Four Decades Later, HP Gets Back Into Smartwatch Business

In 1977, the company introduced a pioneering, unsuccessful–and eventually legendary–high-tech timepiece.

Four Decades Later, HP Gets Back Into Smartwatch Business
Gilt’s upcoming smartwatch, with design by Michael Bastian and software by HP [Image via Gilt]

Normally, it’s not surprising to hear that yet another tech company plans to get into the smartwatch business. At the moment, the industry is so giddy over the category that everyone wants a piece of it. But I must confess that I was a tad surprised to hear that HP is joining the mad rush.


It’s doing so in what sounds like a level-headed manner. Instead of taking on all the responsibility of competing with watches based on Google’s Android Wear–as well as anything wearable which Apple might release in the coming months–the company is providing software for a smartwatch designed by Michael Bastian, which will be sold exclusively by luxury online retailer Gilt, starting this fall.

Even dabbling in smartwatches is a significant move for HP: Under its current CEO, Meg Whitman, HP has focused on consumer product categories which it’s already good at, such as printers and devices that are recognizable as personal computers. The era in which it wrangled a now-implausible deal to sell iPods under its own brand, offered HDTVs, and created its own iPad killer from scratch seems like eons ago.

An HP-01 patent drawing

But if you’ve got a ridiculously long memory–or at least a love for tech history–you may remember that this isn’t HP’s first foray into smartwatches. Actually, it helped invent the category.

In 1977, two of the hottest personal-electronics categories were calculators and digital watches. HP combined them in the form of the HP-01, the first calculator watch. It was a quartz timepiece with what counted as an oversized LCD display at the time, a low-power microprocessor, and a 28-key keypad you jabbed at with a microscopic stylus which could be stored in the wristband clasp.

You could perform algebraic calculations and even do math that was updated in real time based on input from the clock, which sounds like a rudimentary form of computer programming to me.

The HP-01 watchImage via Wikimedia

It was an astounding feat of miniaturization at the time, and HP pitched it as a visionary breakthrough: “a new idea for the age of personal information.” But the HP-01, which was sold at jewelry stores for $650 in silver or $750 in gold, flopped. In 1979, HP discontinued it. And before long, calculator watches from companies such as Casio became cheap, plasticky commodities.


That’s not the end of the story, though. Modern-day gizmo collectors are very much interested in buying the HP-01. HP produced so few of them in the first place that examples now sell for $1,200 and up on eBay–way, way up for minty units with original documentation and packaging. Someone is even selling an unreleased chrome prototype for $14,500.

Among the many details which Gilt hasn’t yet disclosed about its upcoming HP-powered watch is the price. I wonder if it’ll go for more than a pristine HP-01?

About the author

Harry McCracken is the technology editor for Fast Company, based in San Francisco. In past lives, he was editor at large for Time magazine, founder and editor of Technologizer, and editor of PC World.