A History Lesson on Smartwatches

When it comes to smartwatches most people don’t ever think about when they first began. In fact, most of my friends think that they started with the Apple Watch, which is far from the truth. Smartwatches have been around far longer than most people may realize and as technology continues to improve, it’s safe to say that they won’t be going anywhere anytime soon. This post will give a history lesson on smartwatches and provide some interesting information to those who are interested in learning more about them.

The Precursor

In April 1972, the world’s first LED digital watch was introduced by the Hamilton Watch Company. The watch was called the Pulsar P1, named after a type of star. What made this watch so groundbreaking was that it was the world’s first all-electronic digital watch!

Pulsar P1
Pulsar P1

It used a quartz crystal to keep time and it displayed it on a digital display using LED. It was quite stylish as well as it featured a synthetic ruby crystal to cover the LED display and was encased in 18-karat gold. To view the time, all you needed to do was push a button on the case and the time would pop up on the display.

At the time, this was a fairly successful timepiece and was even featured in the 1973 film, Live and Let Die. Agent 007 can be seen in one of the opening scenes wearing and using the watch. Even though the success of the Pulsar P1 was undeniable, it still had a major issue, which was the battery life.

On the surface, the Pulsar P1 didn’t have any immediate features that would indicate to most people this was a smartwatch. However, my belief is that it laid the groundwork for what was to come for future watches in an increasingly digital and technologically advanced world.

The Innovations of the 80s

As digital technology continued to improve during the 70’s and Liquid Crystal Display (LCD) made digital watches more efficient, several companies began to really take advantage of the technology and began producing some watches that were sure to turn heads.

Seiko, a Japanese watchmaking company, already had its hand in the digital market with the purchase of the Pulsar brand, however, they began to experiment on ways to equip digital watches with even more features. The Pulsar brand would eventually be acquired by Seiko in 1978 and in 1982 they released a version of the Pulsar watch (NL C01) that could store 24 digits.

In 1982, Seiko released the Seiko TV watch. The watch consisted of a 1.2-inch LCD display that featured the ability to watch TV on the bigger bottom portion of the display, while the top portion was used for telling the time and date.

In order to watch TV, you would need to plug the included external receiver into the watch and you could hear the broadcast with a separate headset. The Seiko TV watch was able to receive all UHF and VHF channels using the external receiver.

The watch was first sold in Japan in 1982 and then a year later in 1983 in the USA for a price of around $500!

Seiko Data-2000

During 1983, Seiko was also working on a watch that resemble the look and functionality of personal computers, thus the Data 2000 was created. The Data 2000 was a watch that came with an external keyboard that could be used for data-entry.

The watch could store 2,000 characters (hence the name) and data was synced via electro-magnetic coupling from the keyboard to the watch. While the watch didn’t exactly take off around the world, the technology was really ahead of its time in my opinion. It featured the ability to use wireless docking which is common tech in today’s world.

Seiko followed up with the RC-1000 a year later and featured a key new feature; it had the ability to connect to IBM machines, Commodore 64, and Apple II computers. The watch could connect to the computers using a cable and could transfer simple data. It even shipped with a floppy disk that included the required interfacing software needed for data transfer.

Casio Databank CD-40

Casio, another prominent Japanese watchmaker, was also heavily involved with releasing watches that had “smart” features during this time period as well. In 1980, the company released the Casio C-80, while it was not the first calculator watch, it was the calculator watch that finally had a major impact on the mainstream watch world.

One of the reasons it was so popular was because it allowed for its buttons to be pressed by the wearer’s fingers and not a stylus, which was needed by other calculator watches at the time.

The Casio Data Bank series eventually overtook the C-80, most notably with the Databank CD-40 debuting in 1983 as one of the first digital watches that allowed the user to store information such as phone numbers and memos. The Data Bank series of watches were so popular that they are still being made today.

The Nineties

With the change of the decade, watch manufacturers began ushering in the next wave of smart features in watches. Casio followed up on their product line of the late 80’s with the 1990 debut of the JC-10, but things turned up a notch when Timex released the Timex Datalink in 1994.

The Timex Datalink took things to the next level as it was the first wrist watch capable of connecting to and downloading from a computer wirelessly.

Seiko Ruputer Watch

In 1998, an inventor by the name of Steve Mann, known as “The Father of Wearable Computing,” created the world’s first Linux wristwatch; it was presented at IEEE ISSCC2000 on February 7th, 2000. During this same time in Japan, Seiko launched the Ruputer.

The Ruputer was basically a computer in the form of a wristwatch. It had a 3.6MHz processor and used an input device similar to a joystick. The screen was small and sported a resolution at 102×64 in 4 greyscales, which made it hard to read in most cases.

Most would consider this the first modern smartwatch as it was the first to offer a graphics display as well as 3rd party apps.

Towards the end of the decade, in 1999, Samsung created the first watch capable of telecommunications. Called the SPH-WP10, it was a digital watch fused with a wireless handset. It came with a CDMA antenna, a monochrome LCD screen, and could handle up to 90 minutes of talk time using an integrated speaker and microphone.

2000s

Towards the end of the 1990s, it was starting to become clear that the future of smartwatches would be based around computers and the ability to put them in wristwatch form. In June 2000, IBM revealed the WatchPad prototype.

The original version of the WatchPad was rather underwhelming, but it wasn’t long until it was upgraded. IBM and Citizen Watch Co. joined forces to further develop the WatchPad, which led to the creation of the WatchPad 1.5 in 2001.

