As the world was progressing through the Fifties and the Sixties, we began to see more and more changes in the world. Technology was rapidly improving and it wasn’t just a pipe dream that we would have more futuristic looking things. The 1950’s brought us microchips, mass produced modems (precursor to more modern modems, and the first credit card. In the 1960’s we saw even more technological advances such as the first handheld calculator, the computer mouse, and the ATM. Of course, it wouldn’t be much longer until we started seeing a more futuristic looking time piece.

The First Electrical LED Digital Watch

In April of 1972, the Hamilton Watch Company introduced the world’s first LED digital watch. It was jointly developed by two American companies, Hamilton and Electro/Data. Named after a type of star, the watch was dubbed the Pulsar P1. It was the world’s first all-electronic digital watch and were selling for $2,100 a pop. In today’s dollars, the amount would be around $13,000.

 The Pulsar P1 used a quartz crystal for keeping time and it showed the time using a digital display using light-emitting diodes or LEDs. Synthetic ruby crystal covered the LED display and it was all encased in 18-karat gold. The wearer would need to press a button display the time and if it was held, the display would change to show the seconds counting up. The reason behind this was so that the watch could reserve battery power.

The Pulsar was a fairly successful timepiece as most people considered LED technology to be space-age and futuristic. In 1973 the watch was featured in the James Bond movie Live and Let Die. In one of the opening scenes, Bond is seen lying in a bed with a woman while pressing a button on his Pulsar to show the time on the LED display of the watch. At its peak, Hamilton sold 150K units in 1976.

While the watch was successful, it was not without its problems. LED displays during that time were very power consuming. The batteries were not as strong back then as they are now so this late to the battery needing to be changed much sooner than that of an analog watch. However, a lot of this changed going into the late Seventies, which is when Liquid Crystal Display (LCD) was beginning to hit the scene.

The Takeover of LCD

In its earliest forms during the 1960’s, LCD had several requirements. It needed a constant current, a voltage, which at the time was too high for a battery, and a mirror which created limited viewing angles.

Around the early 1970’s, the LCD world changed with the creation of the TN-effect or Twisted Nematic field effect. This required a much lower voltage, lower power, and no mirror to restrict viewing angles. It wasn’t long until the market started seeing new digital wristwatches using this new and more efficient LCD technology.

The Seiko 06LC was one of the first watches to use the new TN-effect LCD technology. Released in October of 1973, it was the world’s first six-digit, fully electric, LCD watch. It was able to continuously display the time which was much more convenient than the LED digital watches that came before it.

The driving mechanism of the watch was unique in that electrical signals were sent straight to the liquid crystal panel where they were converted to digits on the display. The LCD itself had a long-life span and the screen had enough contrast to be seen with no problems. It even had a lamp that provided just enough lighting to make the display easy to read.

Shortly after in 1974, Casio, a Japanese company who mainly produced office devices, released their own digital quartz watch, the Casiotron. Casio’s watches were all electronic as well as very affordable and they were able to mass produce them. Casio even enjoyed a level of international success that other American watchmakers were not having at the time.

It wasn’t much longer until the cost of the digital watch began to fall down, some being as low as $20 or less. In 1976, Texas Instruments released the first under $20 LED watch and in 1977 they produced licensed LED watches that went hand in hand with the release of Star Wars. As the prices began to fall and some companies able to outproduce others, numerous companies stopped producing digital watches or worse, they closed down.

The Earliest Smartwatches

While today we have smartwatches from Apple, Samsung, etc… they have actually been around for much longer. During the 1980’s digital watch makers began to really add some unique features that were very cool during the time.

In 1980 Casio released the Game-10, which featured a game similar to space invaders. The game was a horizontal shooter where you must avoid being shot while moving your ship to fire back.

Nintendo also released plenty of wristwatches that featured much smaller iterations of their console games. Classics like Donkey Kong and Zelda made their way to people’s wrists and because of LCD watches were mostly being made with plastic cases and bands, these watches were very affordable.

In 1982, Seiko released the Seiko TV Watch, which allowed you to watch TV as well as tell the time and date. The watch featured a tiny LCD screen that was embedded into the face of the watch. To watch TV, you would need to plug it into a receiver and the cable going to the headphones acted as an antenna. I could only imagine how cool this may have been given that it was 1982 and people had the ability to watch TV from their watch.

The Fall of Digital Watches

As technology continued to improve, we began to see mobile phones start hitting the market. While mobile phones didn’t completely kill digital watches, they just made owning one more and more obsolete. Even some of the earlier model mobile phones had the ability to tell time as well as make calls and even play games.

This was especially prominent in the younger generation who grew up using mobile phones and never had a need or desire to own a watch.

The newest form of digital watches that we see in today’s world are the smartwatches that are manufactured by companies such as Apple, Garmin, and Samsung. Although, in my opinion, these devices feel somewhat like smartphones you wear on your wrist.

Conclusion

While digital watches are not as desired or collected as much as their analog counterpart, they had a pretty good run and made a significant impact on the watch world of today. They introduced to us some amazing features that were unheard of for watches at the time when they peaked in the mid-80’s. I would say that, all in all, they had a pretty good run.

Did you own a digital watch back in the day or no?

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2 Comments

Cherise · February 1, 2020 at 1:35 AM

I definitely had a digital watch! 80’s baby, of course disney and pixar character watches are popular for kids now too. Using a pen to push in the side to set the time ? Love it. I honestly don’t get owning a smart watch when I already have a smart phone, but hey different strokes.
This was a great read
Thanks!

    Jerry Strickland · February 1, 2020 at 11:14 PM

    Awesome! 80’s baby as well and I remember having a red casio digital watch as a kid. I think it’s cool to see that they are starting to come back in my adult years. Glad you enjoyed the post and thanks for reading!

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