Pulsar P1 & P2 quartz wristwatch

Classic Projects: Pulsar P1 & P2 quartz wristwatch

What was so great about the Pulsar digital watch?

The world's first digital electronic quartz watch, the'Pulsar P1, was one of the earliest consumer products of the 1970s microelectronics revolution. Manufactured by the Hamilton Watch Company in conjunction with Electro-Data, the first prototype made its public debut on the 'Tonight Show' in the early 1970s. Host Johnny Carson remarked that at $1,500 (the projected price for the initial production models), this would be the watch that would tell you the precise moment you went bankrupt.

In fact, the first Pulsar P1 models, the limited edition luxury version of which was resplendent in an 18-carat gold case, came to market at a whopping $2,100. This was $150 more than the top of the range Rolex. To put this in context, you could buy a small car for the same price. The mass-produced entry-level P2 version modestly came in under the $400 mark.

It was the semiconductor producers rather than watch manufacturers who took best advantage of the electronic revolution. While prices remained initially resolutely high, they soon cascaded, with low-end watches bottoming out at around the $10 mark.

But the big problem for digital watch pioneers at any point on the spectrum was that they simply weren't able to produce much bang for your buck. Power consumption in early models such as the Pulsar brand was so high that there was no way of keeping the display on permanently. To view the time wearers had to press a button that lit up the power-hungry red LEDs for 1.25 seconds (early display models would routinely use up several batteries in a single press conference). This made the simple task of telling the time a cumbersome two-handed process that seemed to be a step back from merely glancing at the elegant face of an analogue watch.

But this was the space age, and the digital revolution would not be slowed down by such trivialities. As design engineers set about solving the issue, Pulsar received the ultimate product placement, featuring in the opening scenes of the 1973 Bond movie 'Live and Let Die'. With Roger Moore wearing your product, you could be sure that your time had come and the age of the digital wristwatch had arrived. Actors and rock stars flocked to be among the first to wear the exciting new technology that was named after a celestial body, the pulsating star.

The earliest digital watches were deceptively simple, made up of effectively a logic circuit with a crystal, battery and display. While undoubtedly large and unwieldy, the best of them were accurate to a mind-boggling minute per year. Standard analogue watches could be relied on to a quarter of a minute per day ' barely in the same ballpark. The Pulsar was the most accurate item of consumer instrumentation on the planet.

Power issues were resolved by improved battery technology coupled with the switch from LED to liquid crystal displays. This meant that designs could be loaded with features such as stopwatches, calendars and calculators. By the end of the 1970s there were some 40'manufacturers producing 90 different brands, the cheapest of which were well within the fiscal grasp of virtually everyone in the Western world.

But times change and a growing nostalgia for the friendly face of the analogue watch meant that while electronic timekeeping was here to stay, the popularity of the digital display that had originally caught the public's imagination in Stanley Kubrick's '2001: A Space Odyssey' was on the wane. The circular analogue face with moving hands came back into fashion, where it remains today.

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