Before PCs, there were digital watches



This is my new watch. If you’ve ever owned a Commodore 64 or Amiga, you’ll recognize this badge under the screen: it’s owned by Commodore, the company that sold large quantities of personal computers in the 1980s before disappearing in the early 1990s. .

My new watch is also an old watch: it is a Commodore Master of Time, manufactured in 1976 or thereabouts. I bought it from a specialist called LED Watch Stop who has a stock of new and old Time Masters that were never resold in the 1970s. (Sound sell them for $ 229 apiece right now, although the price was $ 129 just a few days ago, I guess I was lucky in a sale when I ordered one on impulse.)

Commodore watch backThe Time Master is an LED watch, using battery-hogging display technology that requires you to press a button on the right side to see the time. (I rigged the LED display in the photo above.) It’s especially unwieldy for lefties like me, as it’s hard to reach the button without covering the screen with your palm. And to save money, it uses a small LED with a magnifying glass, resulting in a display that is impossible to read unless you are looking directly at it.

On the plus side, the watch seems to be keeping up with the good times, and it’s a hell of a geeky conversation piece. (Until now, I kind of assumed that my Amiga 500, which I got in 1987, would be the last Commodore product I would own and use.)

A Hamilton digital watch prototype, as seen in Popular Science in 1970.

When Commodore started making watches in 1975, it was a calculator company, not a computer maker: its first PCs, the Kim-1 and PET 2001, did not appear until 1976 and 1977, respectively. . And it is indeed the case make watches rather than putting his name on unnamed models imported from Asia, his first models, in fact, were assembled in Palo Alto, California, in the heart of Silicon Valley. Mine is a later version assembled in France; even later variants used technologies from Micro Display Systems and Frontier Semiconductor, startups acquired by Commodore.

The company entered the field of watchmaking when digital watches were still a last generation wonder, having debuted when Hamilton released its first Pulsar in 1972. This model sold for $ 2,100, which was more than the price of a new Ford Pinto at the time. By the time Commodore released its first models three years later, digitals had become mass-market items. The company was part of a big price drop, just as it would be in the 1980s when the Commodore 64 went from its starting price of $ 595 to less than a hundred dollars.

Patent drawing for the HP-01 calculator watch from HP.

And some of the companies that Commodore competed with during the digital watch craze would be the same ones that would be major players once the PC revolution began a few years later.

Intel, for example, had bought the watchmaker Microma in 1972, when digital models were still expensive items and the market for its microprocessors hardly existed; Micromas were among the first consumer products with Intel Inside. (They also had LCD screens that didn’t require you to press a button to see the time.) At the high end, Hewlett-Packard introduced the HP-01, an incredible $ 650 calculator watch with 28 tiny buttons that you had to press with a small stylus. On the low end, Texas Instruments helped drive the price of digital watches down to $ 10 by flooding the market with plastic models.

Sinclair Black Watch

Sinclair’s black watch.

Then there were the years 1975 Black watch, by British gadget design legend Clive Sinclair. A DIY kit for $ 29.95, it even looked a bit like a dinky version of his ZX-80 slab computer, introduced five years later.

In short, the 1970s watch industry was a foretaste of the 1980s PC business. For the first time, a group of electronics companies that had previously specialized in scientific equipment and machinery salespeople began to learn how to sell gadgets to consumers. In fact, digital watch makers marketed their products as computing devices. Hamilton claimed that the first Pulsar was a “Time Computer”. thinking it was a sexier category than “wristwatch”. HP called its 01 a “personal information instrument,” as if it was trying to invent the PDA a decade and a half before PDAs saw the light of day.

Yet by the time the 01 was released in 1977, there were signs that the digital watch industry was destined to become a dismal commodity industry. Commodore LED watches not too different from my Time Master, for example, were offered as $ 7.99 bonus to the people who sent lids of Hunt’s Snack Pack canned pudding cans, which is probably not what Commodore had in mind when he became a watchmaker.

All the incursions of emerging PC companies into the watch industry have had unfortunate ends. Discouraged by sales of the HP-01, HP killed a successor called HP-02. (Today, the 01 going for a lot of money on ebay.) The Black Watch had so many problems – it ran at different speeds and temperatures and the batteries sometimes exploded – that it almost drove Sinclair out of business.

Microma Watches

Microma watches with Intel 5830 microcircuits, as seen in Intel’s 1975 annual report.

In 1978, Intel sold its watch models to Timex and the name Microma to a Swiss company. It had taken such a hit out of all the effort that co-founder Gordon Moore continued to wear a Microma watch for years to remember not to do anything so stupid again. Texas Instruments held up a bit longer, but decided to quit in 1981.

What about Commodore? Well, I don’t know when he sold his last timepiece. But in Commodore: a company on the wireBrian Bagnall says the company brought watches to the 1981 Consumer Electronics Show but didn’t have much luck with them. “The name of Commodore,” he explains, “was not a people associated with watches.”

Motorola TI powered Motoactv sports watch.

Motorola’s Motoactv sports watch powered by TI.

The timing of all this failure turned out to be fortuitous. It has enabled the companies in question to refocus their energies on the emerging PC market. While that too turned out to be a tough endeavor, it has lasted. TI does not have doing too well, but Commodore did for a while, and Intel and HP are still at it in 2012. Even if the watches had sold better, they would have been a distraction.

Again, in the tech industry, it’s always a mistake to say that a product category is definitely dead. Thanks to products such as WIMM and Motorola Motoactv, which contain the power of a smartphone and run sophisticated applications, digital watches are intriguing again as they haven’t been in decades. The Motoactv even uses a Texas Instruments OMAP chip, which makes it a very, very distant descendant of the watches TI sold in the 1970s. And the idea of ​​Intel and HP coming back into watches, in some way or another. another is not at all far-fetched.

There is even a Modern day commodore sell an Intel-based Commodore 64. He would have every right to start selling watches, I guess. But unless his timepieces, like my Time Master, are tailor-made products based on the company’s own technologies and components, I won’t be tempted. We, the owners of Commodore watches, you see, tend to be a bit of a snob.

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