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Monday, May 20, 2024

The Watch That Made Everything Now

The time of our lives begins April 4, 1972. That’s the day Hamilton released the first digital watch: the Pulsar Time Computer. Originally designed for a Stanley Kubrick film, the prototype was displayed in 1970 on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, although the late-night host was not impressed and mocked the expensive device. He couldn’t imagine how much times were about to change.

This first digital watch may seem unimpressive by current standards, but its features were novel when it debuted. Its blank screen revealed time with the push of the button, while another push provided the seconds; its sensor adjusted to the degree of light, an ordinary feature now, but remarkable then; the use of an LED screen was the edge of innovation at the time; and quartz technology was being perfected, but this watch sold it. With every purchase of the Pulsar, people strapped on a new way of seeing and experiencing the world. It presented a space-age future. It offered private, on-demand time. And in that instant, all became now.

The Pulsar emerged in the era of the space race and a future imagined as sleek, glossy, smooth—frictionless. Moon landings, new home appliances eliminating the duress of labor, faster transportation contraptions, the rapid growth of science fiction with aliens and cyborgs, all spoke to an urge to inhabit an existence beyond our planetary limitations. Speed and space require frictionless designs, and the Pulsar represented that design aesthetic.

Even the name Pulsar was meant to invoke a space-age future. Hamilton’s design was an extension of the company's digital clock and wristwatch prototypes for Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, though only the clock made it into the 1968 film. The fact that the device was designed for a movie about artificial intelligence and evolution contributed to the need to make time itself look different.

An ad for the watch from 1973 boasted that it could survive shocks up to 2,500 times the force of gravity. Humans can’t withstand anything past 90, but sometimes what is on offer is utterly irrelevant. New designs frequently present superfluous options in order to make users feel their lives require the extraordinary gadgetry of a superhuman. The term “early adopters” describes a population that identifies with exploring and using new technological designs even if the objects offer little beyond a redesign of the interface.

By the second half of the 20th century, the notion that aesthetics operated as “an engine for consumer demand”—that engagement with design was a value in itself, separate from any novel application the underlying technology might offer—had already been recognized within design communities. The Pulsar’s lack of new functionality was irrelevant because the revolution it wrought occurred through the digital interface, which allowed people to imagine themselves peering into the future.

The watch visualizes the future for the “everyman” as, notably, it was initially designed for and marketed to men. Though James Bond’s watch would soon shift back to the Rolex, famed British actor Roger Moore can be seen wearing the Pulsar in Live and Let Die (1973). Elvis Presley, Sammy Davis Jr., Yul Brynner, and political celebrities like the Shah of Iran all wore one in assorted photo opportunities. Whether their sporting the Pulsar was an early example of product placement or simply preference, the watch was seen on men who epitomized a traditional kind of masculine power and success. In 1974, a Washington Post photographer captured President Ford wearing one while testifying before Congress about Nixon’s pardon. Keith Richards and Jack Nicholson, who both embodied a new kind of machismo, were also spotted wearing a slightly less expensive version. (Cureau).

With the Pulsar, the digital watch business took off, and competition spread across those working with digital products, heralding the booming business of PCs in the 1980s. The United States Department of Commerce reported that the median household income in 1972 was $11,116. The Pulsar unabashedly charged $2,100 (equivalent to $13,741 today). The future then came at an even higher cost than the future offered by the original Apple iWatch, released in 2015 at a starting cost of $349 and going up to $1099, with a similar 18k gold option for $10,000. The subsequent Pulsar Time Computer model was only $250 (current dollars $1,640), which is what many now gladly pay for a laptop.

Computers were cumbersome machines at the time, and the notion of wearing all that power in something as small as a watch was provocative and alluring. Hamilton president Richard J. Blakinger believed the new technology and design evident in this “wrist computer” would lead one day to a similar device that “would respond to a variety of useful programs personally selected by the wearer.” Indeed, the Pulsar is not dissimilar to the Apple iWatch in design—or pricing.

At its launch, the Pulsar claimed to be “the first new way to tell time for 500 years.” It was true. The Pulsar augured a new era.

Much of human history has been experienced as the “petty pace from day to day” bemoaned by Shakespeare’s Macbeth. His was an era still governed by the motion of the stars, when battle lines formed with the rising sun. The monastic order of St. Benedict introduced a regulatory system for the monks’ extensive prayer and work schedule, with bells designating canonical time. Soon, carillons kept time across cities in early modern Europe, marshaling prayer time, but also commercial opportunities for a burgeoning business class keen to capture and regulate the new urban labor force. The subjective time of an agricultural life shifted to the regular demands of emerging capital. Time is money.

