70s Retro LED watch

70s LED digital watch

Retro style LED watches are now selling on the internet, reviving the original digital watches from the early 70s. The first LED watch was marketed in the US by watchmaker, Hamilton, under the brand name 'Pulsar' in the Fall of 1971. It was originally a high priced gadget; by the end of the decade LED watches were almost throw away items and the more familiar LCD display was gaining ground.


Pulsar digital watch

The first LED watch was a marriage of two technologies, the development of the integrated circuit for the computer industry in the US and the quartz watch movement, originally researched by the Swiss watch making industry in the 60s. The public got their first taste of integrated circuit technology when the first electronic pocket calculators were marketed in 1970. The Japanese firm, Seiko, marketed the world's first analogue quartz watch in 1969, however, it was not a huge success. Longines of Switzerland also announced a quartz watch in 1969, with a promise that it would be in the shops in eighteen months' time.

The first digital watch came along in late 1971. The original Pulsar digital watch was marketed through upmarket jeweller, Tiffany and Co. A solid gold version sold for $2,000 and a stainless steel model for $275.

Digital watches initially caught on only in the US and very few were exported. There was a strong market for them in 1973 and prices dropped quickly. Other firms entered the market, including Bowmar, which also pioneered the early pocket calculators in the US.

LED watches catch on

As the price of digital technology came down there was a rush to embrace the new technology. From 1975 imports of digital watches into the UK were rapidly snapped up and there was a shortage.

Pilfer proof displays allowed the sale of watches to move out of traditional jewellers into supermarkets and newsagents. Willy Herrman, Chairman of the Trafalgar Watch Company, a UK distributor of watches at the cheaper end of the market, sold over 750,000 ordinary watches to Tesco in 1975. Tesco was quick to add digital to its range and took 20,000 for its stores that year.

Sinclair Black digital watch, 1975, copyright Prof.Dr. Jens Kirchhoff, source Wikipedia Commons, image cropped

Sinclair Black Watch

In an effort to replicate his early success with the Sinclair Executive calculator, Clive Sinclair introduced his first and only digital watch, the Sinclair Black watch, right, in 1975. In this highly competitive market, it was not a commercial success.

Trafalgar Watch

Much more successful was Trafalgar's own entry into the digital watch market. Willy Herrman of Trafalgar was a true entrepreneur; he used components and labour from all around the world to produce a stylish watch at a price people could afford. The Trafalgar watches used semiconductors made in California, which were assembled into modules in Bangkok. The modules were then shipped to the UK for final assembly using Swiss cases and Hong Kong-made bracelets.

Swiss manufacturers tended to view the digital watch revolution as a passing fad.  A few though, did embrace the new technology. Microsonic produced a range of stylish LED digital watches in Switzerland.  Omega also introduced digital watches into their range of upmarket timepieces.

Strangely, Japanese makers were also a little slow to catch up with the new technology.  Although a Casio patent for date and time caused problems for the British watch industry in the early 80s. Commodore also produced a range of stylish LED watches in the mid 70s.

LCD digital watches

LED technology was well understood in the 70s. Calculator manufacturers pioneered its use. However, the high battery consumption of LED meant that the display could not be permanently on. The user had to press a button to read the time. The watch mostly displayed a black, blank face to world. It had certain fashion kudos in the early 70s, but it would never be anything more than a fad. Willy Herrman thought battery technology would catch up and that a permanent LED display would be possible.

However, LED was quickly eclipsed by a new technology, the now familiar LCD display, which also started to replace LED calculator displays in the late 70s. Seiko made the world's first LCD digital watch, which they developed jointly with Epson, the Seiko 06LC, in 1973.

In 1976 Ebauches, Switzerland's largest maker of watch parts and a supplier of digital technology to the Swiss industry believed that the days of the LED were limited and that the future lay with LCD. For a brief period the LCD watch became the new status symbol. Like LED, LCD prices dropped and the kudos of owning a digital watch quickly disappeared.

Trafalgar started selling LCD watches from 1977. Another British brand, Ingersoll, with a long history in watch making, started selling LCD watches. They were though, mainly sourced in the Far East.

Soon Hong Kong-made imports dominated the market and digital watches failed to remain fashionable from the early years of the 80s.

70s LED watches on eBay

Can you buy retro watches today?

