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Electro Data - Hamilton - Pulsar


     It has taken more than a decade to gather the facts related to the development of the first digital wristwatch. We will concentrate on the development of the watch and not debate what has already been historically documented. These accounts are the most accurate to date of �Who invented the Digital watch�. In the event that additional facts come to light, we will make updates. We do not claim these accounts to be 100% complete, but that they are historically correct, and that we possess the documentation to back up these events. No portions of this article may be reproduced without permission. 

   The World�s First Digital LED Watch . . . . That�s quite an honor for anyone to claim, especially when it was the first new way to tell time in 500 years. Henry B. Fried considered the digital watch as  " the most dramatic step forward since the invention of the hairspring in 1675 ". 

   Only two companies, and a handful of people, can be recognized for this invention. Over the years there have been several people who have falsely claimed to be the inventor.  But only The Hamilton Watch Co. and Electro/Data, Inc. can take credit for this milestone in horology.  Both companies contributed to the development of the first digital watch.  Some sway to one side or the other, but the evidence proves this project was a team effort.  No one person, or company, can claim to be the sole inventor.  History does have it right, it was a joint effort!

   Because the first prototype was basically assembled at the Electro/Data facility in Garland Texas,  we will refer to the first tangible development as the �E/D Prototype� a.k.a., �The Mystery Watch.  (The contributions and claims from the Hamilton side will be covered in another section of this website.)

   George H. Thiess:  founded Electro/Data, Inc. in May of 1966.  Thiess was born in St. Louis,  and was an A.F. veteran of the Korean War.  He earned a B.S. degree in Physics Engineering in 1958.  Thiess spent three years at Texas Instruments, and three more at Microwave Physics Corporation, before leaving to start his own instrument company.  A former engineer that worked at Electro/Data described Thiess as a �visionary� with incredible ambition and foresight.  A 1970 article in a local jeweler�s magazine, which first reported on the �Mystery Watch� in 1968, listed some of Thiess� visions.  One vision was the need for �an all electric car that could go 60 mph and not need a charge for 240 miles� . . . can you say Tesla.  Another vision came from wearing a $10.95 Timex which made Thiess realize the need for �a more accurate watch�.  Even after Thiess was ousted from Electro/Data,  he started Electro Research, Inc. in August of 1971. They made three clock models, a desk, a wall, and a floor clock.  He later founded  Chronex Watch Corporation in July of 1973.  Chronex was to make LED digital watches, and offer the watch industry with training to service digital watches.  From a small boy, Thiess was interested in electronics, so it�s no surprise that he had a big hand in developing the first digital watch.

   In 1979, you would find Thiess at Electric Motor Cars, Inc. where he, and partner Jack Hooker, invented that electric car Thiess envisioned back in the 60�s.  Their prototype ran on sea water by converting the water into magnesium used to charge the batteries.  This seemed to be another promising vision, but unfortunately, it ended in 1986 without any notable recognition.

    Willie Crabtree: Earned both a BSEE & MSEE.  He started his career at Bell Laboratories before being hired by Texas Instruments in 1957.  After twelve years at TI, he joined Electro/Data as a project engineer and worked on the digital watch for the next four years.  After he completed his work on the prototype clock in 1969, Crabtree worked with engineers at Hamilton to develop the first prototype digital watch.  He was instrumental in the development of the initial 44-IC module.  Crabtree headed the digital watch department at Electro/Data after George Thiess was removed and again was crucial in finishing the 491 25-IC modules under contract with Hamilton.

   When E/D folded, Crabtree moved over to American Time which was a surviving division of E/D that had been privately purchased and run by James Short.  Mr. Short was the last CEO at Electro/Data.  Crabtree eventually went back to Texas Instruments and worked for seven years before he retired in 1991.

   Electro/Data History: The Company was founded in 1966 and went public in June of 1969.  The 8,800 sq. ft. facility was located at 1621 Jupiter Road in Garland, Texas.  Electro/Data was a scientifically oriented research, development and production company of solid state microwave components and subsystems.  One of Electro/Data�s early projects was research & development on an instrument to measure the universe.  

   In early 1968 Thiess had put together some sort of clock as research to develop his watch.  What exactly it looked like or how complete it was is not known. This project is what was written about in July of 1968. This was the first published article about Electro/Data's efforts to develop a digital watch.  Thiess used an Early IC from Texas Instruments in his first efforts.  In the spring of 1969, Thiess recruited engineer Willie Crabtree to help develop that �more accurate watch� (the Mystery Watch).    By the winter of 1969, Electro/Data had developed a prototype clock with an LED dot-matrix display.  The prototype was made from �off-the-shelf� components, said Thiess. One of the key components was the HP 5082-7000 numerical display.  At the onset, only 4 employees, of the 30 total, work on the project.

