Hamilton is a Swiss watchmaker with American roots, and is part of Swatch Group.
When it was in its native Lancaster, Pennsylvania, this company was a major American railroad and military watch supplier.
It has maintained ties with the film industry, for example, by creating special watches for movies, or donating vintage models.
This began with the American motion picture industry but, later on, extended to the British and Chinese scenes.
This company made major strides in electronic watchmaking throughout the 20th century.
As an innovator in early electronic wristwatch displays, this watchmaker also sold electronic movements to various other watch companies.
"A Pennsylvania original!" Hamilton honors its history with retro American style.
Hamilton emerged from a lineage of Pennsylvanian watchmakers, yet soon outshone them all.
This brand has shown it can be flexible, moving between technologies and directions many times during its history.
Continue reading in order to learn about this watchmaker from the beginning, or skip ahead with the links below.
- Hamilton’s Beginning: Many Changes Of Hands
- Early 20th Century Hamilton: Keeping The Tracks Safe
- Across The World: Military Watches
- What Was The First Electric Watch? The Ventura & Van Horn
- An American Classic Goes Swiss
- What Was The First Digital Watch? Origins Of The Pulsar
- Movie Magic: Film Industry Ties
See Bespoke Unit’s Watch Reviews
Hamilton’s Beginning: Many Changes Of Hands
This American-born watchmaker’s story begins in the American city of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where it remained for much of its history.
Coincidentally, this is in the same Pennsylvanian as Bespoke Unit’s headquarters.
Although its official year of establishment was 1892, the firm was the latest in a succession of Lancaster watch companies. Each of these, however, lasted less than a decade.
The first of these was Adams & Perry, but this company was only operational from 1874 to 1877.
Afterwards, Lancaster Watch Co. followed from the leftover assets of Adams & Perry.
Then, Lancaster Watch Co. reformed as Keystone Standard Co. in 1886.
Finally, Keystone went bankrupt in 1891. Hamilton Watch Company then formed in 1892 from the assets of Keystone and another company, Aurora Watch Co.
Early 20th Century Hamilton: Keeping The Tracks Safe
During the first half of the 20th century, the company was quite successful. However, for all of its success, few of its watches saw use by members of the public.
This was because, after its founding, the brand was focused on specialized pocket watches for railroad timing.
The first and most famous collection of these was the Broadway Limited, which saw widespread rail usage during this era.
Accurate timing for trains was just as important then as now, and Hamilton was a major supplier to American railways.
The “Broadway Limited” line lent its name to many subsequent collections, and indeed has a namesake series even today.
Across The World: Military Watches
Famous American explorer Admiral Richard Byrd wore the wristwatch edition of the Broadway while on three of his expeditions.
This included his 1926 flight over the North Pole, and both his first and second Antarctic expeditions.
During the period between World Wars I and II, the watchmaker switched almost entirely from pocket watches to wristwatches.
Also, during World War II, as a prominent American watch house, the firm had to fulfill a huge military demand. Hence, production of consumer watches ceased.
Military timepieces included wristwatches, but also chronometers. Significantly, marine chronometers and deck clocks comprised a large proportion of this demand.
What Was The First Electric Watch? The Ventura & Van Horn
Although nearly every electric wristwatch today uses a quartz movement, Hamilton designed and sold the first electrically-powered wristwatch.
The company simultaneously released two collections in 1957 with this mechanism, the Ventura and the Van Horn.
The Ventura is perhaps better-remembered, due to its unusual triangular case shape.
Inside both the Ventura and the Van Horn was the Caliber 500 movement. Rather than the electronic oscillators used by later electric watches, the 500 drove a traditional mechanical movement electrically.
Here, an electromagnetic coil pushes against permanent magnets at a regular interval in order to oscillate the balance wheel.
The initial 500 movement was fraught with reliability issues, but the company remedied these with subsequent versions.
Even new models of the Ventura use either quartz or automatic mechanical movements, rather than the original electromagnetic-drive design.
The original mechanism is absent from new watches, but it was very innovative when it was released.
The Ventura is an iconic watch of the 50s and 60s, matching the era’s futuristic aspirations.
Accordingly, the watch graced the wrists of American pop culture legends of the time. For example, Elvis Presley in the film Blue Hawaii, or Rod Serling, the host of The Twilight Zone.
It remains a desirable collector’s item because of its striking appearance and unique history.
An American Classic Goes Swiss
The company acquired a Swiss manufacture, Buren Watch Company, in 1966, and would gradually transfer its operations to Switzerland afterwards.
Over the next few years, nearly all of the company’s production would move over to Switzerland. During this time, Hamilton worked with Buren to create much thinner automatic watches.
In 1971, Swatch Group’s predecessor SSIH bought back Buren, and then, in 1974, SSIH bought Hamilton itself. Later, in 2003, the company’s headquarters also moved to Biel, Switzerland.
What Was The First Digital Watch? Origins Of The Pulsar
Although watches with mechanical digital displays had already existed, the first electronic digital watch was the 1972 Pulsar.
Even though Hamilton moved much of its operations to Switzerland, the Pulsar came into being in the United States.
The company worked with Electro/Data in Texas in order to create this digital LED watch.
The Pulsar drew a lot of attention, because there was nothing else like it. It had many high-profile buyers during a time when the brand was otherwise suffering.
James Bond’s Roger Moore, the Shah of Iran, Ethiopia’s Haile Selassie, and others bought the watch when it came out.
Due to the high cost of miniaturized electronics at the time, the watch’s price fell on the high end.
Indeed, at $2100 USD in 1972, it cost as much as a new car. However, as one might expect, this very new technology had various issues.
Firstly, the original Pulsar P1s with circuit boards from Electro/Data had major reliability issues, failing within months. A new spinoff of Hamilton, Time Computer Inc. would make more reliable replacements for the recalled Electro/Data boards.
Secondly, LED technology of the era was very inefficient. Therefore, the display would only appear for a few seconds at the push of a button. Still, this was an important first step in a digital timekeeping revolution, and a milestone for electrical engineering.
In 1974, SSIH acquired Hamilton, and some other SSIH brands later used the Pulsar technology, such as Omega’s 1976 Constellation.
Movie Magic: Film Industry Ties
The company was moving to Switzerland, but maintained the movie industry associations it built in the United States.
Many notable science fiction movies since the 1960s have featured the brand’s watches, though they’ve shown in all film genres. For example, Stanley Kubrick commissioned futuristic timepieces from the watchmaker for 1966’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Later, in the 90s, Ventura watches appeared throughout the Men In Black series, as part of the titular characters’ uniform. The brand also had significant screen time in 2014’s Interstellar, in which the main characters wear bespoke Hamilton watches.
From 2006 to 2016, the watchmaker hosted the Hamilton Behind The Camera Awards, honoring offscreen movie production staff. Though originally exclusive to the USA, from 2012 onward this event simultaneously occurred in Los Angeles and Beijing.
Keep Reading About Hamilton
We hope you enjoyed this summary of Hamilton’s watchmaking history.
You can read articles about the brand’s history on the official site, otherwise, follow these links to more watch content: