Before quartz watches, before Bulova Accutrons, there was the watch that started it all: the Hamilton electric. It is loved by many, hated by others. Few watches evoke such polar opposites in opinion among vintage wrist watch collectors. But one thing is undeniable. It is history. It was the first wrist watch to use an electrical power source rather than a coiled piece of spring steel. And, in so doing, Hamilton started the electro-mechanical and electronic revolution that, for better or worse, dominates the consumer wrist watch market today.
The fact that Hamilton electrics are history is one reason they are so
popular, especially the rare models. The more common models, such as the "Titan" and the many variations of the "Nautilus" are relatively easy to find (despite the fact that not many were made). But try to find an "Altair" or even a "Ventura" in good condition. It's getting
Without question, the other major reason for their popularity is their
styling. That Hamilton, a company known throughout its history as a
bastion of conservatism, came out with such radically designed cases is a miracle in itself. But Hamilton, realizing its invention was truly revolutionary, hired one of the most creative minds in the business to design some of its cases -- Richard Arbib. Arbib was head of a New York design firm who worked with a variety of high-profile companies including General Motors. His sketches resulted in some of the most notable "eccentric" Hamilton electrics, including the Ventura, Vega (with a trapezoid-shape case) and the oval-cased Spectra.
The race to produce the world's first electric watch began in 1952 when John Van Horn, Hamilton's chief physicist, began to work on the project. It was a response to an announcement by the Elgin Watch Company that they intended to produce an electric watch. Hamilton, realizing the profits and media value of the electric, was not about to be upstaged.
Van Horn and two others had a working prototype in February 1953, but
it was not until nearly four-and-one-half years after the project began, on January 3, 1957, that the Hamilton electric was announced to the public. Fitted with Hamilton's caliber "500" movement, the watch was first made available in two models: the "Ventura" and the "Van Horn," both of which were 14kt solid gold-cased models. As you might guess, the "Van Horn" was named in honor of Hamilton's Chief Physicist who had spearheaded the project.
Several gold-filled models were also released in 1957, among them the
"Pacer," the "Titan," and the "Victor." Almost from their inception, Hamilton electrics posed a service problem for many watch technicians. Most problems in the 500 and the later "505" movements can be traced to the contacts. Like the breaker points in older automobiles, the contacts constantly open and close -- five times each second. Constant physical contact, along with arcing
electrical current from the battery, leads to the pitting and eventual
destruction of the contacts. A further problem with the 500 (corrected
in the 505) is the contact wires. They must be adjusted perfectly. There is no room for margin in tension, height or positioning. If not adjusted to exact factory specs, the watch will run erratically or stop completely.
The improved 505 was introduced in the summer of 1961. Though it was a
definite improvement in ease of serviceability over the 500, the
resistance by watchmakers built up over the last four years to the 500
was hard to overcome.
Despite the fact that Hamilton ran an aggressive program to train
watchmakers in the repair of electrics, they were the bane of many a
repairman, especially those who only worked on them occasionally.
Consequently, many ended up back at the factory for repair. Needless to say, it caused a monumental public relations headache for Hamilton. But part of the blame must rest with the watchmakers. Many just didn't understand electrical circuits and the revolutionary contact system and refused to learn. Centuries-old technology just doesn't give way overnight or even over a few years.
Despite their problems, the electrics were a mainstay in Hamilton's
product lineup for 12 years, until 1969. Though the electrics are
denigrated by many as Hamilton's biggest failure, the fact remains that hundreds of thousands were sold and, arguably, kept the company going during its final 12 years as a manufacturer of watches. (As a footnote, Elgin did, in fact, come up with an electric model in
1962. However, it was only test marketed, and the company pulled it
before it went into general distribution.)
As mentioned earlier, many models are quite easily obtained and can
still be found at very reasonable prices. These include many from the "Nautilus" series, the "Skip Jack," the "Triton." the "Triton," "Aquatel," "Atlantis," "Gemini," and the "RR Specials" (designated for use by railroad personnel).
The next strata includes such models as the "Pacer," "Polaris,"
"Victor," "Vega," "Everest", and "Meteor."
The rarest Hamilton electric model, by far, is the "Altair." The
"Ventura" is also becoming extremely difficult to find, though its
rarity is no where near that of the "Altair." The fact that Hamilton
recently reproduced the "Ventura" with a quartz movement only made the
originals that much harder to find.
Parts for all Hamilton electric movements are becoming harder to find,
and are more and more being cannibalized from other movements. So if
you're getting into Hamilton electrics, it's always wise to pick up
scrap movements where and when you can find them.
Original batteries for Hamilton electrics are no longer produced, but
their is a workable substitution. For the caliber 500 movements, use a
394. For a caliber 505, you can use a 389. Both have the proper
thickness, but are a little short on the width. In each instance, you
can use the plastic "blister" from the battery package. In the case of a 394, you can also use the plastic spacer rings from the Accutron 214 battery (387 or 387S). The extra space from the blister (or the spacer ring) is necessary so the battery doesn't shift and possibly cause a short. You may have to "play" with the battery contacts a bit to ensure good contact with the battery.
If you are going to get into Hamilton electrics in any significant way, you should by a copy of Rene Rondeau's book, The Watch of the Future -- The Story of the Hamilton Electric Watch. Now in its third edition, the hardbound book has 182 pages and more than 170 illustrations. It is recognized as the best source of information on these watches. It is available from most horological booksellers.
We are still working on the individual histories of each manufacturer, as time permits. If you'd like to submit a manufacturer history, let us know and we will credit you as a contributing author.