Horological Culture • 19 Nov 2018

Ticking from Lancaster: The History of Hamilton

by Blake Reilly

Hamilton Watch Company has travelled a long way since its inception in 1892 – in the aim of being as precise as its timepieces, it has flown 6440km to be exact. From aspirational origins in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, USA to its current Swiss home in Biel, Hamilton has enjoyed a rich and innovative history within the world of watches. Hamilton offers to the market a brand with the all confidence and ingenuity associated with the typically American pioneering spirit, all the while guided by the quality of Swiss watchmaking traditions.

(Credit: Niagara)

Working on the Railroad

Although watchmaking began on the site of original Lancaster factory in 1874, it would take another 18 years for the brand now known across the world today to emerge. Following a series attempts at reorganising, renaming and restructuring, Hamilton arose as the result of nearly two decades trying to find the perfect balance.

The new company set out with a clear ambition: to fulfil the demand for accurate timekeeping along the vastly expanding rail networks of America. Hamilton pocket watches soon became known as the ‘Watch of Railroad Accuracy,’ playing an integral role in efforts to standardise timing methods and in doing so, reduce railroad accidents. During a key period of expansion and consolidation of US rail networks, Hamilton kept the wheels turning. Despite their deep connection with the railroad market, Hamilton was certainly not to become complacent and could not limit themselves to the ground.

Sky is the Limit

In 1918, Hamilton took to the skies by venturing into the aviation community. On the very first airmail service between Washington, D.C. and New York, the iconic American watch brand was ticking alongside the pilot. On that flight, an exciting new relationship between Hamilton and the aviation industry was born. Hamilton would go on to accompany notable airborne individuals like Admiral Byrd on his pioneering flight over the North Pole in 1926, and the pilots on the first flight from California to Hawaii in 1927. By the 1930s, Hamilton was the official timekeeper for the four major US airlines at the time. Hamilton’s connection to the clouds has remained strong until today, evident when in 2017 it became the Official Timekeeper of the Red Bull Air Race World Championships.

Pilots receiving Hamilton watches, 1918

For Country

Hamilton became the watch supplier to the American armed forces in 1914. During the conflict on the continent, a Hamilton watch was never far away to remind the dutiful soldier in some way of home. By 1942, in the depths of one of the most destructive wars in human history, the company had to make a bold decision: commercial civilian production ceased, and all watchmaking efforts were directed towards producing for the military. In demand for their exceptional accuracy – crucial when timing could be the difference between victory and defeat – the Lancaster factory was producing up to 500 chronometers each month. For their relentless commitment and steadfast dedication to the national interest throughout the Second World War, Hamilton earned the prestigious Army-Navy ‘E’ Award for excellence in manufacturing. Even under the pressures of war, the precision of Hamilton timepieces could be trusted.

Eclectic Electric

With quintessential American inventiveness, Hamilton sent a shock throughout the watch industry with the 1957 release of the Ventura – the world’s first electrical battery operated watch. Designed by Richard Arbib, the Ventura was the first of a series of electric watches including the Pacer, each distinguished by their unconventional, asymmetric designs. Similar shockwaves were made when Hamilton again broke the mould in 1972 by producing the world’s first digital electronic watch, the Pulsar. Watches from the 1980s onwards did however begin to revisit the more classic timepiece designs typically associated with the company. Nonetheless, Hamilton’s creative foray into the unchartered territory of electric watches stands testament to their reputation for daring innovation and possessing the courage to push the boundaries of watchmaking.

Swiss Bound

The gradual process towards combining a thoroughly American character with the watchmaking distinction of Swiss timepiece production began in 1974, when the company now known as the Swatch Group acquired Hamilton. Watches continued to be made in the US until 2003 – the year that marked the move of Hamilton’s headquarters and production to Biel, Switzerland. Importantly, the move meant that the company could now add the much revered ‘Swiss Made’ quality mark to each of its watches. Geographic relocation has not, however, undermined the American disposition of the brand. Whilst the quality of its timepieces is now indisputably Swiss, the identity of Hamilton is irrevocably linked with the confident spirit of its origins across the Atlantic.

Hamilton Roadshow – 100 Years of Timing The Skies

It’s Hamilton’s 100 years of Timing the Skies! To celebrate this remarkable and important milestone, Hamilton is launching their 2018 Khaki Aviation X-Wind Collection. Running until the 2nd of December, Watches of Switzerland and Hamilton are celebrating by running a roadshow at VivoCity. Opening hours: 10:30am to 9:30pm daily.

Blake Reilly

Blake majors in Politics, International Relations and Ancient History. Having inherited his great grandfather’s Omega Seamaster, Blake has since developed a keen interest in Swiss watches and the history behind them.

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