The Pulsar Project

This wonderful article was originally written specifically for TheDigitalWatch.com by Dennis L. Klein,  a noted authority on Pulsars.  Next to the Pulsar Sr. Engineer John Bergey(who supplied many of the details to Mr. Klein), many consider Dennis a leading authority on the Pulsar LED watch. Mr. Klein has been collecting Pulsar LED watches for over 20 years, documenting its  history as information becomes known.  He is also the owner of the #1 Pulsar LED web site for information, tips and great pictures www.oldpulsars.com.

Mr. Klein has been working on bringing forth his own watch, the Inverta, which will be the first watch in almost 3 decades to carry the ” Time Computer” trademark which originally was registered to Hamiltonat the beginning of the Pulsar Project.
In 1966 John M. Bergey and Richard S. Walton, two young engineers at America’s Hamilton Watch Co. ,discussed incorporating new technology in to a wristwatch. Technology from military timing device projects that they were working on in the Technology Division at Hamilton. Ironically, in 1967 at the request of Hollywood, they would work together on a one-of-a-kind digital desk clock for the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey.

 
Bergey & Walton now had a large-scale model for a digital wristwatch, theyonly needed to shrink the technology down small enough. At the time, Hamilton was having money problems stemming from their Hamilton Electric, the world’s first electric watch released in 1957. The big question was, could Hamilton survive another revolutionary watch? Could Bergey convince Hamilton’s CEO Richard Blakinger to invest in one more innovative watch? Well, Bergey was transferred to the R&D over at the Hamilton Watch Division and Bergey was now the new director with focus on developing Hamilton’s new digital watcch.

The 2001 Odyssey Clock utilized a Nixie tube display, which consists of glass tubes with wire filaments shaped like numbers stacked behind one another. Obviously, these wouldn’t work in a wristwatch so Bergey’s team turned to a new technology, the LED (light emitting diode) digital display. Bergey found a company who was making progress with a timepiece using LED technology, Electro-Data, a small technologies company founded by George H. Thiess in Garland, Texas. Thiess had been working with his engineer Willie Crabtree on a prototype for about a year but as with any idea, like a mousetrap for instance, it has to catch a mouse before it’s a mousetrap. The Electro/Data prototype LED module wasn’t quite telling time just yet. It seemed Electro/Data needed Hamilton and Hamilton needed E/D! The agreement was for E/D to supply Hamilton with electronic modules for the new Hamilton LED digital timepiece. In return, Hamilton would fund the project and assistance in engineering for the project. Hamilton named their new watch, Pulsar, a name that would latter become iconic! Pulsar was a name Bergey came up while reading an astrology magazine left in his office by a Hamilton employee. Pulsar, defined as “pulsating light emitting from a star with unprecedented accuracy” was the perfect name for the world’s first digital LED wristwatch! At the Hamilton facility the new watch project was referred to as the “E/D Pulsar Program” and it was being developed under the control of the new Pulsar Division.
In May of 1968 while Hamilton and E/D were still in the early development stage, the editor of a local Garland Texas magazine wrote an article about Electro/Data and the watch they were working on with Hamilton, he labeled it as the “Mystery Watch”. Without revealing any proprietary information, he could only hint that something really different was coming. Two years later when Pulsar and its technology went public across the globe, the magazine featured another in-depth article that “Revealed” the “Mystery Watch”. The headline read, “A Giant Leap for Horology”.

It was May 5th, 1970 when the world was introduced to the First Digital LED Wristwatch, unveiled on the Tonight Show then the next morning at a press conference. The world saw one of the six prototypes costing $60,000 each to develop.

Initially, the goal was to have the Pulsar in production by the fall of 1970 but Electro/Data was still having problems with the module. Beyond the problems with the 44-IC Electro/Data module was the 4.5-volt, 3-cell battery developed over at Hamilton, the E/D Pulsar Program was struggling and some tough decisions needed to be made. Hamilton and Electro/Data decided to scrape the original E/D module as well as the case designed by the famous American sculpture, Ernest Trova. A new watchcase by Hamilton’s watchcase designer Jean Wuischpard and a new 25-IC E/D module design was now on the drawing board. Two custom sized conventional type batteries would now replaced the huge 4.5-volt rechargeable battery.

