Welcome to Watches You Should Know, a biweekly column highlighting little-known watches with interesting backstories and unexpected influence. This week: the Hamilton Electric.
Among historic, technically significant watches, the Hamilton Ventura is quite possibly the weirdest-looking. There’s no pragmatic purpose for its angular, Art-Deco, retro-futuristic case shape, but it was fundamentally different from any watch before it, and it was imperative that it also look different. In 1957, it was among the collection Hamilton introduced as the world’s first electric-powered watches.
Until that time, wristwatches were exclusively mechanical, running on the energy of a spring (the “mainspring”) slowly unwinding. Batteries were finally getting small enough to feasibly fit inside timepieces and replace the mainspring as the power source, but this required a new kind of movement to be developed. Hamilton was the company to win the race as the first to bring such a watch to market.
At debut, the first Hamilton Electric watches were still buggy, though they’d improve in subsequent years. They were powered by a movement called the 500 (later upgraded to the 505), which in some ways looked like a traditional mechanical movement: it used a gear train and a balance wheel designed to oscillate in a similar way to that of a traditional mechanical system.
While some structures were similar to those in mechanical movements, naturally, the electric movement as a whole was technically quite different, using elements such as magnets and an electromagnetic coil. This was still long before vibrating quartz crystals would be introduced in 1969 as a far superior way to regulate an electric current for timekeeping.
The late 1950s was a transitional time for watchmaking technology: mechanical watches still had primacy, the first quartz-regulated watches were still over a decade away, and “electric” watches like those from Hamilton were expensive, cutting-edge technology. Elgin was another major brand to release an electric watch in subsequent years, and Bulova’s Accutron would end up being a major player until quartz was introduced and changed the whole game.
The Hamilton Electric, however, had the claim of being first, genuinely technically innovative, and designed in an avant-garde way that jived with the optimistic, forward-looking American mood of the time. That made it attractive to open-minded personalities like Elvis Presley who bought his own Ventura and wore it on the set of the 1961 film Blue Hawaii, gaining the watch significant attention.
The distinctive shape of the Ventura was the work of industrial designer Richard Arbib and reflected Hamilton’s futuristic vision. Other Hamilton Electric watches featured quirky, asymmetric, Art Deco cases designed by Arbib, as well as some more traditional round ones. The Electric appeared in episodes of the TV series The Twilight Zone in the 1960s, and despite the passage of 60 years since its release, the design of the Ventura case is still considered fitting for science fiction — it features prominently in the Men In Black movie franchise.
The Ventura remains popular as a collection of its own in Hamilton’s permanent lineup, and it continues to inspire new variations (ironically, including mechanical ones). The Ventura’s idiosyncratic design isn’t for everyone, but it’s objectively unique, eye-catching, and recognizable. Today’s Hamilton Ventura watches use quartz or mechanical movements, but they embody a fascinating technical achievement and cultural moment, and remain totally unlike any watch before or since.