   On December 1st, 1969, Electro/Data entered into a contract with Hamilton Watch Co. to jointly develop the world�s first digital watch. Hamilton had also developed a digital clock and was looking to reduce it down to a wristwatch. Hamilton realized Electro/Data was already better equipped, and experienced, in the field of microelectronics.  In the 1969/1970 winter, a large scale breadboard for a digital watch was completed. The first solid state module reduced down to a size that could fit into a watchcase was the 44-IC module.  Hamilton worked with case designers at Star Watch Case Co. and supplied the stainless steel cases to Electro/Data. The first prototype watch housing the 44-IC module was first seen on the Johnny Carson Show on May 5th, 1970.  Only six such watches were made.  Reliability problems with the 44-IC module forced the development of a second generation, 25-IC module, which was far less complex.  This was the electronic module which was eventually delivered to Hamilton for the Pulsar.  Unfortunately,  the 25-IC module was also failing within months of the first Pulsars sold to the public.

  Hamilton was forced to improvise using their own electronic module they had secretly developed.  Fortunately, it was already finished in time to rescue the Pulsar.  The fact that Hamilton could recall the watches already sold, and retrofit those that hadn't, without publicity, probably changed the history of the LED digital watch industry. One can only image how this would have been used against the digital watch by the analog watch industry.  There was already much talk about what the digital watch could do to the watch industry.  Fear was an understatement, and this would have been just the type of fuel they needed to stop the digital watch in its tracks.

   Substantial growth at Electro Data, along with many lucrative contracts in the microwave division, made the company very profitable.  Electro/Data�s other profitable division, American Time, made time/temperature clocks and signs for the commercial market.  In an effort to make Electro/Data more attractive to investors, Electro/Data acquired Care Electronics and merged in October of 1971.  Care was a company located in Huntsville, Alabama, founded by Peter D. Petroff.  At that time, Care was developing electronic heart monitoring and other medical equipment.  Petroff 's company was deeply in debt, but the Board of Directors felt that Care could become profitable. They were so convinced that the Board of Directors voted in Peter Petroff as the new CEO.  For some reason, George Thiess was  no longer with the company as of August of 1971? Willie Crabtree would remain as the chief engineer in charge of the Mystery Watch.

   After several months of heavy losses, and realizing their mistakes, in March of 1972, the Directors replaced Petroff with James D. Short.  Mr. Petroff would revert back to the president of the Care subsidiary (still located in Alabama ).  In a 1973 newspaper article, Short said �Care turned out to be a lemon� and �management changes resulting from the merge set a coarse that couldn�t be corrected in time�. Unfortunately, the large debts from Care absorbed the Electro/Data assets, and their creditors forced them into bankruptcy on April 12, 1973.

   Commentary: What�s amazing is that George Thiess, the very man who founded the company, wasn�t there when the joint efforts with Hamilton came to fruition. Thiess was making plans to start his own clock company when the Pulsar was offered to the public in April of 1972.  How could this happen?  Maybe it was that Thiess didn�t fit the corporate mold?  In a May 1970 article, �The Mystery Watch Revealed�, the editor (who interviewed Thiess at Electro/Data) described him as outspoken and non-political.  In the corporate world, that demeanor doesn�t set well with the Board Room.  Possibly it was because Petroff came from NASA, and the board felt his prestige was better suited for the company.  One can only imagine the animosity Thiess must have had about the events that took place at Electro/Data.

   It seems Thiess fell victim to his own success by building a company that was profitable.  His decision to go public, and sell stocks to help fund his visions, allowed outsiders to make decisions that Thiess would not have made on his own.  Had Thiess continued on as CEO, and there was no merger with Care Electronics, the history of the digital watch may have been written differently.  If Thiess had the funds and resources that Hamilton enjoyed, he likely could have shared much of the success that history has given Hamilton.

   In retrospect, when Thiess conceived his vision, he never documented it.  Even when a 1968 magazine article mentioned Thiess was working on a �Mystery Watch�, Thiess still didn�t protect his vision.  Had Electro/Data continued without teaming up with Hamilton, there would have been many legal issues to overcome.  Much of the circuitry for a digital watch had already been filed for at the patent office by Hamilton in 1968.  There were many other patents as well that would have prevented Electro/Data from solely claiming the invention.  In fact, Electro/Data was somewhat at the mercy of Hamilton due to infringement laws.

   It should be noted that a well documented timeline refutes the claims that Peter Petroff �invented the Digital watch�.  Actually, from all indications, it would appear that Mr. Petroff had nothing to do with the invention.  As the CEO of Electro/Data for a short period of time, he could have possibly had some input for the 25-IC module.  To historically credit him for this invention in any sense, would be highly inaccurate.  By the time Petroff became involved with E/D, the �Mystery Watch� had already been revealed as the Pulsar, and all credits, had been historically recorded.  

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