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News Article
LED watches – futuristic timepieces
By Belladora Maria Ahumada

Timepieces. We wear them, hang them on our walls, tuck them inside our pockets and stare at them by our bedsides. They keep us informed of our daily tasks, and flicker past our lives like the wind. They are collected around the globe and admired with each new design. One watch – the LED – burst right off the movie screen and landed onto our wrists.

LED (light emitting diode) digital watches came on the scene in the early 1970s. These were state of the art watches (although some people call them a computer) using modern electronic micro-circuitry. They had a computerized brain with no moving parts. How could any modern day man in his baby blue leisure suit resist their beckoning charm? These distinctive time machines would light up with ominous red numbers at the push of a button. In the blackness of night they breathed time like the breath of a dragon.

The watch has its beginnings with the movie 2001:Space Odyssey. Science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke and the director Stanley Kubrick needed ultramodern timepieces to blend in with other futuristic props. This opened up the door to the Hamilton Watch Co.

Hamilton, founded in 1892 had become well known for producing high-quality watches, even making chronometer watches for the military in the 1960s. Now, a new creative cutting-edge task was at hand, to create a futuristic model for the motion picture to be used on the spaceship Discovery. The sleek black table clock with glowing orange digits became the product that would set the stage for the LED wristwatch to materialize in real life.

Electro/Data, a small electronics company contacted Hamilton about a prototype they had created of a real working LED clock. These two companies merged on this quest and miniature versions of the prototype were launched in 1970 at a party in New York City. These prototypes were named the Wrist Computer.

This watch version was so complicated with super fine wires and very tiny circuits that failure was basically guaranteed. The battery wore out within a few minutes when the display was held down continuously. By the time the complete presentation and party were over only a couple prototypes were left in working order. One would be sent to Johnny Carson.

On The Late Night Show in 1972, Carson would share with the world the last remaining working prototype. Americans fell in love with it and firms began looking at ways to mass produce the watch.

RCA took on the challenge by converting the complicated circuit system to a simple working product. The Pulsar P1, as it was called, offered four lighting display stages depending on the light needed to read the time through the dark red filter. The first 500 watches cost $700 each to manufacture, but that eventually would become less than $50.

The Pulsar was a worldwide hit. Movie stars, emperors and presidents placed pre-orders, yet all had to wait almost two years to receive this out-of-the-ordinary timepiece. The first series sold out in only three days. Some were made in a solid gold case selling for $2,100. Even with that hefty price they were ordered. A steel case followed shortly for $275. Newspapers played off of the heat and a cartoon of the Statue of Liberty wearing a Pulsar on her wrist soon graced the papers.

Ed Cantarella of knows LEDs inside and out. He is one of the few people who repairs them on a full-time basis. Being a collector, and dealer he knows what both ends need. "A stainless steel P1 in excellent condition without a box, might sell for $1,200," said Cantarella. "But an 18k gold P1, which only 40 are known, could fetch as high as $18,000."

"There is an argument that the Synchronar, a diver’s style watch that was created by USA Inventor Roger Riehi was created first," Cantarella said. "It was solar powered with a completely sealed case. This sealed case has been the Achilles heel. The original Ni-Cad batteries have not stood the test of time, and it is very hard to open the solid Aexan plastic case around the circuitry. Despite all of that, a Synchronar can bring $1,500-$2,500. Even one not in working order but in its presentation box can often bring up to $500."

Early calculator watches are also highly prized. An early Pulsar calculator watch can go from $300 broken and untested to $2,000-plus for a mint condition timepiece with the box. The Hewlett Packard HP-01 has a similar price range, tending more to the higher end. Simpler LED calculator watches by Compu Chron and Mercury, shown prominently on the early Battlestar Gallactica TV shows can range from $500 to $1,600 depending on condition. The Compu Chron are the better of those two models, despite both having identical insides made by Hughes Electronics. A few other companies made LED watches like Texas Instruments and Fairchild in the 1970s. The LED watch lost its place in the market when the LCD (liquid crystal display) came on the scene.

The current market leans toward the angular LEDs. Collectors also favor glass crystals over plastic, intact logos and maker-marked brands. Watches with a screw type battery hatch, which makes it easy for the owner to replace, can add the value up 10 percent or more or more.

Standard, easier to find LEDs such as Helbros will bring $120-$240 if in fine condition with box and paperwork. Longines, another nice watch, can still be found based on condition at $250 – $400.

Cantarella says about the market trends: "Some moan and groan about the market. There has been some softening on no-brand pieces, but name brand items seem to be rising 5-15 percent a year. Like much collecting, the market picks up during the colder months (at least in the northern hemisphere), whilst people are "nesting" and enjoying more esoteric pursuits. My business drops off each summer – fine, I want to enjoy the weather too...without fail, each fall there is a new batch of collectors, in addition to the old ones who are rekindling their interest in timepieces. I personally hope to help strengthen the market through my magazine,, particularly for the new collectors who need some basic information on maintaining their watches. Additionally, the reference site which I also run, along with help to give new collectors and old a sense of community and pride."

The LED watch has made its mark on history and is still highly prized by watch collectors. These collectible pieces of time are part of the modern day era, and like all dreams by mankind they helped change the stage of electronics for the future, and brought an artful flair to the things we cherish today.


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