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All in Good Time

HILCO EC director donates prototype of world’s first working digital watch to Smithsonian

In 1968, while wearing a $10.95 Timex wristwatch, engineer George H. Thiess had a vision: Instead of a short hand and a long hand indicating the hour and minute, what if there were a watch that displayed time digitally?

In November, Thiess donated the prototype of the world’s first working digital watch to the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C.

“I was hesitant to give it up at first, but I realized that it’s a part of history, and people should see it,” says the 81-year-old Thiess, a Hillsboro resident who serves as vice president of HILCO Electric Cooperative’s board of directors.

The Pulsar electronic wristwatch hit the market in 1972 after originating at Electro/Data, a small electronics firm in Garland that Thiess founded in 1966. Thiess, a Korean War veteran who earned a physics engineering degree from Washington University, partnered with the Hamilton Watch Co. in 1969 to jointly develop the Pulsar—a watch many times more accurate than the best mechanical watch.

An early prototype of the Pulsar even appeared on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. But the watch, which sometimes malfunctioned, was not ready for prime time. Only six such models were made.

The second-generation watches also failed within months, forcing a recall. Fortunately for the Pulsar, the fix came with little publicity. Despite their hefty $2,100 price tag—about as much as a small car then—the third-generation, 18-karat-gold Pulsars were a huge success. By 1974, according to Thiess, half of all watches sold in the world were digital.

The Pulsar display was composed of light-emitting diodes “that used so much power that they couldn’t be on all the time,” Thiess says. “If you wanted to know the time, you pressed a button on the side, and you got it without wasting energy.

“It was better than any Timex watch I had ever had,” Thiess laughs. He adds that the watch, with a readout visible in the dark, “was fun … it was space-age at the time, almost alien-looking.”

Israel Perez, editorial intern

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