TCS Daily


Wrist Action

By Ralph Kinney Bennett - January 17, 2007 12:00 AM

Are you wearing a wrist watch right now? It's almost certainly an electronic watch; quartz movement; maybe digital or maybe analog. It's incredibly accurate and unless you prefer to spend thousands on a wrist watch, incredibly cheap.

The technology on your wrist is more amazing than you may know - the culmination of a half century of time piece development that has given the common man accuracy and reliability not even available to those rich enough to afford the finest work of Swiss watchmakers.

And it all started fifty years ago this month, in January 1957, in Lancaster, Pa., when the Hamilton Watch Co. introduced the Ventura - the first electric watch.

Its striking asymmetrical case (vaguely triangular in a Salvador Dali sort of way - see here) was the work of noted industrial designer Richard Arbib. But despite its avant appearance, the Ventura was actually a finely made conventional mechanical watch, the first to have its movement powered by a battery rather than a mainspring.

Hamilton had spent considerable time trying to refine and further miniaturize the tiny batteries first developed for military use during World War II. Finally it turned to the National Carbon Co. (later Union Carbide), whose scientists and engineers produced a tiny leak-proof marvel of constant voltage that Time magazine described as "a shirt-button-sized 1.5 volt battery."

The key part of the Ventura (officially known as the Hamilton Model 500) was the electrical contact assembly that transmitted the battery's power to the watch's balance wheel and gear train. It consisted of two wires, five times finer than a human hair, which had to be adjusted to extremely precise parameters of tension, length, angle and position inside the watch.

The microscopic contact points provided by these two fine wires made and broke an electric circuit five times a second - 18,000 times an hour - to power the Model 500's movement. The inevitable wear on the contact points meant that the Hamilton Ventura had to be overhauled every two or three years, a common maintenance routine for fine watches, electrical or not.

Rene Rondeau, a noted watchmaker and collector and perhaps the world's leading authority on Hamilton electric watches, notes that periodic adjustment of these delicate contacts "is a time consuming, painstaking process which requires a great deal of skill and experience," but once the contacts have been properly adjusted "the watch can run quite reliably for many years." But very few watchmakers ever mastered the skill necessary to deal with the Model 500's microscopic wires.

Hamilton's Ventura was an instant sensation among those who wanted the latest technology. But in order to be first, Hamilton had gambled on the Ventura at a time when microelectronics technology was developing rapidly. Transistors were just coming into their own, making their first big impression on the public in increasingly smaller portable radios. With the relatively complex Ventura, Hamilton had not envisioned transistors becoming small enough soon enough to be used in watches.

As the field of microelectronics burgeoned, other watchmakers were trying to ride a technological wave they could only dimly gauge. At Elgin, engineers were betting on a tiny atomic battery to power an electronic watch. At Bulova, work focused on the arcane field of piezoelectricity and the result was an important breakthrough for simplicity of operation - a little horseshoe of special nickel alloy which was set vibrating at a high frequency by the current from a small battery. The Bulova Accutron watch did not come out until 1960, but it was a sensation, incorporating transistors instead of the wear-vulnerable electrical contacts of the Hamilton.

The Accutron's accuracy and trouble-free reliability made it fashionable at NASA and the watches became favorites of the first astronauts. Meanwhile, the popularity of both the Hamilton and Bulova watches caused a firestorm of fear in Switzerland, which was still the unchallenged leader in high quality watches. Swiss watchmakers banded together to fund research on electronic watches. The research soon focused on another medium of high-frequency oscillation - the quartz crystal.

Back in the 1920s, a brilliant Canadian émigré named Warren Marrison was working in the Bell Telephone Laboratories in New Jersey. He was concentrating on how to maintain and monitor the stable electrical frequencies so vital to both telephone and radio communication. His interest in piezoelectricity led him to the strikingly regular vibrations achieved with quartz crystals. In 1927 he built an extremely accurate quartz crystal clock at Bell Labs.

Marrison's clock and other follow-on instruments proved that quartz oscillators were more accurate than the superb movements of the "time standard" mechanical clocks used in astronomical observatories. Many "clock nuts" harrumphed at the new technology but by the end of the 1940s virtually every time standard laboratory in the world had switched to quartz clocks.

By 1967, ten years after the advent of the Hamilton Ventura, the Swiss had come up with the world's first miniature quartz watch movement. They had been greatly aided by continuing rapid advances in microelectronics, particularly printed circuits, which made the rest of the watch's works so small that there was plenty of room for the quartz oscillator.

But, incredibly, the Swiss, so wedded to centuries of mechanical watch technology, remained tentative about quartz movements, believed they would be a passing fad and did not boldly market their new technology. You snooze, you lose. In Japan, Seiko's engineers and scientists not only took note of the Swiss work but improved on it. On Christmas Day, 1969, Seiko proudly announced the world's first commercially available quartz wristwatch - the 35SQ Astron.

Don't run to your sock drawer because you think you just might have an old Astron back in there somewhere. This rather fat, ugly and expensive ($1250) watch proved to be full of bugs. Seiko stopped production after turning out only about 100 of them.

