Timex History and Vintage Timex Watch Commercials
Timex watches are not often the object of collector attention and don’t share the prestige enjoyed by their vintage counterparts, but it can be easy to forget that Timex watches were enormously popular in their day. At points in the 1950’s and 1960’s Timex accounted for more than 50% of watch sales in the US, something often quickly apparent when browsing a typical yard sale or thrift store. While perhaps not marvels of horology, maybe even more so than the rest of the American history of watchmaking Timex was a splendid marvel of ingenuity, economy, industry, and mass-production economies of scale.
Much of the reason for Timex popularity was the massive marketing effort that was quick to capitalize on the visual impact offered by the newly emerging television medium. Timex TV commercials made the phrase “It takes a licking and keeps on ticking” famous and quickly made Timex a household name. Many of the commercials featured host John Cameron Swayze and were often performed live for even greater impact. These famous “torture test” commercials are still impressive and compelling even decades later.
In this one, a Timex has its waterproofing tested by having a porpoise swim and jump while carrying a baton with the watch attached:
At most points in its early history virtually no competitor could challenge Timex for quality at this price point. Though there had been cheap watches on the market for many decades previously, most were not reliable or durable and were typically capable of only mediocre performance. At their $9.95 entry price Timex watches were extraordinarily affordable, and unlike previous evolutions of inexpensive pin-lever movements they were capable of very reasonable performance. While not chronometer-grade by any means they were entirely capable of accuracy rates well within a minute or so per day, more than enough for most day-to-day applications in the pre-digital world. When coupled with Timex’s reliably water resistant cases their value was hard to argue with, something not lost on the consumer or on competitors.
A run through a dishwasher:
Timex is commonly thought of as an “American” company with Timex watches conspicuously worn by the last three US presidents ostensibly for just this reason. But Timex has a long history of international ownership and American as well as offshore manufacturing. Many vintage Timexes were made at Timex’s plant in Dundee, Scotland, with “MADE IN GREAT BRITAIN” printed at the bottom of the dial. The company’s roots can be traced through several US companies that consolidated over time through mergers and acquisitions. Corporate ancestors include the Waterbury Clock Company of Waterbury, Connecticut, who had acquired Ingersoll & Bros. (famous for its inexpensive “Yankee” or “Dollar” watches as well as Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck character watches), acquired by US Time shortly after its founding in 1941. US Time itself was later renamed Timex after the Timex model line proved wildly popular. Modern Timexes are typically made and/or developed in places as far flung as Germany, Switzerland, and in various places in Asia and the Pacific including India and the Philippines. Timex is privately owned by Fred. Olsen & Co., a Norwegian family-owned holding company.
Fixed to the keel of a speedboat:
A little known aspect of Timex watches is that the famously inexpensive movements that could take a licking and keep on ticking were based on technology originally developed for the United States War Department during WWII, when US Time like most US watch manufacturers was chiefly occupied making materials for the war effort. Originally designed for mechanical time bomb, torpedo, and artillery fuzes, the famous “V-Conic” escapement used conical balance pivots resting in a metal cup bearing of a hardened alloy known as Armalloy. The system was designed to be especially shock resistant and inexpensive to mass-produce, features making it ideal for both munitions fuzes and wristwatches. The technology apparently wasn’t patented or protected, and after the war US Time was able to begin producing wristwatches for the civilian market using the technology under its new “Timex” line. US Time/Timex continued making military materials for decades after the war’s end.
In the early 1950’s it was still permissible for manufacturers to market watches as “waterproof” before a spate of “Truth in Advertising” laws led to the eventual disappearance of the term from wristwatch marketing. In the meantime Timex was particularly successful at seizing upon the marketing opportunity. Though even most very inexpensive modern watches can now be expected to have at least some degree of water resistance, the idea was still novel at a time when most watches had to be carefully protected from water exposure. Though Timex did not incorporate much in the way of ingenuity or deliberate engineering beyond casing the watches in one-piece front-loader cases, they heavily marketed the “waterproof” aspect of their watches with tremendous success.
This was was put through a spin cycle in a 1600-rpm agitator bath:
In addition to being inherently shock resistant, US Time incorporated a number of innovations intended to simplify the assembly and production processes in very successful efforts to reduce costs. Priority was always given to aspects intended to speed and simplify production and reduce manufacturing costs, with quality and accuracy taking secondary priority and essentially no effort applied to making the watches maintainable down the line. At their low price points they were designed to be “disposable” when they reached the end of their useful life.
Timex experimented with its movement designs constantly in attempts to further reduce manufacturing costs and improve quality and reliability, with dozens upon dozens of variants emerging over the years. The variety results in a dizzying number of caliber variations which would challenge even the dedicated scholar. As well, to save on manufacturing costs Timex often used unconventional construction and assembly techniques, sometimes even using rivets and pins to secure the bridges, or even screws unconventionally fastening from the dial side.
In this commercial a cliff diver at the La Perla cliffs in Acapulco, Mexico dives watch-first from the quivalent of 12 stories at more than 85 mph:
In some ways it can be something of a minor myth that vintage Timex watches are inherently “unrepairable,” but like many myths there’s at least a little bit of truth embedded therein. Repairs are sometimes possible from a theoretical or mechanical standpoint (often by polishing the conical balance pivot in a lathe), but remain challenged from the standpoint of economic feasibility.
In a near-complete absence of supporting technical documentation and replacement parts from Timex, watchmakers are typically left unassisted trying to reverse engineer movements that incorporated uncommon design and assembly philosophies and a vast number of minor variations. While a repair might theoretically be possible, often the required time, effort, and expense will be out of proportion to the value of the watch and likely to outstrip the customer ’s willingness to invest in its repair.
As well, Timex also sold watches with inexpensive fully jeweled movements, often with foreign made ébauches from the likes of West German Durowe (later owned briefly for a few years by Timex), Japanese Seiko, and later still jeweled mechanical movements of Timex’s own manufacture. Fully jeweled Timex watches are usually every bit as repairable as any other vintage watch, though with the typical challenges regarding availability of replacement parts.
This Timex survived an extended period of abuse and got a literal “licking” at the hand (and mouth) of a 400-lb gorilla aptly named “Mongo”:
And here’s one with the trusty Timex Marlin attached to the propeller of an outboard boat motor. The commercials were frequently performed on live television, to further demonstrate that the watches were actually capable of the feats and no studio trickery was used. An earlier attempt at this stunt performed on live television misfired when the watch came off the propeller during the test, leaving an unflappable Swayze only able to assure the audience the watch was still working and promise a re-test the following week. It passed: