The Astronomy SE question Did a watch company really try to sue radio astronomers for using the word "pulsar"? If so, which astronomers? includes the following quote from Jocelyn Bell Burnell, the rebound radio astronomer who discovered pulsars:

These days as you know the name has traveled. There's watches called pulsars, certainly in the UK there's models of Nissan cars, you can sometimes find geraniums called pulsars, same name.

I'm told that in the United States the watch company tried suing the radio astronomers for use of the name!

The question there in Astronomy asks if this lawsuit happened and if so, which astronomers were sued.

Here however I would like to ask how to search for lawsuits where the Hamilton Watch Company may have sued astronomers or astronomical organizations for using the word "pulsar" in a way that infringes somehow on their (potentially trademarked) Pulsar watch.

If a byproduct of that answer happens to be an answer to that question as well, please feel free to post an answer to that question there.

Some information that might be used in constructing a search:

Notes from the video Jocelyn Bell Burnell Special Public Lecture: The Discovery of Pulsars (video cued at 48:37)

Jocelyn Bell Burnell, winner of the 2018 Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics, delivered a special talk at Perimeter Institute about her 1967 discovery of pulsars and her remarkable career in physics.

Note that Dr. Bell Burnell raises her hand (perhaps in victory?) when she mentions this, and in the same context mentions the suggesting party of the term Anthony R. Michaelis:

Whilst at the Daily Telegraph, in 1968, Michaelis was the first person to coin and use the term "Pulsar" to describe the discovery of Jocelyn Bell Burnell and Antony Hewish of the "Pulsating Radio star" in 1967.

From Wikipedia's Pulsar (watch):

In 1970, Pulsar was a brand of the American Hamilton Watch Company which first announced that it was making and bringing the LED watch to market. It was developed jointly by American companies Hamilton and Electro/Data Inc.

In spring 1972, the first Pulsar watch was marketed by Hamilton Watch (the parent company, not the Hamilton Watch Division). With an 18-carat gold case, the world's first all-electronic digital watch was also the first to use a digital display – created with light-emitting diodes (LEDs). A button was pressed to display the time. The first Pulsar initially sold for $2100 ($13,400 in 2020 dollars).

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    I hope you don't mind, I've taken the liberty of changing your title to make it more general as the question could be useful for others doing case research. Feel free to rollback if you're not happy with it.
    – JBentley
    Commented Sep 16, 2021 at 11:52
  • @JBentley that's excellent, quite an improvement. SE's all about getting readers to good answers.
    – uhoh
    Commented Sep 16, 2021 at 11:53
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    Not too hard if in federal court (via PACER). Harder if in state court as you must make inferences about the possible states and the search tools for states aren't as good.
    – ohwilleke
    Commented Sep 16, 2021 at 18:27

2 Answers 2


Given the following:

  • We know the name of the plaintiff,
  • The name is likely to be unique so that there won't be too many cases involving a different party with the same name, and
  • The plaintiff is a company so it is not likely to have been involved in an overwhelming number of cases (as opposed to e.g. the IRS);

The approach I would use would be to search a legal case database such as Westlaw for all cases where Hamilton Watch Company is a party, and review the abstract for each case that I find.

In this case we also have a relatively rare keyword, "pulsar" so we can narrow down the results by putting that in the search as well.

However there are several caveats:

  • You will only find cases which went far enough that the court made a decision. Your quote says "I'm told that in the United States the watch company tried suing the radio astronomers for use of the name". That sounds like pretty unreliable third hand information. It's quite possible that they merely sent a cease and desist letter and that got reinterpreted as "tried suing" by the time it was said by Jocelyn Bell Burnell.
  • Even if they did sue, the majority of cases are settled out of court without ever seeing trial, which means you are unlikely to find any formal record of it and your best hope may be media articles if it was high profile enough.
  • Large companies often have complex corporate structures involving parents and subsidiaries so the suing party's name may not actually be what you think it is. That certainly seems to be the case here, so you may have to start searching for other company names within the group.
  • Not all cases are reported in which case you are less likely to find them.

My jurisdiction is but I surprised myself by discovering that my Westlaw access allows me to login to the US version as well. I found no relevant cases for any of the following searches (based on various companies that have been part of the same group as Hamilton Watch Co over the years):

  • "hamilton" in the party name and "pulsar" in the text.
  • "buren" in the party name and "pulsar" in the text.
  • "swatch" in the party name and "pulsar" in the text.
  • "SSIH" in the party name and "pulsar" in the text.
  • "HMW" in the party name and "pulsar" in the text.

The only vaguely related thing I found was when I searched for "watch" as the party name and found this case involving a "pulsar" trademark for watches owned by Seiko Kabushiki Kaisha. It has nothing to do with the purported facts in your question though.

  • Wow thank you for looking into this carefully and taking the time to describe the process and considerations necessary for a careful search.
    – uhoh
    Commented Sep 16, 2021 at 9:49

When you need information like this, you generally just need to start searching court websites. If the case is in a court's online database, just having one party's name will almost always be enough to find the case.

Unfortunately, our court systems are so balkanized that proving the negative -- that Hamilton never sued anyone over "Pulsar" -- would involved searching hundreds (and maybe thousands) of court websites.

But there are a few clues here that would help you figure out where to look. First, it's a trademark lawsuit, and the parties are likely "diverse" in the sense that they are all from different states. Most trademark cases are handled in federal courts, and diversity cases are typically removed from state court to federal, so the odds are pretty good that you should be looking in federal courts.

But there are almost 100 federal district court, and they all have separate searches for this data, so you still want to narrow it further. This is where the Fifth Amendment comes in. The federal government can't deprive you of your property without due process, and the courts agree that this means that if you live in Florida, you probably can't be forced to defend a lawsuit in Alaska. A lawsuit against you has to be filed in a court with "personal jurisdiction" over the defendant, and that's almost always going to be the district court in which the defendant lives.

That's not particularly helpful here, though. Bell and Hewish were from the UK, and there's no mention of who specifically might have been sued in the United States, or where they'd be from.

The other problem you're going to run into is the possibility that this case is so old that you're not going to find it anywhere online. I don't see a lot of courts whose online records go that far back, and the federal courts' online record usually only go back to about 1990 or so.

For what it's worth, I've also gone through and searched PACER for all the federal courts, and I've searched through the New York Times archive, and I haven't found anything that looks even close to substantiating this story. My guess would be that the story is apocryphal.

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