The need for ever-more-accurate time motivated the development of clocks. By the middle of the 14th century, time is divided into 60 minutes and 60 seconds. Most notably, trains transformed our expectations of time. Standardized time across vast distances became necessary for industry; schedules became the order of the day. Henry David Thoreau writes about trains in Walden Pond, remarking on the costs to nature but also to human freedom. Sure, one might travel great distances faster, but to do so requires the labor that can buy the ticket, hours that likely equal the time walking the same expanse.

Mechanical time became a symbol of a higher order. To be regular as clockwork becomes a virtue, a taming of the obscene and arbitrary body. To eat or sleep as desired or necessary becomes crude and indulgent. The clock, like so many later machines, is praised for overcoming the haphazard nature of humankind. It has a regulator, like a pendulum. It is automatic. Its product is elegantly standardized into hours, minutes, and seconds. The whimsy of humanity’s subjective time is overruled by the stern clock face with objective subdivisions that enabled the trafficking of the industrial revolution and the war machinery of the 20th century.

The digital face with LED numbers of the Pulsar lost historicity and inculcated a perpetual present available at the push of a button. No longer were we bound by the “numerically quantified and mechanically powered” clock of industrial, assembly-line order, as Marshall McLuhan described it in Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. The futurist design brought what’s to come into what is already. There was no sense of past through present into future, but a display that could only offer a perpetual present that stems partly from the instantaneous depiction digital time projects. The clock face presents the passage of time. Through the space of one second to another, it offers duration. But that uniform march of time now faded in favor of instantaneity. Within a digital space, time is a point, eliminating any interval. There is no time to lose.

As the philosopher Byung-Chul Han argues in The Scent of Time, “atomized time is discontinuous time.” The sun crossing the sky or a watch hand traveling around the face of a timepiece links one moment to the next. Digital time is interrupted. When nothing binds events together, everything is disparate, which produces a profound sense of anxiety. We become isolated, careening individuals.

In the current decade, time and space have collapsed further as people no longer have to cross physical environments to go from one meeting to another. Virtual presence insinuates precision. In the digital space/time of video-conferenced meetings, to arrive just two minutes late is apostasy. And there is always time for one more meeting. Jonathan Crary wrote in 24/7: Late Capitalism and the End of Sleep how “24/7 capitalism is not simply a continuous or sequential capture of attention, but also a dense layering of time.” We work across multiple windows, browsers, platforms, and screens to multiply and mitigate incessant and blurred professional, personal, and social demands, grasping for any strands of so-called spare time. That layering has an impact. It’s the space where multi-tasking seems reasonable, though it’s been shown to be quite the opposite––a fragmented disordering of talent, skill, and mental acuity. Who hasn’t complained because a friend’s “one quick message reply” tolled the end of a night together? Near-simultaneity turns anything beyond the instant into a delay. When there is no time to lose, many other things get lost instead.

Few but absolutist tech determinists would claim the Pulsar Time Computer, as the first digital watch, caused these changes … or even that digital time alone created a culture of instantaneity. James Ussher, a 17th-century Irish Archbishop, is much ridiculed for declaring that the world was created “on the beginning of the night which preceded the 23 of October in the year … 4004 BC.” Amazingly, he wasn’t joking. Yet with the Pulsar Time Computer, we do see a shift in how we observe time. If the Pulsar foreshadowed a culture of the instant, we are the ones that made it so. To posit cultural effects based purely on tech innovations is to miss the role played by those who elect to use these objects. Users’ interest and adoption pave a path that the object signposts. In looking back, we glimpse desires, dreams, dangers, and deviations within social choices.

We live amidst an explosion of possibilities presented by biotechnology, robotics, blockchain, and other technologies. As we adopt them, we redesign what will be. Recognizing that each object is a confluence and convergence of potential energy may allow us to perceive its material effect as more malleable than we previously thought. Designs change. Technologies veer. Our enthusiasms contribute to that. So does our critique. Examining historical objects helps us consider the alternatives that we have relinquished as we attempt to understand the contemporary. In seeing what we abandoned 50 years ago, we can invite technological objects today to reintroduce the values we never meant to lose.

Some designers now urge slower, more effortful designs in order to make us more attentive participants in our adoption of technologies. Reducing speed can reveal subtleties of engagement. Being slower can expand how we perceive an object’s purpose or functionality. Some friction produces the resistance needed to recognize and respect effort, as well as the opportunity for collaboration. Slow design can make people more conscious in their choices, decreasing harmful human labor or environmental impact. Creative thinkers argue for interludes without deadlines; the future is more than our current culture of on-demand, instantaneous productivity, but we need to imagine what that looks like.

The point here isn't to resolve the moral value of technology but to appreciate the pulse of that moment in 1972. It was the dawn of digital technologies. Though those developments designed the times in which we live, they also made change simply the matter of an instant.

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