The History of the Digital Watch

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Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun. Orbiting this at a distance of roughly ninety-eight million miles is an utterly insignificant little blue-green planet whose ape-descended life forms are so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea... 1

The pretty neat idea of a digital watch lies in the introduction of electricity and the quartz movement into the creation of time pieces in the 1950s and 60s. This is how these innovations led to wrist worn chronometers displaying figures instead of dials.

The Electric Watch

The Hamilton Electric Watch

The Hamilton Watch Co. of Lancaster, Pennsylvania produced the world's first electric watch in 1957. The Hamilton Electric Watch kept time with a traditional balance wheel mechanism which had been used in time pieces for hundreds of years and was therefore no more accurate than the other watch. However instead of the mainspring to power the mechanism a battery was used to power the mechanism so the need to wind was eliminated.

Although people loved the fact that they no longer had to wind the watch it would stop when the electric contacts became worn, which happened not long into the watches lifespan. It was a headache that Hamilton repair department faced until the watch was updated in 1961.

Accutron by Bulova

In meantime Bulova provided the next big advance in electric time pieces with its Accutron watch in 1960. This came in the form of a U-shaped piece of Nickel alloy which vibrated in response to the electric current from the battery. These vibrations were of a higher frequency and more regular than the traditional fly wheel so for the first time electricity far from being merely a neat idea by which to power watches lead to a greater accuracy. The Accutron also did away with electrical contacts by introducing transistors given the watch a longer working life without wearing out. This watch was also closely tied to the US space programme being used on the Mercury and Apollo spacecraft as NASA aimed for the moon.

Refining the Quartz Movement

Swiss Innovation

However Bulova's success scared the Swiss watchmakers who saw a potential challenge to their dominance of the best quality timepieces. They grouped together to finance a research lab the CEH (Centre Electronique Horloger). The CEH targeted their search on finding a even more accurate oscillator than the nickel horseshoe.

Quartz movements had first been used in clocks in the 1930s and at the start of the 60s were even being used in marine chronometers, however with unpredictable accuracy. The CEH set about improving the accuracy and by the mid-60s Longines and Bernard Golay had created a pocket watch that was accurate to within 0.01 seconds a day.

In 1967 the CEH produced the first wristwatch quartz movement. Due to advances in microelectronics integrated circuitry had advanced to allow much less energy to be used allowing for miniaturisation so as a quartz movement could fit into a wristwatch. However in the intervening period the Swiss manufacturers continued to refine their mechanical techniques and soon caught up with Bulova by traditional means. After years of research the Swiss viewed quartz as a fad that would pass and reckoned, to some of the companies eventual mortal demise, that their mechanical excellence would see them survive as kings of the heap.

Japanese Interpretation

Seiko were simultaneously taking a fresh look a quartz and so it was the Japanese company who unveiled the world's first quartz wristwatch, the 35SQ Astron Watch, on 25 December 1969 in Tokyo. It was expensive costing 450,000 yen ($1,250 at the 1969 exchange rate). It had a plain face, was chunky unlike the slimline Swiss mechanical watches and also suffered so many technical difficulties that Sieko ended up recalling it after only producing 100 watches.

However although it was a failure, it turned a new corner in watch technology from which we have never looked back. Quartz technology was the new way forward in the 1970s in the developing Japanese watchmakers and in the USA, eventually even the Swiss climbed on board the train, although not until some manufacturers had collapsed. This competition led to slimmer, more accurate, less power hungry watches. Even with the addition of more features as the 70s progressed, the next leap was just waiting to explode.

The Digital Display

Pulsar and the LED Display

In 1972 Hamilton produced the first watch with a digital display. They had hinted that they had a new breakthrough as early as 1970 but had two years of teething problems before its 18 carat gold Pulsar hit the world at a price of $2,100. By pressing a button on the side the time was displayed on a red numeric display, caused by a light emitting diode (LED) display. Hamilton had provided a brief glimpse into the future in Stanley Kubrick's 1968 film 2001: A Space Oddessy when they provided the futuristic digital clock that featured in the film. John Bergey who was head of Hamilton's Pulsar division said that this had inspired his team with the vision for their new timepiece which was then in development.

