The American watch company, which operated a modern assembly plant 15 miles south of Lisbon, employed about 2,000 people, mostly women and teenage girls.
The Timex watch was a famous brand producing low-cost wrist watches. Established in 1854 as the Waterbury Clock Company. In 1901 they brought out their first pocket watch, it sold for one dollar. Mark Twain bought two. These days you can get a TIMEX watch from Amazon in Europe for less than €50. Timex produces pieces for volume brands in Asia while its luxury division manufactures in Switzerland. So what were they doing in Portugal and what went wrong?
The factory was opened by the then President Almirante Américo Tomás in March 1970, initially with 400 workers. Timex were attracted to pre revolution Portugal as they saw political stability (i.e. a dictatorship) and cheap labour. As a wholly owned subsidiary of Timex America, they started assembling mechanical watches, but the evolution of digital watches changed everything. Digital watch production was switched mainly to the Far East where labour was cheap.
The revolution changed everything
In May 1974 Following the revolution, Timex announced plans for the dismissal of 668 workers, reduction of the workweek to three days and the closing of the factory for two weeks starting immediately. The Timex workers took over the factory in protest about low wages and what they said were poor working conditions and long hours. This was known as 'saneamento', workers in many industries evicted their bosses and took over running the company. The Timex workers continued making and selling watches. Their demands for a forty hour week instead of the forty five hour week they worked were refused by the management and the workers continued to occupy the factory for a month.
The strike and factory takeover caused considerable publicity at the time, not least to the high-profile name Timex and the large workforce. The company suspended regular bus transport to the factory. The workers —mostly women and teenage girls — came in buses and cars lent by the Lisbon Shipyard and other companies, or hitchhiked.
General Antonio de Spinola, who assumed the presidency of Portugal after the military coup, was one of the people involved in resolving these strikes that were going on throughout Portugal. It was reported that Military ‘arm-twisting’ was also used to end a month-long walkout at the Timex plant.
“It wasn’t me or Microsoft who created the cultural change allowing the computer to go home. It was Sinclair and Timex”. Bill Gates
What became obvious is that a new product was needed now that mechanical watched had little or no demand. This is where Clive Sinclair and the Spectrum ZX computer come into the picture. The Spectrum computer was a hot seller. Micro computers were new and everybody wanted one.
Sinclair had a large factory in Dundee but demand outstripped supply and there was a waiting list of several months, so Sinclair looked to Portugal and the Timex factory in Portugal. Labour was still relatively cheap and the Timex factory had excellent facilities and the work force were highly skilled. It was a natural fit.
What went wrong?
Sinclair Scotland had tied up supply to Europe, (except Poland), but America wanted these new miracle home machines. Portugal was the answer. As with many new ‘inventions’, the microcomputer or ‘home computer’ came with more than a few problems. The machine would become famous for the games that entertained a whole generation of pioneers. Problem number one was that it came with only 48k of RAM. This was later increased to 72k. Problem number two was that the only way to load the software was by a cassette tape, very slow and unreliable. The Portuguese engineers were up to resolving many of these problems and started to develop their own 3” floppy disk. These machines were in no way capable of any business applications, games were about its limit.
The T/S 1000 was introduced in July 1982, with Timex Sinclair touting it as the first home computer to cost under $100 in the U.S. market. In spite of the flaws in the early versions, 550,000 units were sold by the end of the year. The Portuguese factory was turning out over 5,000 units a day.
Then companies like IBM, Atari and Commodore came onto the market. They could see a good idea and had the resources and marketing power to take it to the next stage. Sinclair’s clever ‘invention’ was soon overshadowed by the new players who could see the future of computers for the mass market. It’s interesting to note that Clive Sinclair was a great inventor, he also invented the first pocket calculator and even the electric ‘three wheel car’, the Sinclair C5. His ZX Spectrum computers brought affordable personal computing to the masses and sold in their millions across the world until the big manufacturers spotted the potential of the microcomputer. None of his inventions lasted very long, others copied and improved.
The Maggie Thatcher connection
What follows is a rumour that has been kept ‘under wraps’, it can’t be definitely confirmed. It is rumoured that in 1991 Margaret Thatcher came to Portugal to meet with then Prime Minister Cavaco Silva. People close to the Timex Portugal operation claim that Maggie convinced Cavaco Silva to transfer all the technology and expertise that Timex Portugal had developed to the Sinclair factory in Scotland. This was to save the jobs in Dundee, but jobs were lost in Portugal, though according to some reports some workers at the Portuguese factory returned to making watches for some time.
The remaining stocks of the ZX Spectrum were sent to Argentina. How did Maggie achieve this, maybe she ‘hand bagged’ Cavaco Silva into losing a lot of jobs and expertise from Portugal. Scotland’s gain was Portugal’s loss.
For more about the development of the Sinclair home computer in Portugal, see the video below:
The Untold History of the ZX Spectrum official clones by TIMEX Computers
Resident in Portugal for 50 years, publishing and writing about Portugal since 1977. Privileged to have seen, firsthand, Portugal progress from a dictatorship (1974) into a stable democracy.