70s Retro LED 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 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.
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
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: Trafalgar watches on eBay
"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