The LED basically is created by passing a electric charge through inorganic materials. Seven electronic switches went into making each of the numerals on the display. The original red light was generated by using aluminium gallium arsenide (AlGaAs) however Pulsar later produced a green LED using gallium nitride (GaN).

Other companies followed suit in Japan followed suit, whilst American and Switzerland and started developing their own digital watches soon after. Many in the industry even believed that the new quartz analogue watches would even be doomed to extinction so soon after their arrival. Which can be reflected by Douglas Adams' and other contemporary writers' comments about digital watches at the end of the 1970s and start of the 1980s.

Before the watch companies could 'do away with' the analogue watch they first had to bring down the price of the digital heir. Competition in the digital field increased and by 1975 their were over 80 varieties available, this competition was bringing prices down but it was still out of the range of the average consumer.

The Plastic Case

Texas Instruments brought the digital watch to the masses much as Henry Ford had brought the car. In 1975 they produced the first LED watch with a retail price of only $20, the following year this was halved. This amount of competition saw Pulsar lose six million dollars and find itself sold twice in the space of a year, eventually becoming a subsidiary of Seiko and reverting to making analogue quartz watches.

The Liquid Crystal Display

Digital watches even in the late 1970s still necessitated two hands one to wear the watch and the other to press the button to turn on the LED display. The reason for this was that LED used up a high amount of the available power from the small power cell that could be fitted into the casing. The next innovation in digital watches would free up one hand for time keeping in a way not seen since the wristwatch replaced the pocketwatch.

Liquid Crystal Display first became possible in 1972 with the invention of the Twisted Nematic Liquid Crystal Display (TNLCD), following decades of research into liquid crystals at Hull University. It allowed a lower power level to reflect light unto a passive screen. However this first breakthrough proved impractical as there are a lack of photochemically and chemically stable nematic materials in existance in liquid-crstaline form at room temperature2. A year later this problem was overcome when scientists discovered that a crystal known as cyano-biphenyl, could be made to change from one form to another near room temperature, these then were used in LCDs. They were first used in calculators in 1972 but the displays were still too big for watches.

However by 1973 Seiko yet again led the way, this time with the first watch to utilise LCD technology. It had a six figure display. As a result of LCD using less power than LED the display was permanent, thus the addition of seconds to the display.

The Swiss finally embraced quartz technology but left the digital field to the Japanese and Americans settling instead to make elegant analogue quartz watches.

The Development of Digital Watches

The 1980s saw further developments in the digital watch. Already they could have stopwatches and display the date, but the Japanese were already looking for further utilisation of technology.

It's hard to believe but as far back as 1982 Seiko produced a wristwatch with a tiny TV screen. In the same year Casio produced one with a thermometer and another which could translate 1,500 Japanese words into English. Technology was coming on leaps and bounds and if it could be miniaturised enough the Japanese were putting it into a digital watch. In 1987 Casio produced a watch that could dial your phone number and Citizen one that would react to your voice.

The 1990s saw are refinement on solar powered digital watches with. Although some were produced in the 1970s the new refinements allowed for more efficient use of the energy. The meant that they could generate more power and also to store it for longer periods of time. 1995 saw Timex release a Data link watch which allowed the wearer to download information from a computer to their wrist.

What Next?

Surely it won't be long until we have a mobile phone/watch combination on our wrists. Taking palmtop computers and PDAs one step further and smaller may eventually see these also wearable as a watch. From the first appearance of a digital time displayed on the wrist in 1972 the technology has already advanced a great deal in just over 30 years, so who knows where the future will take it. Looking back it will only be limited by the imaginations of the people who design them as many obstacles have already been overcome and many more will follow.

1From the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams2This roughly means that at the time, there was a distinct lack of materials which were able to be changed chemically to produce the required result - a display of some sort.

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