As well as vintage LED watches from the 70s, there are numerous retro style watches available with LED displays. Casio still manufacture a retro style LCD watch, which could have come from the late 70s, the Casio A163WA. Timex have also introduced a retro LCD watch, available in gold or chrome colour.

More on retro digital watches

This article on Epson's website describes the Seiko 06LC in detail.

See also:

  • Retro collectibles
  • Casio retro digital watches

Your comments on retro digital watches

"I was a director of the Trafalgar Watch Co from 1975. I travelled the world selling Trafalgar LED and LCD watches and later analogue watches. I worked for Willy Herrmann from 1969 to 1981. The early watches that I sold were very well made especially the LED watches." Ron Davis

"Hello. I have a Sinclair Black Watch which I bought new in 1975 (and its box). Nearly all the pictures I have seen on the interweb show a black painted metal strap but mine has a really rubbish plasticky one. Was the metal strap an option or have they been upgraded? I think I'll see if it still works, but even in '75 a trip to the disco used to change the readout to amazing times such as 97:83! Good old Sir Clive." Charles Cooper

Hi Charles, the only other picture of the Sinclair Black watch I have seen is in 'Cult Objects' by Deyan Sudjic, published in 1985, so I guess it is an original from the 70s. It shows the watch with what looks like a black plastic strap. I'd guess the watch in the picture on this page has a replacement strap, but I might me wrong. Retrowow

"In the late 70's or early 80's i had an lcd Timex, it had floating hands. I can't recall the name , maybe illumination? I lost it and i would love to find or at least get some info on it. Ps it ate batteries!!! Thank you Jack" Jack Allenson

"I owned a Trafalgar Space Invaders watch, it was the best watch I ever owned, I have never seen another. Well done trafalgar" martin Hunt

"II inherited an LED Rotary from my granddad. I was just wondering if anyone could value it. It is in good condition and as far as i know still works." Jolyan atkinson

"Does anybody have information or website info for a 70's Tiffany & Co. LED watch? Not the pulsar. A rectangle of stainless steel with the black face and red digital numerical display." Ron

Hi Ron, I think that Tiffany put their own brand on the Pulsar watch. The very early digital watches were considered very precious and it was appropriate for a jeweller of the reputation of Tiffany to sell digital watches. Retrowow

"Hi, I had a Trafalgar World Time digital watch in the 80's, it was a copy of the sought-after Seiko Pan-Am. Fabulous watch, but got stolen. Don't think I've ever gotten over it, and would love to be able to replace it, but alas they never seem to come up for sale." Chopper2456

Check out:

"Hi Everyone, can anyone remember the name given to Dixons digital watches in the ealy 80s. I remember being at Durham Uni when I bought a very heavy stainless Steel bracelet LCD watch from Dixons it had all the applications that modern LCD watches have, but it could also be switched off completely by holding down to of the Buttons. It was very heavy with a squareish case with fluted edging and an almost hexangonal face (oblong with the corners cut off. I would dearly love to get my hands on one of these watches again. Cheers Brian PS anyone out there got one of these watches give me a shout on my email.(brian.pritchard@ yahoo.co.uk)Cheers" brian Pritchard

"I'm trying to find where I can get a replacement battery connector for a 1972 Rotary red LED watch. It was V shaped and pressed down on the two internal batteries with a screw at the bottom of the V. Somehow I've manged to loose this part and would dearly love to get the watch going again." Phil Harrison

"I designed the first watches from Bowmar. We made one for Tiffany & Co. that had their logo etched into the crystal. I still have one plus a number of spare crystals with the Tiffany logo etched into them. I also have copies of the add that appeared in the NY Tiimes on 9/4/74 for $275 in stainless steel. Mine is in gold. The brand name was Regulus by Bowmar." Tim Carmichael

"very informative article on led watches, great effort you really have good knowledge on it, very nice blog , love it!!" LedWatches.info 11/05/2010
"hiya
I'm looking for the metal clip ( holds batts in place ) sinclair black watch
cheers
bob" bob 09/08/2010
"To Brian Pritchard

The Dixons own brand watches were badged as "Odyssey" They were manufactured using Beltime parts and occasionally pop up on E-bay, though they are usually Beltime branded.

