for an immediate replacement. Orders kept pouring in and Hamilton could hardly keep up with the demand for the Pulsar.
In 1973, the Hamilton Pulsar P2, in stainless steel with a more rounded case design and an improved chip module, reached the market at a more affordable price, achieving colossal success. The P2 rapidly became the period’s must-have watch, with wearers including Keith Richards, Jack Nicholson, Peter Sellers, Elton John, Gianni Agnelli, and U.S. President Gerald Ford. Notably, Roger Moore’s James Bond wore one in Live and Let Die (1973) and the boxing great “Smokin’” Joe Frazier was even pictured wearing his in the run-up to his 1973 fight with Joe Bugner. This led to many American companies, from Bulova to Hewlett Packard, jumping on the bandwagon to produce digital watches and clocks in the 1970s. Competition was fierce but Hamilton’s Pulsar still stayed in front of the pack. With its wide popularity and success, many more models of the Pulsar were released including the Calculator model, the P3 Date Command, “flick of the wrist” activated models and even Hamilton Pulsars for ladies.
Today, Hamilton is bringing back this icon from the 1970s in the form of the new Hamilton PSR. Two versions of the PSR are available to choose from: one in stainless steel, and a version in stainless steel coated with yellow gold PVD that’s limited to 1,970 pieces. With its cushion-shaped case and bracelet, the Hamilton PSR is an identical re-issue of the Hamilton Pulsar P2 and retains the beautiful avant-garde and Space Age design that made its success 50 years ago. The PSR isn’t just a fun novelty, it is a solid and well crafted timepiece which happens to dig into some of the nostalgia people associate with this era of progress and discovery. The PSR has also caught up with its time by using a hybrid display mixing reflective LCD (Liquid Crystal Display) and emissive OLED (Organic Light Emitting Diodes) technologies. This module was developed in-house by Hamilton together with the Swatch Group’s R&D department to keep the essence of the original watch alive without compromising functionality.
You still get the cool effect of the red OLED numerals showing up in their famous “digit dot” style when pressing the button on the side, but thanks to the reflective technology in the LCD display, the time is now permanently visible in daylight conditions. This hybrid display technology means that the watch has an extremely low energy consumption. The PSR also does away with the magnet bar hidden in the bracelet clasp to set the time. The bracelet has a double folding clasp and the single pushbutton on the side of the case now carries all the functionalities of displaying and setting the time.
We have to say that in the current movement of vintage-revival and sneaker craziness, the Hamilton PSR arrives at the perfect time to provide a stylish offering that will reach a new generation of people. What is old can be new again and in the case of the Hamilton PSR, you’re not only getting a well crafted watch with a space-age style still relevant today, you’re also buying a reminder of pioneering changes in technology and society. Above all, the first digital watch was the epitome of cool in the 1970s and certainly hasn’t lost its crown 50 years later.