When you think about it, any wristwatch which does something useful beyond telling you the time of day arguably qualifies as a smartwatch. By that standard, the concept has existed for more than a century–ever since the first chronographs added a handy stopwatch to their timekeeping capabilities.
But watch-sized devices really got versatile in the 1970s and 1980s, when miniaturized electronics made it plausible to shrink down gadgets of all sorts into something you could strap to your person. Radio, TV, video games, paging, and even personal computing all got wearable, in devices which often attracted plenty of attention in magazines such as Popular Mechanics and Popular Science.
For all the attention they got, most of these devices didn’t sell in vast quantities. Many were commercial failures by any definition. The moral of some of the devices you’re about to get acquainted with is, basically, that just because you can build something into a watch doesn’t mean that you should do so. That’s one which the smartwatch makers of 2014 and beyond would be smart to heed.
For a brief period in the 1970s, quartz wristwatches with LED displays were high-end status symbols. And they didn’t get much more high-end than the first calculator watch, a Pulsar which arrived in 1975 and was billed as a “Time Computer.” It was even available in a version with a case made of solid 18K gold; the $3,950 list price for that one translates into about $17,500 in 2014 dollars. Remember those figures for the sake of comparison when Apple announces the price of the 18K version of the Apple Watch, which currently has pundits speculating about prices ranging from “as much as $1,200” to $5,000 or more.
Dick Tracy got his first two-way wrist radio in 1946. The concept was so potent that to this day, a remarkable percentage of articles written about advanced technology you can fasten to your wrist reference the comic-strip detective and his wearable device.
By the 1960s, gadget makers really were putting radios on wrists. This particular 10-buck model was advertised in Popular Mechanics in 1976, and wasn’t all that futuristic: It was just a smallish AM transistor radio fastened to a watchband. But not that smallish: Like many a current smartwatch, it was not built for folks with dainty wrists.
British gadget genius Clive Sinclair is best known in the U.S. for his wacky, dirt-cheap PCs, which happen to have been sold stateside by a watch company–Timex. But his brainchildren are legion, and among them is the 8-digit wrist calculator, which sold for a low, low $19.95. The rock-bottom price was explained in part by the fact that it was available only as a do-it-yourself kit, which ads said you could put together in about three hours if you were reasonably proficient with a soldering iron.
The Sinclair calculator watch ran on hearing-aid batteries, and had a switch which allowed its buttons to provide three different functions apiece. Pretty nifty–and wouldn’t it be neat if someone came up with a build-it-yourself smartwatch with a similar price tag today?
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, video games got portable for the first time. In some cases, they got miniaturized right onto your wrist. A company called Nelsonic Industries was the kingpin of the game-watch industry, striking licensing deals to sell wristwatch versions of seminal video game franchises such as Donkey Kong, Frogger, The Legend of Zelda, Pac-Man, and Q*Bert.
The company also released models based on movies, such as Ghostbusters and the Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan watch seen here. Sadly, the Khan watch’s gameplay doesn’t involve a tiny digital Ricardo Montalban doing battle with a tiny digital William Shatner: It’s actually an exceedingly generic space shoot-em-up which was also sold under the names Space Attacker and Cosmic Wars.
Nowadays, it’s tough to build a smartwatch that’s advanced enough to run sophisticated apps and connect directly to the Internet, at least without killing its battery. So most models tether wirelessly via Bluetooth to a smartphone and rely on it for help with computation and connectivity. Similar thinking–in far more rudimentary form–was at work Seiko’s TV-Watch: You wore a 1.2-inch monochrome LCD TV screen on your wrist, but most of the electronics were in a Walkman-like box connected to the watch via an ugly dongle and a cable.
The first version sold in the U.S. went for $495, or about $1,200 in today’s dollars. It didn’t have much of an impact in the real world. But at least it had one fictional moment of glory, when Q doled out one (with a color screen, yet) to James Bond in 1983’s Octopussy.
