The original smartwatch is back


“From time to time we show new products, but this is wild.” So said a grainy, black-and-white Johnny Carson on NBC’s Tonight Show on May 5, 1970, beamed across the US on the eve of Hamilton Watch Company’s biggest ever launch, back in 1970: the world’s first digital electronic wristwatch. “It will sell, I’m told, for $1,500,” said Carson. “So this watch can tell you the exact moment you went bankrupt.”

In fact, the ‘Pulsar Time Computer’ that eventually came to market two years later cost even more than that – a cool $2,100 in gold, exclusively from Tiffany’s, which amounts to over $13,000 adjusting for inflation. Even taking into account the bulk of precious metal, the net cost for what it contained – technology less sophisticated than the LCD toys found in cereal boxes a decade later – still seems keen to say the least.


But Hamilton’s price setters were justified – the watchmaker of Lancaster, Pennsylvania gave Johnny Carson the scoop on what was the Apple Watch of its day. It switched up quartz technology, pioneered for wristwatches by Seiko only a year earlier, with a cutting-edge combination of miniaturised logic board and red light-emitting-diode (LED) display that was activated at the push of a button (it sapped too much power to be permanently viewable). Holding the button for longer would reveal the seconds counting away.

Eventually, in 1973, the Pulsar P2 came out in steel, lending even more groove to Hamilton’s funkadelic space-age design, and – crucially – dropping the price tag to a more accessible (but still not-insignificant) $275, or $1,700 in today’s money. Jack Nicholson snapped one up, as did Elton John and Keith Richards. It was a fleeting glimpse, but even James Bond couldn’t resist swapping his standard-issue Rolex for a Pulsar at the start of Live and Let Die

(trust Roger Moore to style it out in a decidedly non-space-age monogrammed bath robe).

Half a century on from Hamilton’s showstopping reveal, the brand – now based in Switzerland as part of the Swatch Group – has listened to fans and delivered: a like-for-like reissue of the funky P2 in both PVD-coated yellow gold (€945, limited to 1,970 pieces) and stainless-steel (€695).

It retains the push-to-view system on a display that’s now a hybrid of OLED and LCD, meaning the time is at least permanently visible in daylight conditions. As with the original, a magnet embedded in the button closes a “reed switch” inside when brought into proximity.

With the new version, you no longer set the time and date using a magnetic bar hidden in the clasp, and the watch is renamed the PSR, since Hamilton no longer retains the “Pulsar” trademark. Nonetheless, fifty years later, Johnny Carson is still right: the Hamilton PSR is wild.

More great stories from WIRED

🇸🇪 Not every country treated the pandemic the same – did Sweden’s Covid-19 experiment work?

💬 This AI Telegram bot has been abusing thousands of women

🧥 Apple’s new phones have arrived: Should you get the iPhone 12 or iPhone 12 Pro?

🔊 Listen to The WIRED Podcast, the week in science, technology and culture, delivered every Friday

👉 Follow WIRED on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and LinkedIn