My grandfather never threw away anything. In the years leading up to his death, when the inevitable was becoming inevitable, my mom said his will was like a treasure map.
“Don’t throw anything away,” he told her. “Whatever it is, there’s probably money in it.”
That wasn’t just the child-of-the-Great-Depression in him talking. Although we would find jars on jars of screws and zip ties and thimbles that never proved as useful as my grandfather hoped, we did discover coins and bills stashed in rusty toolboxes and candy jars as he warned us we would. The money wasn’t important to me and Grandpa was poor all of his life, so I knew I wasn’t going to find much of it. But I spent several days cleaning out his home because I wanted to find something. Something that was worthless to most people but could be a meaningful reminder of my grandfather and my experience sifting through 90 years of musty belongings.
I found a few things, but this vintage Timex Electronic watch I’m writing about today was what I didn’t know I was looking for. As a watch lover, it’s the perfect memento and now a living member of my collection.
What are Electric Watches?
Electric watches experienced a brief heyday between 1957 and the mid-1970s as a transitional phase between mechanical watches and the quartz-powered timepieces that dominate the contemporary watch market. What is an electric watch? It’s one whose movement operates with a balance wheel or tuning fork and a transistor or electrical contacts. Like mechanical movements, electric movements preceded quartz; however, unlike the mechanical movements that are still so desirable today, especially in high-end luxury brands, electric watch movements are nowhere to be found and haven’t been produced since the 1970s.
On January 3, 1957, Hamilton released the caliber 500 movement and became the first to produce a watch powered by an electric movement that combined a balance wheel with battery power. Caliber 500A was produced shortly thereafter, which is pictured above. Without the mainspring and the gear train, notice how simple the movement is relative to a mechanical one. In the years to follow, many other brands went on to produce electric watch models, the Bulova Accutron, the Omega f300, and the Timex Electric being notable examples.
A Brief History of the Timex Electric
The US Time Corporation (“Timex”) released its first Electric model to the market in 1962. It did so by acquiring the German watch company, Laco, in 1961. In Germany the watches were sold under the Laco moniker while the US marketed the timepieces under the Timex brand.
Mine is called the Timex Electronic, so what’s the difference between “electric” and “electronic”? They’re very similar, but an electronic model is a significant upgrade to the electric in terms of reliability. Electric watches don’t use electronic components like diodes, resistors or transistors, and instead rely on electromechanical components like magnets, coils and switches, whereas electronic models use solid state parts to conduct energy.
In the latter 1960s, when Timex manufactured the enhanced electronic versions of this watch, it had 80% market share in America and 17% worldwide.
Hands-on with the Timex Electronic
From what I can tell based on vintage documentation and advertisements, this particular model comes from 1973 where it retailed for about $50. Please, if anyone can point to evidence otherwise, I’d be grateful. It’s by far the oldest thing I own and without anyone to ask I’m left wondering what it has been through. How many of those 40 years has it been on a wrist versus inside of my grandfather’s desk drawer? When I found the watch, it was smothered in gunk that seemed like chewing gum that had to be as old as the watch itself. I gave the Timex a good cleaning, but still the piece shows noticeable signs of heavy wear (or heavy junk drawer inhabitancy).
Case & Dial
The polished stainless steel cushion case is unquestionably 1970s in size and shape but still maintains contemporary wrist presence. Several shallow scratches mar the steel case but nothing problematic. It’s 38mm excluding the crown with a dial diameter of 30mm. Some patina is visible on the champagne dial. All of the applied markers show signs of age but are in tact as well as the “Timex” logo and the “Electronic” writing on the dial. Surprisingly, the day and date windows are in near-perfect alignment.
The acrylic crystal demands a polishing, but there are no cracks and I can still see through to the dial without any trouble. Only when I hold the watch at extreme angles does the cloudiness of the scratched dial interfere with legibility.
Replacing the battery, or “power cell,” is easy. Turn the watch over, snap off the back and replace it with a new 357 battery. Timex designed the caseback so that owners could swap out the batteries without seeing a jeweler or watchmaker since the batteries needed to be changed yearly. That’s frequent maintenance by today’s standards when batteries in quartz watches have 2-4 year lifespans, but this was a significant advantage over mechanical watches at the time since it didn’t need daily wear or winding to keep time.
Behind the caseback is a Timex Model #52, a 6-jewel electric movement that beats at 21,600 vph. Timex used the term “model” as most watchmakers use “caliber.” Model #52 utilizes the base #50 with the added day-date complication, and the #50 is similar to the very original Model #40 used in the first Timex Electric, the main difference being the use of circuitry over pure electromechanical parts as mentioned above in the distinction between electric and electronic watch movements.
The crown has two positions. In the first position, you can twist the crown to adjust the day and date. On mine, the date adjustment works while the day adjustment is broken, so it’s a little bit of a pain to set the calendar.
The seconds hand sweeps similarly to that of a mechanical, enabling the watch to offer the best of both the mechanical and non-mechanical worlds: extended power reserve and the smooth ticking seconds.
Style & Comfort
This watch uses a stainless steel elastic band, and while you might expect it to be a hair-pincher, it’s not bad. Maybe I have experienced some pinching once or twice. Great alternatives would be a distressed brown leather or NATO strap, but for now I want to keep this in as original condition as possible.
Like I mentioned before, the cushion case gives it a modern look and feel so you’ll know you’re wearing a vintage piece, but it won’t feel dainty for everyday wear. The design is more than appropriate for an office environment and the case will surely fit beneath a shirt cuff.
The Best Part
When I first discovered the watch, it seemed dead. I replaced the battery, but no luck. I took it to Central Watch in Grand Central (best watch repair in NYC) and, without looking at it, they said it would potentially be several hundred dollars to fix since they’d source original parts and that would be costly in both time and labor. Not ready to shell out that kind of money, I left disappointed.
Suddenly on January 1, 2014, it started working. I placed it in my pocket so I could take it to a well-lit room to photograph it, and when I removed it from my pocket it was ticking. Its awakening inspired me to research its history and ultimately share the watch and the story of its acquisition. Documentation is scarce, so if you have evidence that suggests any new information about this Timex, please share it with me.
Happy New Year!