Even in 2014, cramming an entire QWERTY keyboard layout onto a smartwatch is tough. (Just look at Samsung’s wrist-dwarfing Gear S.) In 1984, before the age of modern touchscreens, it was impossible. So with its $300 UC-2000, Seiko did the opposite: It crammed a watch into a QWERTY keyboard.
With the watch docked in its calculator-like keyboard unit, you could enter alphanumeric information such as notes and calendar appointments with (relative) ease. You could even spring for a more powerful keyboard which included a built-in printer and ROM packs which let you do word processing, play games, and even write your own programs in Microsoft BASIC. That made the UC-2000 a personal computer by just about any definition–one of the smallest, strangest ones of all time.
Remember pagers? In the early 1990s, they were still everywhere, because mobile phones hadn’t quite reached a truly consumer-friendly price point. Motorola, a major manufacturer of them, built a watch into a pager which it initially sold itself. (It later provided paging technology to Timex.)
In retrospect, paging sounds like one of the simpler, more sensible gadget functions to add to a watch: All Motorola’s first version did was display phone numbers for callback, and it only stored eight of them for future reference. But just as people are already questioning whether the Apple Watch will be slim and stylish enough to appeal to fashion-conscious people, Motorola’s creation got dinged for being insufficiently fashionable. As an executive at a Florida pager retailer told reporter Charles Lunan, “You’re looking at a really special, executive market and my fear there is: Will an executive with a $400 suit wear a clunky watch-pager or will he wear a designer watch?”
Over the years, Japan’s Casio may have produced more wristwatches with more offbeat capabilities than any other company. Besides telling time, its $70 CMD-10B incorporated a dinky universal infrared remote control which could change channels, adjust the TV volume, and control a VCR and cable box. The most interesting thing about the watch was the design: Instead of making the remote-control buttons too tiny, they were fairly large and sat in a pod to the right of the display. (Pretty clever, but decidedly aimed at the right-handed majority rather than southpaws.)
Casio still makes remote-control watches today, and they’re very much recognizable as descendants of the 1993 version. I don’t know of any smartwatches among the current crop of high-profile contenders which match its capabilities. But if the Apple Watch can’t be used to control an Apple TV box via Wi-Fi, I’m going to be disappointed.
Rumor has it that Microsoft is working on a smartwatch. If so, it’ll mark a return to the category by a company with a long-standing interest in wrist-worn technology. Two decades ago, it teamed up with Timex to create Datalink–a contact-centric smartwatch which was available in a variety of styles sized to fit both gentlemen and ladies.
Back in 1994, most PCs were desktops, and lacked any means of wireless communications. So Datalink used a mad-genius approach to shuttle address-book entries and schedule information from a Windows computer into the watch. You held the Datalink up to your computer’s CRT display, and an optical sensor on the watch detected flashing bars on the PC monitor which transmitted your data in Morse code-like form. Though ingenious, the concept was incompatible with the LCD screens on notebook computers, which eventually led Timex to offer a laptop adapter and then dispense with flashing altogether in favor of a mundane-but-fast USB connection.
Before it actually hit the market, I was briefly, irrationally exuberant over Fossil’s Wrist PDA, which was essentially a wearable PalmPilot. The maker of moderately priced fashion watches launched a technology group, licensed the rights to the Palm OS, and managed to squish it into a watch-size device, complete with the ability to run apps designed for full-size Palm PDAs. Fossil announced the Wrist PDA in 2002, but the necessary engineering was so hard to pull off that it didn’t ship until 2004.
Once the device hit the market, it didn’t stay there long. Even though the Palm interface was simple, it was never designed to run on a miniature touchscreen (and the one on the Wrist PDA was murky) with a miniature stylus (which you stowed in the watch’s buckle). Users also griped about the battery dying after a day or two, a flaw it shares with most of today’s smartwatches. Bottom line: It may have been a miracle that this gadget worked at all, but it wasn’t sufficiently miraculous to make it a good idea.