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Before smartwatches broke mainstream: list of vintage wrist computers

If you sometimes feel that smartwatches are something of a fad, there might be a good reason for that. Even though Pebble kickstarted the contemporary concept for a wearable computer in 2013, the idea has been around for over four decades. And we’ve got pictures to prove it.

Even though we’re accustomed to calling a wearable computer a smartwatch, that’s just the latest addition to the mix. A ‘smartwatch,’ in its essence, is a small computer meant to be worn. Modern smartwatches have touchscreens and enough computing power to put early supercomputers to shame. That, however, is not a necessity for a machine to be called a computer.

Interestingly, the idea of a wrist held communication device is older than a working computer. A two-way wrist radio was made famous in the mid-40s, when the gadget appeared in the famous comic strip covering the adventures of a super detective Dick Tracy.

The first commercially available digital watch, Hamilton Pulsar P1. Image source.

The infamous comic is also credited to inspire engineer Martin Cooper to invent the mobile phone. Talk about life imitating art.

Radio, however, was not the technology that brought ‘smart’ to the watch. It was all things digital. And the era for digital devices affordable to broader audiences than the military or secret intelligence was the ’70s.

The first digital watch to enter the market was the Hamilton Pulsar P1, released in 1972. Equipped with fancy functions such as time and date display, P1 was not an everyman’s accessory. A hefty price tag of $2,100 at its release or $13,500 in 2021. Soon, however, machines got a lot cheaper and awfully a lot smarter.

Pulsar Time Computer Calculator (1975)

The first wearable 'computer', released in 1975. Image source.

What’s better than to kick off a list of vintage wearables with a device that has both ‘computer’ and ‘calculator’ in its name? Released before Christmas 1975, Time Computer Calculator, or 901 for short, was the first wearable computer.

A $550 price tag on its release ($2,700 in 2021) was not cheap, however, it proved to be a commercial success. Equipped with an LED screen, a tiny, stylus-operated keyboard, the watch looked like something from a Star Trek movie.

The device could do basic arithmetic, had enough memory for adding or subtracting, percentage, and floating decimal. Pulsar described the device as having a ‘smart calendar’ which automatically adjusts for 29, 30, and 31-day months.

Unitrex Datatime Monte Carlo game watch (1977)

Image source.

It took two years for wrist calculator manufacturers to add a must-have for any decent computer – games. Credited as the first of its kind, the Unitrex Datatime Monte Carlo game watch had a total of three playable games in its capacity.

As the machine’s name implies, the games it offered simulated a casino, allowing the watch's owner to play Jackpot, Dice, and Roulette. Jackpot resembled a slot machine, where the goal is to get three matching digits. A feat rewarded by flashing ‘J’ letters.

Even though this might seem rudimentary now, it's helpful to remember that the watch was capable of this feat the same year the Western part of the world only started to get acquainted with personal computers. And gaming was still something most people did in dedicated places outside their homes.

Casio GM-10, image source.

The Monte Carlo game watch was followed by several slot machine watches, indicating a ripe market. By 1980 Casio GM-10 was released, with a dedicated screen-space for a game of shooting down a threatening rocket.

A year later, Nelsonic released the Space Attacker watch, which resembles a tiny handheld game console. The ingenious part was that the whole screen was dedicated to playing the game.

Seiko TV watch (1982)

Image source.

Not a computer per se, but a worthy addition to the list due to its untimely innovation. Released in Japan in the early ’80s, Seiko’s TV watch entered the Guinness Book of Records as the smallest television of its time with a screen of just 1.25 inches.

Since it was the ’80s, technology did not allow them to pack all of the tech necessary into a wrist-sized device, and a pocket-sized receiver was a must for the device to be functional. The watch gained notorious popularity after it was featured in a 1983 James Bond movie Octopussy.

Around the same time, other companies, such as Quartz, released watches with integrated AM/FM radios and a 3.5 mm jack, a feature that some smartphone makers deemed unworthy in recent years.

Casio Databank (1983)

The original Casio Databank, an excerpt from a YouTube video.

Released 38 years ago, the original Casio CD-401 kickstarted the successful Databank line for Casio that is continuing to this day. The Databank watch was revolutionary for its time since users could store data on the device, thus the name Databank.

