The Hamilton Electric 500: Rhodri Marsden's Interesting Objects No.94

The Electric 500 was the first watch to have "smooth, tireless electric power"

Rhodri Marsden
Saturday 02 January 2016 01:36
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An advertisement placed in National Geographic heralded the arrival of "the first basic improvement in 477 years of watchmaking history". This was the Electric 500, the world's first watch to have "smooth, tireless electric power".

The proud pioneers, the Pennsylvania-based firm Hamilton, unveiled it this weekend in 1957 in New York. A gushing report in the following day's New York Times spoke of how this watch "eliminates the mainspring, [which] has supplied or stored the power for portable timepieces since its invention in 1480."

Hamilton thus banished to history the monotonous chore of watch-winding, and was keen to stress this benefit to the public who, it hoped, were sick to the back teeth of twiddling a small button. "A single miniature energy cell does all the work," boasted the advert.

The only problem was that the watch wasn't really ready to be launched. Hamilton had been developing a battery-powered watch since 1946, but it was the rumour that rivals Elgin were about to launch one that finally forced Hamilton to act. In the event, the operation of the Electric 500 was neither smooth, nor tireless. The long contact wires inside the watch tended to get bent or jammed, and the company was swamped with complaints.

They would go on to introduce more reliable models, but many people decided that winding a watch was probably less hassle than getting an electric one serviced. Their appearance, however, ensured some notoriety. The asymmetrical "Ventura" model, by industrial designer Richard Arbib, was worn by Elvis Presley in Blue Hawaii in 1961, and in 1966 Stanley Kubrick approached Hamilton to produce bespoke timepieces for 2001: A Space Odyssey. The advent of quartz timing ultimately killed off the electric watch after fewer than 12 years, with Hamilton ceasing production in 1969.

@rhodri

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