IBM WatchPad 1.5

The WatchPad 1.5 was a big upgrade from the original prototype. It featured an accelerometer, fingerprint sensor, and a vibrating mechanism, like the previous version before it.

However, the biggest upgrades were the new Bluetooth technology, 8 MB of RAM, a 16 MB flash storage system, a new 320 x 240 QVGA touch screen and Linux OS 2.4, which was the latest version at the time.

Citizen wanted to retail the device at around $400. While it was revealed at various trade shows, the watch was never sold commercially and was eventually discontinued in 2002.

Even though the watch was discontinued it was a vision of things to come in the world of smartwatches with the use of Bluetooth technology and touch screen displays. We would see another attempt at this style of watch a year later when Fossil released the Wrist PDA in 2003.

Fossil, mostly known for traditional timepieces, released the Wrist PDA, a smartwatch that took inspirations from Personal Digital Assistants or PDA’s for short. PDA’s were basically small, handheld computers that had the ability to connect to the internet, had a display screen, could play audio files, and could also be used as telephones.

The Palm Fossil Wrist PDA

The Wrist PDA ran the Palm OS 4.1, which was developed by Palm, Inc., for PDA’s for its ease of use with touchscreen GUI based displays. It also featured a 33MHz DragonBall processor, 8 MB of RAM, 4 MB of flash memory, a 160 x 160 greyscale touch screen display, a virtual keyboard, an infrared port, and lastly, a small stylus for touch screen interaction. With the Palm OS, the watch was able to interact with PC’s and could run different applications in the Palm OS environment.

The watch was highly regarded amongst enthusiasts and was even regarded as “revolutionary” by some tech review sites during the time. However, a bulky footprint (wrist print in this case!) and a host of other issues involving the practicality of the device led to it being discontinued in 2005 due to poor sales.

In 2003, Microsoft debuted the Smart Personal Objects Technology (SPOT) smartwatch. While SPOT was an initiative that also included other gadgets such as coffee makers and alarm clocks, the smartwatch could be used as a standalone device.

The watch did not connect to the internet, instead it used Microsoft’s proprietary MSN Direct Network, which required a subscription, to access Windows Messenger. In doing this, the watch was able to receive personalized news items, sporting event scores, weather related info, and stock market prices.

The SPOT smartwatch provided a great leap forward in the world of smartwatches, however, it ultimately failed.

Modern Times

After the failure of the SPOT smartwatch by Microsoft, other companies also released their attempts at a smartwatch. Sony Ericsson and Samsung both had attempted to cash in on the market with their own smartwatches, however, neither of them had much mainstream success.

Sony Ericsson MBW-100 Bluetooth Smartwatch

However, I think it must be noted that Sony Ericsson, who teamed up with Fossil for this, released the first watch, the MBW-100, that connected to Bluetooth.

What made it different from the WatchPad 1.5 was that the MBW-100 was capable of connecting to cell phones via Bluetooth and could notify users when they were receiving calls and messages.

However, the downside to this was that it would only work with fellow Sony Ericsson phones. This ultimately led to the failure of the MBW-100 as it was limited in how many users could get full usage out of it.

The Pebble Watch

Although the smartwatch market was mostly niche and a number of companies had tried and failed, it wasn’t until 2012 that the market would be changed forever.

In 2012, Pebble Technology Corporation ran a Kickstarter campaign for a new smartwatch that would generate over $10 million dollars. It was, at the time, the most funded project in Kickstarter history and it showed that there was a real market out there for smartwatches.

The Pebble watch had a 1.26 in, 144 x 168 pixel black and white memory LCD display using an ultra-low power “transflective LCD.” It also had a backlight, a vibrating motor, ambient light sensors, an accelerometer, and a magnetometer.

It had the ability to connect with and Android or iOS phone or tablet using Bluetooth 2.1 and Bluetooth 4.0 (this was achieved through a later firmware update).

It was reported to have a 7-day battery life and was also water-resistant down to 130 ft. Tests at the time showed that users could shower and swim while wearing the watch without fear of damaging it.

By 2014, the Pebble app store contained 1,000+ apps that could be used for various things such as social media, activity tracking and remote controlling for smartphones and tablets.

Pebble Watch displaying an E-Mail

Although the Pebble watch was relatively successful, it would eventually lose market ground as other manufacturers caught on (Apple Watch for example).

However, what made it so important was that it was the first company to really introduce the concept of a smartphone connected watch to the masses and showed that there was a market for this type of technology if it could be done right.

TrueSmart and Others

Following the Pebble watch was the TrueSmart watch. The TrueSmart was a watch created by Omate, which ran a Kickstarter campaign that raised over a million dollars. In 2014, the TrueSmart was released to the public.

While the watch was not very successful from a sales perspective, what solidifies the TrueSmart as an important piece of smartwatch history was that it was the first smartwatch that was truly independent. The watch could make calls, use maps, and use Android applications completely independent of a smartphone.

While nearly all the devices covered in this post were basically commercial failures, the smartwatch industry has been on the rise since the early 2010’s.

With a variety of features and abilities gained through the use of apps, I don’t see the industry going downhill anytime soon and it can no longer be considered as just niche market.

Apple Watch 3

There are several major manufacturers involved with the smartwatch market with some of the most obvious being Apple, Samsung, Fitbit, and Garmin, to name a few. As technology continues to improve and parts continue to be manufactured for less, I’m sure the industry will continue to grow.

Conclusion

Hopefully you enjoyed this history lesson on smartwatches and was able to get a better understanding of where they originally came from. Do you own any wearable tech? Are you still not quite sold on them? Or just have any thoughts in general? Feel to let us know in the comment section below!

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