The watch allowed to store up to 10 notes, be it a phone number, friends’ address, or anything one might need to remember. That, of course, came together with other features such as calculator, world time, stopwatch, etc.

Full of buttons, the sleek-looking Databank became somewhat of a celebrity, appearing on Marty’s wrist in the original Back to the Future motion picture and outselling competitors such as G-Shock.

Seiko Data 2000 (1983)

Seiko Data 2000 watch and its controller UC 2200, posted by u/kiddroy.

Released later the same year by another Japanese company, Seiko Data 2000 was a pioneer in wrist computing in multiple areas. Not only was it equipped with a legendary Z80 processor, but the device also had a humongous amount of storage for its time – 1 kilobyte, which allowed to type in up to 2000 characters, hence numbers in the name.

To make the Data 2000 look even more futuristic, Seiko equipped the minicomputer with a keyboard dock to run and write BASIC programs. When computer ownership was still somewhat a novelty, Data 2000 was close to being a personal computer for some of its owners.

Docked in the keyboard, the watch would transmit the data via an antenna wrapped around its batteries, which powered the computer's LCD screen and provided many functions.

Seiko RC-1000 (1984)

Ad for Seiko RC-1000, image source.

A year later, Seiko released its first wrist terminal, which users could directly plug into a computer. In the spirit of the times, RC-1000 was compatible with the most popular computer models of the time: IBM PC, Commodore 64, Apple II, and Sinclair Spectrum.

The Wrist Terminal Data Manager software allowed users to create, edit, and download data. The device had 2K memory available for the user and came with a ‘Software operator’s manual’ since it allowed to create and store software.

A couple of years later, Seiko released an updated version, the RC-4000, dubbed the smallest computer terminal in the world. Like the predecessor, owners of the device could plug it directly into the most popular PCs.

Seiko UC-2000 (1984)

Seiko UC-2000 docked into a controller, image source.

Struck by the popularity of wearables, Seiko released the UC-2000 around the same time as RC-1000. Unlike the RC-1000, UC-2000 was more of a programmable calculator than a computer, but it had some features not typically associated with a watch.

For example, the UC-2200 docking station that came with the watch had a printer function in it. That allowed to print stored data on a sheet of paper, similar to the one we’re getting after checking out in a grocery store.

The docking station provided users with a functional keyboard, 4 KB of RAM, 26 KB ROM, Microsoft BASIC programming software, a Japanese to English translator, and even some games.

The original Timex Datalink, image posted by u/scottsullivan.

By the end of the ’80s, watches were already capable of streaming TV, transmitting audio signals, allowed to play games, store and edit data. In 20 years since the first digital watch appeared on the market, digital timepieces were meant to do much more than simply display time and date.

The early 90s saw the advent of the ‘personal digital assistant’ or PDA, a palm-sized device that would store data like schedules, anniversaries, and provide the user with updates on time and date. Released in 1994, the Timex Datalink series was meant to compete with PDA’s.

The first watch capable of downloading information wirelessly from a computer, the Datalink, was developed together with Microsoft. Unlike PDAs, the watch was water-resistant and offered a degree of programmability. Devices were certified by NASA for spaceflight and were used by astronauts during space missions.

IBM WatchPad (2000)

We’ll end our list with a two-decade-old smartwatch, the WatchPad. Developed by watchmaker Citizen and IBM Research, the Linux-based was meant to prove the OS versatility.

Equipped with a QVGA LCD touchscreen, Bluetooth, accelerometer, and a battery that lasts for several hours, the WatchPad closely resembles the smartwatches of our day. Even though it looks as modern as Nokia 3310, the basic concept seems to be the same.

The Watchpad had 8 MB DRAM and 16MB Flash memory, and was equipped with speakers, microphone, and proved to be water-resistant.

Fossil Abacus Wrist PDA, released in 2002. Image posted by u/austron.

Over the next decade, various smartwatches were released that would add to what makes a smartwatch today. 2002 Fossil’s Wrist PDA looked like a wrist-bound smartphone, whereas Microsoft’s Spot tried really hard to make smartwatches cool, albeit a decade too early.

Samsung’s 2009 attempt at smartwatches, the S9110, was a tiny smartphone with a bracelet. However, from that point on, smartwatches shaped into what some of us can't shake off our hands.

The featured image used in this article belongs to Historic Tech.

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