Looking back, it sounds almost ridiculous. Watches with technology that hadn’t been worn on the wrist before cost hundreds of dollars more than a classic wristwatch. And at the same time, this bizarre futuristic gadget can not even continuously show the time.
No, I’m not talking about the original Apple Watch. I’m talking about the Pulsar Time Computer, the first commercial digital watch released back in the 1970s by Hamilton. And despite the 50-year difference, Pulsar Time predicted the same problems we still struggle with in our smartwatches and solved them the same way as they do now – with a button.
The original Pulsar was a revolutionary device, so cool and futuristic that it even appeared in the movie “Live or Let Die” on the arm of James Bond, played by Roger Moore. But they had a big drawback – the LED technology that Hamilton used at Pulsar was too energy-intensive for the watch to glow constantly. To solve this problem, the manufacturer resorted to a very analog method: to see the time on the LED screen of the watch, it was necessary to press a physical button. Later models will retain the same solution, but will also support turning on the screen by the movement of the wrist.
That single button did all the hard work. Hamilton engineers had to create a new way of setting the time without rotating clock heads or gears, like traditional wristwatches. Pressing and holding a single key put the clock into time-setting mode. This system is still used in most digital watches and has hardly changed in decades.
The good news for today’s smartwatches is that the problem with the Pulsar’s autonomy has proven to be surmountable. Liquid crystal displays appeared and the transition to them made it possible to create watches with less energy-intensive displays. Modern digital watches offer accurate timing superior to the best Swiss watches and are capable of displaying time around the clock for many years before they need a battery replacement.
But technology, like everything else, is cyclical, and so decades after Hamilton struggled to squeeze as much as possible into a tiny form factor that fits on its wrist, we’re still trying to do the same with today’s smartwatches.
The first-generation Android Wear and Apple Watch, released in 2014 and 2015 respectively, suffered from the same limitation as Pulsar did years ago: they couldn’t keep their displays on all the time. Despite the development of modern technology, the first generations of smartwatches were forced to use the same solution as Pulsar, including the dial only by raising the wrist or pressing a button. Until last year, Apple addressed this issue by optimizing display settings and battery so that the screen stays on all the time without sacrificing the apple watch’s broader functionality.
Even the equipment of the watch itself has passed a full cycle of development. While the Pulsar LED display was too energy-intensive for the 70s of the last century, it’s descendant in the face of the OLED panel with its bright colours and deep black colour is ideal for today’s smartwatch.
Interestingly, both of these technologies formed the basis of the upgraded Hamilton PSR, a remake of the original Pulsar released in 2020. Out of respect for users’ requirement that wristwatches always display the time, they have a hybrid screen of LCD and OLED panels. Most of the time, the LCDs the time, but when you press the button, the watch screen will flash brightly, as on the original model of half a century ago.
Source: The Verge.