There was a time, believe it or not, when American watchmaking reigned supreme. It was back when watches made by Elgin, Hamilton, Illinois, and Waltham were the envy of the Swiss watch industry. This wasn’t yesterday but between one hundred and one hundred and twenty years ago; most people today probably don’t even know this.
The American watchmakers mastered automation at the tail end of the nineteenth century and began producing watches in a volume that was untouchable by the Swiss industry. The product they produced was so reliable that for a time counterfeits were imported from Switzerland. The Americans’ technological lead in this highly competitive industry eroded quickly however, and by the dawn of World War II the companies above were in a merciless battle with the Swiss for industry dominance. Illinois was the first to fall, being purchased by Hamilton in 1928 and closing up shop entirely during the 1930’s.
The arrival of World War II caused most of the remaining American watchmakers to cease production of watches for the commercial market and focus their manufacturing acumen towards the war effort. Switzerland, being a neutral country, was able to continue commercial production and filled the vacuum the Americans left behind. This was by no means the death knell for American watchmaking but it is often pointed to as the beginning of a slow and steady decline in American watchmaking.
Waltham declared bankruptcy in 1949 and thereafter the name only appeared on imported watches. Elgin ended domestic production of watches in 1968 with Hamilton following suit in 1969. There may be some gray area here when determining at exactly what point American watchmaking ceased (there’s still Bulova and Timex and other some other smaller watchmakers to consider) but for all intents and purposes the Americans ran up the white flag in the mid-sixties.
But the Swiss were’t able to rest on their laurels. The Japanese watch company, Seiko, introduced the first quartz watch, the Astron-35SQ, in 1969. Shortly afterwards, Hamilton, still an American based company, developed the Pulsar LED (Light Emitting Diode) watch and brought it to market in 1970. The Pulsar utilized the same quartz technology for timekeeping and this caught the Swiss, who were wizards of mechanical watchmaking, off guard. They entered into a period of crisis as more and more ultra-accurate quartz watches flooded the market.
The watch I have here today is one produced during this period of upheaval by National Semiconductor of Santa Clara, California. Below is the NSC WM09N711 LED watch.
I picked this little guy up in a grab bag of watches; it came with several others, some mechanical, some quartz, and some electric. As always the case, it was broken when it got to me. The pusher used to activate the display was missing.
Speaking of the time in which this watch was produced I’ll be honest, I know a little bit about this period of upheaval in watchmaking, it’s commonly referred to as the Quartz Crisis, but I didn’t know that the beginning was a boon for American companies. You see, what I knew of the story was that Seiko introduced the quartz watch and the public clamored for more. Mechanical watches were out, quartz watches were in and this was devastating to the Swiss watch industry which was ill prepared for the rapid obsolescence of mechanical watches.
I’ve since learned that the Swiss were just as determined as the Japanese to get quartz watches to the market. Unfortunately they were at a disadvantage as microelectronics were not an established or even a burgeoning industry in Switzerland. The United States, on the other hand, was in a prime position to capitalize on this new form of watchmaking.
Hamilton led the charge with their Pulsar brand, which in the beginning sold for as much as a Rolex. Celebrities flocked to it, including the President of the United States of America. When other electronics companies realized they already had the manufacturing know-how to produce these in demand digital quartz watches, they immediately followed suit and Hamilton’s brief monopoly ended. Soon Commodore International, National Semiconductor, and Texas Instruments- all firms who could produce their own electronic components, entered the arena. The price of digital quartz watches plummeted bringing the majority of the watch industry with it.
These new “digital watches” used LED (light emitting diode) displays. The digital layout made reading the time so easy that even children who hadn’t learned to read a clock could read the time from one.
But the light emitting diodes needed a lot of power to operate and so the display could not remain lit at all times or it would drain the batteries too quickly. Instead a button would need to be pressed to display the time. This turned out to be LED watches’ Achilles heel. Seiko famously rejected LED displays as a fad and pushed forward with low power Liquid Crystal Display (LCD) watches which used much less power. Those with LED watches would often be irritated to find the batteries in their watch dead again. History would prove Seiko’s gamble paid off.
When I removed the Caseback from the my watch I found it takes no less than two batteries! Instead of a movement it has what I would call a “timekeeping module” which has no moving parts- just microelectronics. It takes two 386 silver oxide batteries to operate. The batteries power the quartz oscillator, the circuitry necessary to mathematically calculate a unit of time from the number of oscillations, and the LED display.
The module comes easily out of the case as there are no case clamps or retaining rings to hold it in place. The spring on the back of the module has a double purpose- it holds the module tight in the case and also acts as the circuit’s ground/earth connection.
