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Hamilton Ventura: the electrical evolution – Part 1

On January 3 in 1957, Hamilton Watch Company revolutionized the watchmaking sector with the introduction of the Ventura, the world’s first electrical watch. At the time the piece was futuristic, today it is an icon.

By Rémy Solnon
Specialised journalist

An unprecedented technological innovation as a result of ten years of research, the Ventura was the next major evolution after the invention of the mechanical watch. Indeed, it was the first-ever mechanical watch to be fueled by an electrical battery.

Revolutionary mechanism andaesthetics

Here it is a button cell battery that supplies energy to the movement, rather than the crown in manual winding pieces or the oscillating mass in automatic watches. The system marked the beginning of a new era for – let’s not forget – only mechanical watches were available at the time. There was no longer need for the tiresome routine of winding watches as the battery supplied the movement with energy for a whole year.

Hamilton pulled this technological feat off after ten years of research, which started in 1946. Named “Project X”, it aimed to develop the first electrical movement and make it reliable. Yet, the Ventura is both technically and aesthetically disruptive; it features a triangular case – a unique shape in watchmaking worldwide at the time.

The Hamilton Ventura

Recollection of the Ventura adventure

George Luckey, head of R+D at Hamilton, led the study on a battery-driven mechanical watch in 1946. The introduction of miniature batteries opened the door to miniaturization in several other fields. Two prototypes were designed in 1946 and 1952 respectively. After carrying out multiple tests on them, Hamilton decided to develop the one designed by Phillip E. Biemiller and James H. Reese and named it “Project X”. A team led by John Van Horn was put together to design a wristwatch equipped with a battery that could offer a service life of at least a year.

To develop its electrical caliber, Hamilton produced all the components in-house. At the time, aside from cases, the manufacture produced all the pieces of its watches (movement, dial, hands, and indexes).

One of the main difficulties they encountered while developing the electrical caliber was to find an adequate battery for the energy supply of the mechanical movement of a wristwatch. Hamilton found what it was looking for with the help of the National Carbon Company (now Energizer), which created a special battery for the piece.

After having produced several prototypes, they released a pre-series model. Electrically driven mechanical movements were born and a reality at last!

Hamilton

Commercial success of the “watch of the future”

New York, January 3, 1957. “Watchmaking history’s first electrical watch” is introduced in front of over 120 journalists from the international media at an important press conference at the Savoy Plaza hotel. The “Watch of the Future”, considered as the most important watchmaking innovation in centuries, was the subject of hundreds of articles. At the same time, Hamilton launched the Van Horn, a second electrical model with a more traditional round-shaped case. The advertising campaign of the time focused on the watch’s revolutionary technology and original and futuristic design: “It’s the perfect gift for the man who looks to the future!”

Unfortunately, many of the first commercialized watches were returned to Hamilton as they regularly stopped working. The brand had been so eager to commercialize the Ventura after the success of its introduction to the press that it did not take the time to make the H500 movement completely reliable. The introduction of the H505 caliber in 1961 provided a permanent solution to these problems. And despite this, the Ventura was a true commercial hit and more than 11,500 of its models were sold between 1957 and 1963. Just think, a watch that did not need to be wound was state-of-the-art at the time. And wearing such a watch was a sign of trendiness.

Hamilton later commercialized other electrical watches such as Pacer, Meteor and Altair. Other Swiss, French, American and Japanese watchmaking brands such as Ebauches SA, Lip, Timex and Tissot, amongst others, also used electrical technology by either developing their own calibers or by producing Hamilton calibers under license.

Hamilton Calibre H500 The Hamilton calibre H500

The arrival of quartz caused a shake up

When the Seiko Quartz Astron-35SQ, the first watch with a quartz oscillator, was introduced in 1969, electrical mechanical watches started disappearing.

The new-generation watch was battery-driven like the Ventura but was more reliable, precise and robust than a mechanical watch. Hamilton stopped the production of its electrical watches during that year after it had produced over 42,000 pieces.

In 1970, the American manufacture, always at the front of innovation, reacted with the launching of the Pulsar that “supersedes the recently revealed electromechanical quartz watch”, as written in the press release published in the New York Times on May 10, 1970. It was the world’s first watch to be made without any moving component or any hands. But that is another story for another day.

 

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