Digital watches and their place in the horological history


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When we say “watch”, we mostly think of a timepiece with rotating hands pointing to numbers arrayed on a (typically) circular dial. Sure this has changed a bit with the immersion of smartwatches, but a traditional, mechanical or quartz, watch still remains the first thing we think of when talking about “time-telling devices”. But today we will not talk about them :) . No, in today’s article we’ll go through a brief history of digital watches and see how they impacted the watchmaking world.

Although “digital” usually goes together with “electronic”, the first digital watches were actually mechanic. The first such piece was a 1830’s pocket watch created for the then French king Louis-Philippe d’Orléans. Created by the French watchmaker Blondeau, it featured two apertures through which the hours and minutes are visible on rotating discs. A spring driven finger caused the disk to “jump” to the next numeral when the previous hour/minute finishes. The first mass-produced digital pocket watches appeared in the 1890’s, designed by the Austrian engineer Josef Pallweber and manufactured by Cortébert and IWC. Around 1920, the two companies were the first to start producing digital wristwatches. The “jump-hour” mechanism is still used by many watch brands today.

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Cortébert digital mechanical wristwatch produced in the 1920’s

 

The first electronic digital wristwatch was the 1972 Hamilton Pulsar. Priced $2,100 (around $12,000 today), it featured a red LED display. But as much as they looked beautiful, the LED displays on early electronic digital wristwatches were extremely inefficient. In fact, they were so power hungry that they displayed the time only when the user pushed a button on the side. Another big issue with these timepieces was that most of them were very expensive. And although there were some exceptions, such as the Texas Instruments’ 1977 Star Wars digital watches (the first LED watches for under $20), the main issue still remained – impracticality. The fact that user needed to use two hands – one to wear the timepiece and other to push the button to turn on the LED display, was the one of the main reasons that led to a rather quick discontinuation of LED watches.

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The time on LED watches could only be seen on demand

 

A breakthrough came in 1973 with the Seiko O6LC – the first electronic digital wristwatch to have a LCD display. Unlike the energy-inefficient LED displays, the LCD’s use less power, allowing the display to be permanent and eliminating the need for pressing a button before seeing the time. This also allowed for the addition of seconds to the display. The Seiko O6LC is “responsible” for introducing the technology that is still used today. The watch also featured a design that would be seen many times over the next 40 years.

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The 1973 Seiko O6LC – the first wristwatch with a LCD display

 

In 1976 Hamilton introduced the first electronic digital wristwatch with a fully functional calculator. This was, however, not a very practical timepiece because of its LED display and small calculator buttons. The only way the user could press them was with the included stylus pen. There were a couple of similar LED models after the Hamilton’s 1976 model, but it was not until the late 1970s and early 1980s, that calculator watches really became popular among users. Japanese giants like Seiko and Casio began producing more affordable and practical watches that featured power efficient LCD displays and buttons that were big enough to be pressed without using a stylus. In particular, Casio popularized the concept, producing the largest variety of models. Most notable Casio watches from this era were the Databank digital watches.

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Although not as popular as they were in the 1980’s, Casio calculator watches are still in great demand among collectors

 

The 1980’s were also the time when manufacturers started producing electronic digital wristwatches with functionalities that go far beyond simple timekeeping. As the years went by, we saw hundreds and hundreds of models with various functions such as the alarm clock, FM radio, built-in TV, built-in camera, organizer, phone book, built-in video games, compass, and many, many more. With the immersion of technologies like Wi-Fi, USB and Bluetooth, electronic digital wristwatches have evolved into smartwatches that we all know and love (or hate :) ) today.

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The 1982 Seiko T001 digital watch with a built-in TV

 

 

1 Comment

  1. john says:

    I had one of these Casios as a kid. Thought it was the coolest thing ever.

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