It was now early 1971 and the many anticipated release dates to get the Pulsar to market were long gone. Progress had been slow and Hamilton had grown impatient, E/D was yet to fulfill their agreement to supply the 491 modules. The agreement was for 400 modules for the 18k solid gold Limited Edition watches, 65 for the gold plated salesman watches and 26 modules to be held for warranty. Electro/Data delays had forced Hamilton to start development of their own electronic module, this commenced in mid 1970. Over at Hamilton, this was known as the “Pulsar Project”. By the time Hamilton finally got the E/D modules two years later at a contract price of $700 each, the first in-house Pulsar module was complete! The new Pulsar module had an estimated production cost of $75 and advances in technology allowed a significant reduction in parts. The Electro/Data module consisted of 114 parts compared to 28 on the Pulsar module developed in Lancaster. Watchcase designs for the next two models were complete by now as well.

Pulsar Limited Edition a/k/a P1

With the delivery of the E/D modules, the first 400 watches made it to market on April 4th 1972. It was the prestigious 18k Limited Edition Pulsar and it sold for $2,100, a watch that cost well over the selling price to manufacture. Unfortunately, soon after those first Pulsars were sold, some of the Electro/Data models were failing. There was a recall of all watches including any unsold units still in the dealer’s showcases. The E/D modules were replaced with the modules from the Pulsar Project developed in Lancaster. The recall happened during a period when modifications to the Pulsar module to improve adjustment of the quartz crystal were almost complete. The module used to the replace the E/D module varies depending on when the factory received the watch. Probably the most critical factor of the success of the Pulsar was the decision to develop their own module. Had they not done so the consumer backlash might have stopped the Pulsar in its tracks with the E/D failures. After Hamilton received the 491 modules from Electro/Data, the Hamilton – E/D affiliation was over.

Pulsar, which began as a Hamilton project, was finally given its own company to be headed by, who else, John M. Bergey. The new company, Time Computer, Inc. now owned the Pulsar brand and all of the related patents. The name of the new company came from the marketing department, as the Pulsar would be marketed as a Time Computer not a wristwatch.

 

 

 

P2, in solid 14k gold.

A long lineup of models followed the Limited Edition, a.k.a. the P1. The first high production model, the P2 got things rolling on a blistering pace. Orders were coming in so fast that daily parts deliveries were the norm. Many parts had more than one manufacture as nobody could keep up with supplying parts for the watch everyone wanted on their wrist! Over the next five years models with additional feature like the worlds first calculator watch helped pile on the profits at Time Computer. The Pulsar became the benchmark of the LED watch industry. It still retains the respect with collectors today that it worked so hard to maintain with consumers back in the 70s. When profits became losses due to cheaper US and overseas LED watches and the introduction of the LCD display, Time Computer closed the doors and sold its brand names and patents to the Seiko Corporation in Japan. The end of the Pulsar Project came in 1978.

Time Computer’s Pulsar is America’s biggest watch success story, no other watch in history has come close to what Pulsar accomplished over the relatively short time it existed. Peaking at around 10,000 units a month, it out sold every high-end watch in the world and was the first watch ever to be imported to Switzerland. Pulsar also has an extensive history with Hollywood as well as celebrities of that era. In addition to its worldwide recognition as the world’s first LED watch, the Pulsar made exclusive lists like the “Top 20 watches of the Century” and “The 50 Greatest Gadgets of the Past 50 Years”.

Today the Pulsar is very collectable, an auction on eBay in 2004 is one example. One of the 400 18k Limited Edition watches sold at a higher price than any of the 220,000 watches listed on eBay over that same 2-week period. That Pulsar watch sold to a Japanese collector for $17,525.00!

To this day many still think the Pulsar was a “Hamilton”, but the fact is only the first six prototype watches were Hamiltons. The first 400 18k Limited Edition watches were developed mostly under Hamilton but technically they belonged to Time Computer. There have been several articles about Pulsar and its relationship with Hamilton that is incorrect. It’s easy to see why, it’s taken me years to understand the many corporate hand-offs. So complicated is the history, a separate article covering the Hamilton, Pulsar, and Time Computer transitions will follow soon.

Information about Pulsar . . . . “The Watch That Changed The Way We Tell Time” can be found on the www.oldpulsars.com website.

Dennis L. Klein       © Copyright 2007

About Retroleds

Ed Cantarella has been tinkering with electronics for about 47 years, and vintage digital
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