With the announcement of the latest Apple Watch, the world’s attention has officially shifted to wrist mountable ‘wearables’. Although many an Apple fanboy might be quick to proclaim that the company has yet again set the paramount for design and technology, they could not be further from the truth!
In this particular case we will be taking a closer look at the most famous predecessor(s) to the hi-tech wearable watches that have recently flooded the market. Worn by celebrities from Sting to Michael J. Fox in “Back to the Future”, the Casio Databank CD-40 calculator watch defined geek chic in the 1980’s.
The Databank watch was released in 1983 to a welcoming audience of tech hungry buyers
The formula took some time to get right with multiple companies and individual groups trying to get computing mobile and personalized. The companies Hamilton Watch Company (later bought by Seiko and changed to Pulsar) and Hewlett Packard managed to put out a notable model called the Pulsar in 1975.
Crude, basic, and hard to use, the watch almost required a degree in computer science to use, or justify wearing. Not only did you have to be a smart person to use it, you also had to be a well paid one as the high-end version was made from 18k gold and sold just under $4,000. However, it proved to have been a great investment as they now go for almost $30,000 on online auctions.
Another calculator watch called the Calcron LED Wrist Watch is also argued to have been the first on scene. But seeing as how it was part of a series of magazine sales by Playboy, it’s harder to consider it as a mainstream product.
Hot on the heels of the Pulsar, a few other interpretations of the calculator watch came onto the market. Unfortunately, one look at the aesthetics of the units explained why they were only picked up by slender fingered or toothpick wielding wearers. Some of the more notable models were the highly sought after Uranus watch in 1976 and Hughes Aircraft Company’s wrist calculator watch that was worn by cast in the original Battlestar Gallactica television series.
It would only be a few years later that Japanese companies entered the market in full force and took the watch world by storm.
The leading watchmakers of Japan jumped onto the super watch bandwagon adding their expertise in circuit engineering and manufacturing to the mix. By the mid 1980s, Japan had added watchmaking to its name as being synonymous with quality tech products. Brands such as Casio and Seiko flourished in the American market gaining a quick and lasting hold on digital watch technologies to this day. This was greatly due to their attractive engineering and design practices that lent themselves so appropriately to electronics and appliances.
Not only were they able to to make the same watch as their competitors at half the size, but they also managed to cram in multiple features and applications that further set them apart. These micro computational tools also had a range of features outside of calculation including address books and memo storage. With such functions included, it is not a far stretch to consider them as the first smart watches to infiltrate the mainstream market.
The holy grail of the Japanese lineup was the previously mentioned Casio Databank CD-40 that quickly became a hit product from techies to the fashion conscious. To put it simply, it just worked, and looked good doing so. Casio knew that it had an eagerly waiting audience of buyers ready for the next wave of products and quickly introduced the variation in color and grades that Japan is so famously popular for.
Like most trends, the age of the calculator watch was short as its looks were fleeting and its functionality limited. But being the cruel spirit technology is, it gives and it takes away. As more interesting portable gear that was better connected and had easier buttons to push came into play in the late 80s and early 90s, the calculator watch took a side seat to more pocket friendly devices.
Perhaps the biggest gadget to steal the show was the PDA (or personal digital assistant as coined by Apple), which added to the multi functional free-for-all that quickly out shadowed the wrist bound companion. Not only could the devices do everything the watches could, but they had thoughtful interfaces and did not get in the way of your Rolex.
Although the calculator watches did their best to keep up by cramming as much as their faces could fill, PDA features such as cameras, internet connectivity, and constant reductions in size took the prize.
So next time you find yourself drooling over the latest wearable tech, remember that they were born out of a simpler era. When people just wanted to execute basic algebra equations and know what time it was…on their wrists!
Special Guest Contribution by Jimi Okelana
Hi, I was given a watch by an obscure novelist that lived on a boat in Spain in the 80s. It’s a Uranus and I would like to have it services. I presume the people that can service these are few and far between. So you gave any recommendation. I live in Sydney. Regards, Morgan
Nice article, but one question: how do you figure Apple coined the term Personal Digital Assistant? I figured that was more in the realm of Palm, unless you’re referring to their failed Newton product.
Great article. I had the Casio DataBank when I was in my late teens. My abiding memory is that my girlfriend at the time deplored its lack of coolness, while constantly grabbing my arm to make use of its calculator and contact list.
Thanks! The best I got as a kid was sitting next to a kid on the bus with one! I did have a couple of those knock off game watches though!
Nice! Also have a Databank replica – we’re reviewing CASIO’s biggest and brightest timepieces, the indestructible and the smartphone-connected, but when we visit CASIO headquarters in Shinjuku/Shibuya, it’s my Databank that they love!
Yea, it is a amazing how long they have stuck around for. But if you see the ads they have on their site for them now it’s no wonder why they are harder to catch on the streets.
Great piece Jimi!
Actually I have that very watch in gold. I never use the calculator, but it looks proper cool.
Thanks, Mark! I don’t blame you, I rarely check the time…