Gav" Gav 13/01/2011
"Hi I own the stainless steel watch pictured (with the round face, although I am unsure what size batteries it takes, can any one help? thankyou in advance." Adam 17/01/2011
"I've just inherited a trafalgar digital led watch. I'm curious as to the potential repair cost on one of these? As of yet I've not found pictures of any watches that resemble this one, but I do know that it was one of the first models made!" Nick 15/02/2011
"hi i have an old timex led watch and cant find a value its early 70s can anybody with info email me thanks" victor 17/03/2011
"Thanks to eBay, I've now bought a replacement for my beloved Trafalgar world time digital! Woohoo! However, the LCD screen is cracked & beyond repair. So anyone out there who has a spare module or screen, let me know. Meanwhile, I have cleaned the case & band, and fitted a generic module to the watch, so it's now wearable. Old watches never die!" Chopper2456 28/11/2011
"@Martin Hunt: I have one too!!! More impressively, it still works to this day. My kids were playing with it a few weeks ago and enjoying it! And the La Cucaracha alarm tune is still as teeth grindingly awful as ever!" Alistair Taylor 22/01/2012
"I have the pleasure of owning an origional intex 1975 quarts watch which belonged to my grandfather but I am having a problem with the display when viewed acasionaly the mumbers will appear wrong ie. a five can appear as a six or a nine as an eight would there be a way to fix this problem" robert johnson 18/03/2012
"I wonder if you can assist me?


I was purchased the above watch by my parents back in 1978 when i was 21 and wondered if you could assist me in locating a two button module that would fit into the case as my module has been broken years ago and I would like to wear it to my parents 60 wedding anniversary.

The module inside has the following writing on the outside
NO 0 JEWELES UNADJUSTED
23074
MADE IN SINGAPORE FOR CRONUS

It has two battery compartments, two control buttons, it is round 25mm outside diameter 5.45mm thick, central position for the two control buttons is set at approximately 12mm space apart.
Batteries were RW44's

If you could assist me it would make my parents happy i'm sure, please could you let me know if you can advise me and or let me know of potential cost for said mechanism?

Thank you in advance" Clive Day 24/09/2012
"Hi, in the mid 70:s i bought a lcd/led?watch fron h samuels jewellers Wolverhampton.I have lost the back case & the make of the watch is not clear,can anyone help to restore please?." brian grice 04/10/2012
"Can anyone tell me the name of the led watches H.SAMUEL sold in the 70s.I have lost the back from my watch &need a replacement" briangrice38@blueyonder.co.uk 16/11/2012
"does anyone no decimo digital watch uk made luton beds as i have a mint boxed one" stu fully 04/12/2012
"I know it's an ancient post but yes,the painted stainless strap on the Sinclair Black watch was an optional extra.I bought it when young but now it's too small,and I've lost the links I took out boo!" Jem 03/02/2013
"Hi can anybody tell me what size battery the led wow uses?" Adam 15/02/2013
"Hi Adam, I think it will depend on the watch. Does your watch have a an old battery in it? Can you find an equivalent. Or you might be able to to find the manual online somewhere. best regards." Steven 16/02/2013
"Looking to buy an Sinclair LED watch, or a strap for the watch too.
Please e-mail me at: harryegret@gmail.com
Will buy in any condition." Harry Egre 18/03/2013
"@Alistair Taylor - Ha Ha Ha - That tune always made me smile... glad to hear someone else had one as well, hope the kids enjoy it?" Martin Hunt 28/07/2013
" I have a omega computer 2 I chipped the crystal
Can anyone tell me where I can purchase one or who might make me a replacement" Anthony ford 14/08/2013
"I have a Casio 95QR 31 LCD watch that I bought in 1979. Around 3 years ago, 2010, I thought it was dying because some of the pixel bars were not displaying, thinking it was the display - 8 was showing as 6. Eventually it all went blank, and I left it for 3 years. Earlier this week I took the watch to a shop, and had a new battery put in, and had some corrosion around the battery connection cleaned off. It is now working fine, with a proper display. That's 34 years going strong." Tim Barrow 28/09/2013
"Searching for a battery clip for a Sinclair Black watch and the modern day equivalent type / number for the batteries - here's hoping !!!" Colin 30/10/13 30/10/2013
"
Hi guys, thank you for the information
I'm actually came in possess of a Plustron watch model 601.
It doesn't work, but i think it may be the internal cricuit.
There are the two battery spaces in the middle and on each side two holes. One for the quartz and the other one is empty, so i think it's missing a component.
Is possible to have the circuit layout?

Thank you" Claudio 01/11/2013
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