The World’s Earliest Digital Watches

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James Bond checking his Pulsar digital wrist watch

If you are a James Bond fan, it’s likely that you enjoy his interesting spy gadgetry. Over the years, there have been many actors who portrayed Bond, but the one we want you to recall today is Roger Moore. In 1973, during his introductory role as Bond in the film entitled Live and Let Die, Moore wore a wristwatch that became enormously popular. In one of the movie’s opening scenes, he is lying in bed with one of the fabulous Bond girls, and he casually checks the time by pressing a button on his wristwatch to reveal a light-emitting diode (LED) display on a Hamilton P2 Astronaut wristwatch. Moviegoers were in awe of the watch because they had never seen anything like it. They soon found out that it was not a movie prop; it was real. It took very little time before Bond fans were in search of the Pulsar LED watch.

The Pulsar watch was the first product to integrate a complete electronic system on a single silicon chip, which is called a system-on-chip (SOC). Essentially, it was a time computer, and the Hamilton Watch Company decided to market it as humankind’s link to the very edge of time. Hamilton made a long television commercial for the Pulsar watch that probably sounded futuristic to 1970s consumers.

At the time, the LED watch was considered to be Space Age technology, and people wanted to possess it. As with all things, the passing of time changed how people felt about the LED watch. They eventually found the watch to be awkward and inconvenient because the display button had to be pressed to see the time. Although it may have been awkward, there were reasons why the time did not perpetually display on these flagship LED watches.

Pulsar Digital Wristwatch - Roger Moore

Roger Moore has his hands on…a Pulsar Digital Watch, of course !

Development of the First LED Wristwatch

Semiconductor research in the 1960s produced the technology used to create the LED watch. However, the problem of having to miniaturize this technology to make something as small as a wristwatch had to be overcome. This did not occur until the early 1970s.

When LED displays first appeared, they were power hungry. The batteries back then were not as strong as they are now. This meant that the early LED watches were only able to display the time very briefly. At first, this was considered novel, and at the time, it was even considered to be cool. However, in the late seventies, liquid crystal display (LCD) watches arrived. The LCD watches required a lot less power for a constant digital time display. It became the latest consumer bauble.

The First LCD Watch

Around the same time that Roger Moore was checking his Pulsar for the precise time, engineers were producing a new low-powered LCD chip that extended watch battery life by leaps and bounds. This effort made way for the watchmaking industry’s first LCD watch, which was the Microma. Interestingly, Microma was a subsidiary of the Intel Corporation. Intel acquired Microma in 1972. In 1974, after creating the perfect chip that would perpetually display the correct time, the Intel Corporation learned that success in the watch industry heavily depended on marketing. They made one television commercial that cost the company a whopping $600,000. When the Microma failed as a consumer product, Intel swore off anything to do with marketing to consumers. Intel’s former CEO, Andy Grove, wore the Microma to remind himself to never get into the consumer products business again. He called the watch his 15 million dollar watch, which revealed how much money Intel lost on the Microma. Whenever someone would approach him with an idea that would require marketing directly to consumers, Andy would look at his watch before turning them away.

The World's First LCD Watch

The Microma: The World’s First LCD Wrist Watch

The Intel Corporation made a wise move. LCD watches were about to go from a retail price of $200.00 to less than $20.00. The low price was attributable to the advent of a new watch made by a Japanese company known as Casio. Casio was widely known for their Casio Mini, which was a small calculator. Previously, calculators were only seen in office environments, and they were huge. Casio produced small, portable calculators, and they were a big hit with consumers. Casio got into the watch business in November, 1974; they produced large quantities of watches, which drove down the price of digital watches.

The Casiotron Watch

After experiencing success with the Casio Mini calculator, Casio was in a solid lead among other companies competing in the calculator industry. To solidify their earnings base, Casio made the decision to diversify their business by producing watches. However, the Japanese watch industry was closely integrated from production to sales levels. This made it extremely difficult for a new manufacturer to enter the marketplace.

Casio's Casiotron Wristwatch

Casio’s Casiotron digital wrist watch, in all its glory

Casio made serious efforts to overcome this pesky barrier, and in the fall of 1974, they released a computerized watch called the Casiotron. The watch displayed the hours, minutes, seconds, and as an added bonus, it had a visible calendar. The calendar automatically determined the number of days in a month. To say the watch became popular would be an understatement. Eventually, Casio went on to produce watches that had calculator and game functions. This was the forerunner of the technology that created hand-held computer games. Shortly after Casio’s watchmaking venture, an American company that was also known for making calculators decided to enter the digital watch market.

Texas Instruments

In 1976, Texas Instruments (TI) entered the watch industry. Their introduction of electronic digital watches was a business landmark during the 1975 Consumer Electronics Show in Chicago. During the show, TI featured three high-fashion LCD wristwatches and three personalized watches with LED displays for women and men. The company had previously developed custom integrated circuits and LED displays for the marketplace. They had an established channel of distribution for their calculators, and it was a small step to make low-cost cases for their watches. The company purchased the batteries and the bands elsewhere to produce a complete watch. They chose to enter the marketplace below the $40 price point, and they targeted mass distribution. Some of the places they sought out were department stores and discount stores. The chip design for their prototype watches began in December, 1974. The watches were ready to be shipped in September of 1975.

First LED Wristwatch from Texas Instruments

The first LED Wristwatch produced by Texas Instruments

In 1976, TI announced that they were the leading supplier of digital watches. They were producing about 18 million watches per year. The largest part of the market was below the $20 price point. Eventually, their introduction of a $9.95 digital watch that featured a plastic watchband was the beginning of the end of their watchmaking. They were roundly criticized for the low price of the watch, which generated very high revenues but very low profit margins. In 1981, TI stopped producing watches and turned their attention to other opportunities.

It’s hard to imagine the companies that once produced millions of watches each year losing the lion’s share of the watch industry because they were underpricing one another until the profits disappeared. Some argue that the watch business was never an engineering timepiece market; they say it always has been a fashion market. Perhaps they are correct.

Considering the digital watch was initially a fashion craze for its high-tech James Bond gadgetry, the companies making these watches should have known that the next shiny thing would snare the public eye away from their watches. Eventually, a large chunk of the watchmaking business reverted back to the Swiss (especially via Swatch). It’s kind of funny imagining the Swiss laughing at some of these manufacturers pricing themselves out of the digital watch business. After all, no one knew more about marketing, precision watchmaking and pricing than the Swiss. They refused to enter the digital watch market because they believed it would be a fad. They nearly lost their entire industry because of this refusal, but in theory, they were right.

Vintage Ad for Hamilton's Pulsar Wrist Watch

Vintage Ad for Hamilton’s Pulsar Digital Watch

Here at Online Clock, we are thrilled that there was once a digital watch craze. A lot of good technology came out of it. Imagine if it hadn’t happened! On second thought, let’s not imagine it hadn’t happened because had Intel spent all of their money on failing digital watches, you might not be staring at your computer right now. It really is a chilling thought, isn’t it?

Nevertheless, 1970s digital watches are still really cool collector’s items. There are many for sale online at auction sites and watch collector sites. The first batch of Pulsar P2 Astronaut watches retailed for $2,100. Back then, $2,100 was enough money to buy an infamous 1970s Chevy Vega.

Perhaps you have a vintage digital watch. If you do, we’d love to hear all about it.

Many digital watches have very interesting histories. You can discuss this topic with us on Facebook, Google+ or Twitter. And you can also leave a comment here on our blog! 🙂

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