A Short History of Digital Clocks and Watches

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One of the past century’s most revolutionary changes in the world of timepieces was the coming of digital clocks and wrist watches.

Each type of digital timepiece (clocks and wrist watches) has a history; this blog post will be dedicated to both of them.

Perhaps one of the earliest styles of clocks that influenced the first true digital timepieces were Plato clocks. These pieces were small cylindrical-shaped objects, similar to a lantern. Inside the glass display were small digital cards with numbers printed on them, which flipped as time passed. The spring-wound Plato clocks were introduced at the St. Louis World Fair in 1904, produced by Ansonia Clock Company. Eugene Fitch of New York patented the clock design in 1903.

Plato Clocks

Plato Clocks: spring-wound flip clocks which are forerunners to modern digital clocks.

The original emergence of digital timepieces is surrounded by some controversy.

As recorded on Ask.com, many people credit Josef Pallweber, a Swiss timepiece maker born in Salzburg, Austria, with the original idea for a digital timepiece. His 1956 clock model was said to be more analog than a true digital clock. Although there is much controversy, confusion and speculation online about who invented the first digital clock, Free Patents Online, a patent records database, shows that the earliest patent, U.S Patent Number No. 2,768,332, for a digital clock was held by D.E Protzmann and others. Dated October 23, 1956, this patent describes a digital alarm clock having a bellcrank lever, aimed toward an alarm cam gear by a vibrator arm. A manual lever to shut off the device was also described, which lifted the vibrator arm to eliminate spring force from the bellcrank and cam gear. D.E Protzmann and his associates also patented another digital clock later in 1970. This model was said to use a minimal amount of moving parts. Two side-plates held digital numerals between them, while an electric motor and cam gear outside controlled movement. The vibrator was placed near the motor to give it a continuous cycle of movement. Making the device more power-efficient, a moveable rod was placed along these components, which was aided by the vibrator arm to move constantly toward the cam. The alarm vibrator would then be released, initiating the alarm sound.

Josef Pallweber's Early Digital Timepiece

Josef Pallweber's Early "Digital" Timepiece

The first truly digital wrist watch surfaced in 1972, made by American timepiece manufacturer Hamilton Watch Company. According to Answerbag, the Pulsar wrist watch was made of 18-carat gold, costing $2,100. Time was shown by pressing a button on the side of the device, after which an LED showed a glowing red display of the time in digital numbers. In their article “History of the Digital Watch,” the BBC notes that Hamilton Watch Company also designed a digital clock prior to this in 1968, which appeared in the movie “2001: A Space Odyssey,” made by Stanley Kubrick. This clock was meant to give a hint to viewers of the coming revolutionary digital timepieces and spark curiosity. The digital watch was especially popular; by 1975, more than 80 types were on the market, giving its analog competitor a detrimental blow.

The Hamilton Watch Company's Pulsar Watch

The world's first digital wrist watch: the Hamilton Watch Company's Pulsar Watch.

By the early 1980s, the BBC notes that Japan began concentration on further development of digital timepieces. Digital watches could display the time and date by this time – also stopwatch features were becoming popular. Smaller digital alarm clocks became common. Powered by electricity, they were usually reliable except for one problem: when the power went out, even for a second, the clocks would reset themselves. Clocks with a backup battery source were later introduced on the market. According to Wikipedia, digital clocks became standard in automobiles during the 1980s. Before this time, the standard was a circular or square-shaped analog clock with unnumbered markings indicating the 12 points on a traditional clock face. Digital display clocks today are far more advanced, with more elaborate models able to display temperature, the date and more defined fragments of time. Some special types of clocks, such as Atomic Clocks, also commonly use digital displays.

Many early clock patents describe a Geneva gear mechanism, which is described as a turning wheel with leaf plates used to display the time. The wheel was powered by a crystal oscillator. One downfall of the Geneva gear was that it could only have a ratio of 12 to 1; the leaves could not be segmented into 1 and 10-minute intervals. This would require 60 leaves to be put on a wheel, which would be impossible for the small compact clock design that was desired for digital clocks.

The cylindrical drum system was suggested as an improvement and patented in 1977 by Miyamoto, Suzuki and Koide of Japan. The cylindrical drum type of digital timepiece was similar to a roll, which could easily replace the wheel. The drum had much more flexibility and space capability as it unwound to show the digits. Of course this type of display was very short-lived as the dawning of the 1980s saw digital clocks’ standard display become the LED or LCD screen. Digital watches were built in a similar fashion, often using quartz and a battery for regulation and power.

There were typically two types of display methods used for digital clocks and wrist watches in the 1980s and 1990s: 12-hour and 24-hour. Most countries are familiar with the 24-hour time format, which the military also uses. In the United States, as well as a few other countries, the 12-hour AM/PM format is standard, as it is the default time used and taught in schools. These digital clocks were powered by an electrical supply; this does not necessarily mean an AC current was required, as some were powered by a 120-volt battery instead. A power source of 50 to 60 Hz was typically used – or a 32,768 Hz crystal oscillator was used. As the passing time was regulated, it coordinated with an LCD, LED or LFV display, which showed the time in a format of 4 digits; 12-hour clocks showed only three digits in the morning and evening hours before 10. Digital watches’ standard displays were also LED-inspired. In 1987, timepiece manufacturing company Casio developed a voice-reactive digital watch, while later in the early 90s, solar-powered digital watches emerged. Improvements occurred by leaps and bounds during those two decades in the world of digital watches and clocks. The inner design of most digital timepieces are similar today, with more modern outer casing styles.

Seiko and Timex are two of the most popular brands of digital watches sold today. Westclox is famous for their standard easy-to-use simple digital electric and battery-operated alarm clocks. Digital wall clocks are not as popular, but the Atomic digital clocks are quickly gaining popularity.

Digital clocks and wrist watches are both known for being reliable, but the future is sure to provide us with many other new technological improvements and advances in the world of timekeeping.

Online Alarm Clock - OnlineClock.net

We at OnlineClock.net are proud to be part of this history of horological innovation by having created the world’s first website devoted to being an online alarm clock back on March 24th, 2006!

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