Long before the Apple watch came on the scene, the first digital-display electronic timepiece ever made was the U.S.-made Pulsar P1, which the Hamilton Watch Company debuted in 1972.
Previewed on The Tonight Show two years before that — where a skeptical Johnny Carson declared, “This will never put Mickey Mouse out of business” — it launched in a limited edition of 400 at a price tag of $2,100 (which then cost more than the average family car). It was made of solid gold and powered by two batteries. The red LED time display worked only when the wearer pushed a button, as having the light-emitting diodes on continuously would have quickly drained the batteries.
The watch, which was set using a special magnet, heralded the advent of the whole host of wearable and portable digital gadgetry consumers rely on today. Though the watch only told time, the press announcement for the Pulsar — named after the neutron stars that have regular rotational periods — proclaimed it a “solid-state wrist computer.” With its space-age design — inspired by a prototype clock that Hamilton had built special order for Stanley Kubrick for 2001: A Space Odyssey (it was never shown in the film) — it was also cool. Stars, including Elvis Presley (who wore Hamilton’s Ventura watch in the 1961 film Blue Hawaii), Sammy Davis Jr. and Yul Brynner, snapped it up. Very few of those original 400 survive.
A year later, Hamilton brought out the successor P2 model, with a more rounded case and at a more accessible price point ($275 for the steel version). It was seen on James Bond in the film Live and Let Die, where Roger Moore conspicuously demonstrated, twice, how to use the button to show the time. In recent years, Knives Out director Rian Johnson spotted one on John Huston in the Orson Welles experimental film The Other Side of the Wind, which was released in 2018. Johnson tracked down a vintage one and purchased it, though it doesn’t work. Other fans at the time included Peter Sellers, Elton Johnson, Keith Richards and President Gerald Ford.
By the late ’70s, LED watches faltered as status symbols, as prices for competitor models fell as low as $20 and LCD (liquid crystal display) technology later came to the fore. And the Pulsar name was eventually sold to Seiko, which still produces watches under that moniker, though they are mostly analogue, not digital, display timepieces.
Now Hamilton — whose watches have appeared in over 500 movies including Interstellar, The Martian and all four Men in Black films — has released a very cool and nearly faithful reinterpretation, the retro-futuristic Hamilton PSR in the same cushion shape and dimensions, 40.88-by-34.70 mm, as the original Pulsar P2. Unlike the original, the new PSR has a display that’s always on (an LCD function), but it also has a button to make the display flash brighter (via OLED lighting), a clever way to capture the functionality of the ’70s-era watches. Water resistant to 100 meters, the new PSR comes in two versions, stainless steel ($745) or coated in gold PVD in a limited edition of 1,970 ($995).