But the Astron had whetted the market's appetite. Seiko and other Japanese rivals went at horological microelectronics with a happy vengeance. American makers were close behind and throughout the 1970s consumers were rewarded with ever lighter, slimmer, more accurate, reliable and versatile electronic watches at ever lower prices. Even the Swiss finally woke up, but not before a number of watchmakers went under.

It was Hamilton which led the way in the next big advance in electronic watches. In 1972 it introduced the Pulsar, the first digital watch. Rather than a complex work of hundreds of small pieces, it had only four basic parts - the battery, the quartz crystal oscillator, printed circuitry for the electronics and its unique time display.

The Pulsar cost $2,100. On the side of its 18-carat gold case was a little button. When you pressed it, a red light emitting diode (LED) in a tiny rectangular display on the watch face showed you the DIGITAL time.

Digital! For better or for worse, digital. Everybody went crazy over digital watches, but it was an expensive craze. Within three years of the introduction of the Pulsar there were at least 80 varieties of digital watches on the market, but they were still very costly - usually hundreds on up to thousands of dollars. Then came Texas Instruments.

In 1975, Texas Instruments introduced a plastic-cased quartz LED watch for $20. They halved the price the following year. Other semiconductor companies jumped into the watch business. In one of those wonderful serendipities of the market, extremely accurate quartz timekeeping - with digital display, no less - came within reach of every man and woman.

Of course every man and woman still had to use two hands to tell the time. You had to press a button to light up the display. The LED displays, using aluminum gallium arsenide (red) or gallium nitride (green), soaked up too much battery power to be constantly "on." Helpfully, Hamilton modified its Pulsar so you only had to shake your wrist to light up the display.

But research into liquid crystals was already coming to the rescue. Seiko led the way with first liquid crystal display (LCD) wristwatch in 1973. It was also the first to have a six figure display, thus allowing us to keep track of the seconds as well as the minutes of our lives. Now the LCD black digits on a gray background are commonplace.

When I was kid back in the '50s we all marveled at comic page detective Dick Tracy's "wrist radio" and wondered if it would ever be possible. When his wrist radio became a wrist television, we thought that a stretch too far. Now, of course, anything seems possible, and affordable. The first digital watch with a television screen was introduced by Seiko in 1982. Other watches had thermometers, language translators, anything that could be digitized. By 1995 it was possible to download files from your computer onto your watch. It is already possible for your watch to be a laptop (wristop?) Who knows what microelectronic wonders lie ahead - at a flick of your wrist.


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11 Comments

This is a story about better, faster and cheaper...
When culture achieves the mythical better, faster and cheaper breakthrough this is what it looks like. Digital watches that come in Cracker Jack boxes.

We like to think of these advancements as being primarily technical. And, indeed, we all hope that science will momentarily deliver such a solution regarding energy. Of course, we may be trusting that something is out there waiting to be discovered (within the next century)...and there simply isn't any technology out there hiding.

Nevertheless, I think we may be close to a fundamental breakthrough in global society. The Cold War has been over since 1991 and that is coincidentally the same year that we established a policy (that we would enforce) outlawing military imperialism by tossing Saddam Hussein back out of Kuwait. The institution of sovereignty itself must evolve now and we are doing a great deal of thinking about that. And about the role of global financial capitalism in the Post Industrial Society.

We are pointing at the other guys too much and saying that they are the problem. Let's just solve our mutual problems, shake hands and all go have a beer.

For example. If there are starving people anywhere in the world then their government has forfeited enough of its sovereignty that we get to intrude across their borders to the location of the starving people wherever they are and we get to feed them. If we are willing to go wherever we want to kill bad people then we should be willing to go wherever we want to save innocent human lives. Then we may have earned our beer.

LEDs for wrist watches
This artilce claims that the LEDs used in 1970s wrist watches were made from either aluminum gallium arsenide (red) or gallium nitride (green).

However, gallium nitride LEDs were only invented in the mid 1990s. In fact, this material is still relatively difficult to manufacture - the recent delays of the Sony Play Station 3 are caused by problems associated with making blue lasers from this material.

I expect the green LEDs were made from nitrgen-doped gallium phosphide.

evolving technology
Like watches our capability is the result of technological improvements. With progress the inevitable global breakthroughs will occur.

Amazing
Interesting, one of the readers at this blog actually knew that gallium nitride wasn't used until the 1990's.

speaking of great advances - - - -
Thanks to TCS & Bennett. Great article, great comments!

I want to hear more about that atomic battery that Elgin was working on.
Can't imagine that ever getting past today's safety *****.

I love my cheap LCD watch that...
...gets the time from the atomic clock in Colorado.

It cost me about $15.

does the atomic clock use an atomic battery?
;*)

Does Atom Ant use an atomic battery?
:*O

criminal mususe of the language - - - -
Not to worry, Mark. Atomic clocks & watches have nothing to do with 'atomic' anything. Commercially, that means they are automatically set and kept in exquisite accuracy, by radio signals from Ft. Collins, Colorado.

Not to take anything away from the process. I use an inexpensive, ~#80, Casio watch, which I love. It is also powered by ambient light, so needs no batteries. The perfect lazy man's watch. My clocks are also "atomic" welcome to the new age.

never said they did
My comments were about batteries, not watches.
Unless you are claiming that atomic batteries are being powered by a particular radio station in Colorado?

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