Out of the case there isn’t a lot to see- most of the microelectronics are hidden from view within the molded plastic which makes up the module. On the face we can make out the time display which is made of four seven-segment displays and two LEDs which display the dots between the hours and minutes.
The area of the face which is not part of the display is masked by foil tape which is painted black. I made the mistake of trying to clean this area with a bit of isopropyl alcohol on a cotton swab and instead removed all of the black pigment from the foil. Oops! The display portion of the module is usually viewed through a ruby colored crystal and the black pigment simply creates the illusion of a void around the displayed time.
The crystal is plastic and time had not been kind to it, so I removed it from the watch case and went to work with a bit of 2000 grit sand paper. As far as I know these ruby crystals cannot be sourced so I was going to have to clean up the original.
The crystal got a once over with sandpaper before I moved to polishing it with a bit of acrylic polishing compound. You can get polishing compound from Amazon under the brand PolyWatch but I’ve invested in a much larger volume through my parts vendor. When you have a lot of it you’ll find that you use it everywhere- I’ve even polished the headlights on my wife’s Mini Cooper. With a bit of elbow grease the crystal was ready to go back into the case.
Returning to the timekeeping module there wasn’t much I could do other cross my fingers and hope there were not any failed components inside. Integrated circuits have come a long way from the 1970’s and NSC exited the consumer watch market a long time ago so there would be no replacement parts available now.
Turning the module in my fingers I noticed the side was printed Malaysia, No Jewels. The second part of this made perfect sense- there’s no moving parts so there’s no need for jeweled bushings, but the first part was a bit amusing.
Marketing speak should always be received with a bit of side-eye. Products that proudly display the “Made in the USA” print have to meet some pretty stringent requirements set by the Federal Trade Commission- virtually all parts must be manufactured in the United States. Here we have a watch where the case came from Switzerland and the insides came from Malaysia so it does not meet the criteria to be labeled Made in the USA. Yet this particular period in history is considered an American watchmaking renaissance… but it wasn’t like the old days where a US based company using US based engineers and US based manufacturing produced a Made in the USA watch.
If you’re an American, then we’ll have to lower our expectations here a bit and take pride in what we can. For me, being born in Santa Clara and growing up in Silicon Valley during the boom years, it means something that a Santa Clara based company brought this little piece to market during a point when consumer timekeeping was being revolutionized.
It’s not a terribly impressive watch though. I think this one probably came along at the tail end of the LED watch bubble. It didn’t take long for prices to come crashing down and by the end of the 1970’s all those electronic companies that jumped into watchmaking were jumping out. This watch, with its inexpensive plated case and outsourced parts probably was released when LED watches were going for ten to twenty dollars apiece instead of the high end prices Hamilton initially commanded with their Pulsar.
Being unimpressive was the least of its problems today though. As I stated earlier you had to press a button on the watch in order for the time to display and the button had been lost to time. I measured up the hole that remained in the case and ordered a new pusher (button) from Jules Borel.
While I waited for the pusher to arrive I repainted the foil on the face of the watch with matte black paint from a rattle can. This was a bit of a fidgety process as I had to mask the display window carefully with Kapton tape, but the end result was nearly perfect.
When the button arrived I pushed it into the case using my small bench vise and reinstalled the timekeeping module. I added two Renata 386 batteries- it took me a long time to figure out what batteries were supposed to go in this watch as there’s no notation either on the module nor Caseback.
To my delight the display lit up immediately once the Caseback was tightened down (the Caseback must be installed to ground the circuit). In addition to the typical clock function this watch also has a calendar and will display elapsed seconds; time and date are set using the smaller recessed button on the side of the case.
I’ve given it a bit of time to run and have noted that it runs a little fast- about two minutes in a month. This may be because I’ve left it on the workbench in the garage and it’s been pretty warm in there the past month (I’m not sure how much temperature impacts quartz timekeeping) or it may be that it needs to be regulated. In the end I don’t think it really matters because this watch will get very little wrist time which is typical of all the watches I work on.
This project in particular was more about watchmaking history than understanding engineering. As a society we’ve moved from mechanical to LED to LCD and finally OLED (organic light emitting diode) watches and today people wear everything from vintage mechanical watches to cutting end wrist computers. A few years ago Apple was the dominant brand in the watch market, that probably has not changed. Oddly there have been many points in horological history when we thought the good old mechanical watch had reached its sunset.
There is a bit more to this story that I’ll feature in an upcoming post which may include an actual unboxing video of the first new watch I’ve picked up in roughly thirty years. The connection between this NSC LED watch and my newest acquisition can be inferred from the video below (you may have to brush up on your French) but I’ll soon fill in the blanks. Always more to come!