Geeks

A Brief History of the Smartwatch

The first calculator watch was the Pulsar 901 released in 1975

The first calculator watch was the Pulsar 901 released 41 years ago.

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Casio smartwatch

With Casio releasing its first modern day “Smartwatch” at this year’s Consumer Electronic Show, the category is actually entering Middle Age. Check out our article for more details about the new Casio smartwatch here.   Samsung has had several generations of models using 3 different operating systems. While Apple does not report sales of it’s Watch individually the category that includes the Apple Watch was up 61% over the previous year that did not include the Apple Watch. All results indicate this trend will see Apple’s first smartwatch as a big seller over the recent holiday season.  Apple is expected to release its second generation of the Apple Watch this year. With a host of other makes and models, the smartwatch landscape is still maturing.

In spites of the smartwatch hype, few of the current crop of features like environment sensors or radios are new to watches. These features have been around a long time. If you consider basic computing power as a “smartwatch” the entire category is actually decades old.

Wikipedia lumps the calculator watches of the ’80s as early smartwatches since calculators were the first mass electronic computing device to bring the ability to crunch numbers to the masses.

The 1970s

During the early ’70s there was a flood of ever smaller ever more affordable calculators first as desktop models quickly turning into pocket models. Many of today’s top tech companies got their start in consumer electronics with these pocket electronic marvels for the masses. Texas Instruments, Hewlett-Packard, and Casio are examples of these early calculator manufacturers still bringing us miniature marvels. By the 1980s calculators were so small, ubiquitous, and affordable that they began to show up in the wrist watches of early geeks.

The Texas Instruments Cal Tech Hand Held Calculator

The Texas Instruments Cal Tech Hand Held Calculator

The 1980s

With their tiny keyboards and LCD screens, simple math problems could be solved right on the wrist. Each year brought new features and invitations of miniaturizations. Scientific functions were added, arcade games and later data storage for contacts and schedules found their way into these tiny wonders.

Casio made the Calculator Watch a household word with the C-80.

Casio made the Calculator Watch a household word with the C-80

Still making calculator watches today, Casio was a leader of these early geek watches. The C-80 was Casio’s first calculator watch released in 1980. Casio has announced the anticipated release of its first “modern” smartwatch is coming in April of this year.

Seiko Data 2000The first true computer watch belongs to Seiko, unlike the Casio watches the Seiko model Data 2000 (The D409 was technically their first model with onboard storage) was a real wearable computer. With 1k (yes, one kilobyte) in memory and a Z80 processor, users could create and run BASIC programs. This tiny computer clipped to a keyboard dock that would allow for programs to be written and run right on the watch.

 

Radio watches also began to appear in these early days of miniaturization, tiny AM or FM radio tuners inserted into the body of a watch.

Radio watches also began to appear in these early days of miniaturization, tiny AM or FM radio tuners inserted into the body of a watch

 Seiko again upped the stakes and added TV viewing in 1982 with its TV watch but not without the need of bulky tuner add-on pack that was carried separately.

Seiko again upped the stakes and added TV viewing in 1982 with its TV watch but not without the need of bulky tuner add-on pack that was carried separately

Many of these early gadgets found their way into movies and TV, Seiko’s T001 TV watch became James Bonds watch in Octopussy while TV’s Knight Rider would rebrand an AM radio watch as a comlink for David Hasselhoff to talk to KITT when the (smart)car was off screen.

Michael Knight, the man who didn't exist, keeps in close contact with his snooty British car KITT via a Casio Comlink

Michael Knight, the man who didn’t exist, keeps in close contact with his snooty British car KITT via a Casio Comlink

Casio would eventually add a heartbeat sensor on their 1987 JP-100W model watch beating Apple by 29 years.

Casio would eventually add a heartbeat sensor on their 1987 JP-100W model watch beating Apple by 29 years.

Casio beat Apple by 29 years by adding a heartbeat sensor with its 1987 JP-100W model

The 1990s

By the early 90’s Timex would bring computer data to the wrist with their Datalink 50 released in 1994.

By the early 90’s Timex would bring computer data to the wrist with their Datalink 50 released in 1994

This early smartwatch would sync contact and appointment data with desktop computers the connection was unique using the flash of the PC monitor screen to transmit data to the light sensor in the watch.

fossilThe 21st Century

By today’s definition of a smartwatch, the first model was arguably the Palm OS watch by Fossil. First announced in 2004 Fossil beat Apple by a decade. The Palm OS watch crammed 8 megs of RAM a Dragonball CPU, Infer Red wireless communication and a tiny touch screen into the body of a watch. The palm watch could run thousands of apps, play games run your calendar and keep track of your contacts.

Plagued by production problems, poor battery life, and the rapidly shrinking Palm market the palm watch did not catch on in large numbers.

The first digital camera watch again goes to Casio in 2000 with their WQV-1. Take that Samsung

The first digital camera watch again goes to Casio in 2000 with their WQV-1. Take that Samsung

These early smartwatches paved the way for Pebble, Samsung, Apple and finally full circle back to Casio. It took the combined efforts of Pebble, Samsung and Apple to make these future tech watches mainstream. It took Apple to make them sexy.

So there is really little new here. Many of these features have been around a long time.  Only today we’re seeing them all in one watch.

Read Derek’s review of the Casio Smart Watch from CES 2016 here

What’s your favourite retro geek watch?

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