I miss the days of the Wild West of full-featured digital watches

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It’s hard to be a gadget-obsessed kid when you don’t have disposable income, but as a kid of the ’80s and’ 90s, one of my first achievable electronic obsessions was digital watches. I grew up in a time when companies like Casio and Timex were competing with each other to incorporate as many features as possible into their timepieces and I revel in the bidding, and although I used most of those features little. , I still had to have them.

The first mass-produced digital watch (at least as we know it today) was the Pulsar P1 co-developed by Hamilton Watch Company and Electro / Data Inc. Released in 1972, the watch sold for $ 2,100 (roughly the equivalent of $ 13,000 today) and its inefficient glossy red display was so greedy in energy that it only displayed the time a button was pressed. Form outweighed function, but history would repeat itself decades later with the Apple Watch’s power-saving features keeping its screen turned off most of the time.

However, the real potential of digital watches was revealed a few years later, when in 1976 Hamilton released the Pulsar calculator watch with buttons so tiny that a pen or stylus was required to press them down, while HP brought out the Pulsar calculator watch. released its Hewlett-Packard HP-01 which extended the functionality of a digital watch with a calculator, stopwatch, timer and alarm clock. The HP-01 is often considered the world’s first smartwatch, and it started a digital watch arms race that continued for decades as watchmakers struggled to convince consumers (many of whom still considered watches as a fashion accessory) on the advantages of new digital alternatives.

After owning a series of basic, forgettable digital watches that offered standard time and date functionality (and I’m sure Transformers or Thundercats images on the face), I got my first calculator watch around the sixth grade, which was a mark of $ 10. Clone Casio with tiny rubber buttons and a basic nine character LCD display. It was so cheap it shouldn’t have survived for more than a month, but it was strapped to my wrist for much longer than that, long enough to spark a lifelong obsession with wearable devices.

When the novelty of being able to immediately calculate sales tax on candy, toys, and video games wore off, I started budgeting birthday and Christmas money for watch upgrades, and after a series of gradual upgrades I got what the younger and present day versions of Me are considered the pinnacle of calculator watch innovation: the Casio Databank. I don’t remember the exact model, but Casio packed the full feature set of a personal organizer into this little watch, even though its small memory could only store the phone numbers of 50 contacts (which was, at then about 45 more phone numbers that I had to remember).

The Casio database could also tell me the time anywhere in the world, remind me of upcoming (non-existent) appointments via an on-screen calendar, display alphanumeric characters on its small screen, and there was even a large button on the face to illuminate an electroluminescent backlight. At the time, I felt like I was strapping a gadget from the James Bond toolbox to my wrist, but the Casio Databank was actually only a fraction of the features that digital watchmakers managed to achieve. integrate into their watches. It was like the Old West where everything goes as far as functionality, even though no one really wanted that functionality on a watch.

Casio has upgraded its various digital watch lines over the years with other features including the ability to automatically dial a number by holding the watch in front of a phone (imagine how much time you would save without having to press seven buttons. !), Extremely limited voice recording capabilities, and even automatic time setting synchronized with atomic reference clocks (known as the company’s Wave Ceptor series). In June 2000, Casio even launched the WQV-1, the first digital watch to incorporate a digital camera. It has evolved from capturing low-resolution grainy black and white images to capturing low-resolution grainy color images, but looking at the watch, it’s easy to see why this is a feature not found on modern smartwatches.

Timex brought its own innovations of questionable utility to the digital watch part, including its Datalink series which could be synced with personal organizer software running on a desktop computer. It predated technologies like Bluetooth and even USB ports. In order to synchronize with the software, the watch included a light sensor on the front that could interpret a series of flashes on a PC screen encoded with data. It was a bit cumbersome, but it worked and unlike Casio’s solutions, it saved the user the hassle of typing in contact information or meeting details on a small keyboard worn on the wrist.

As with most of the technologies that flourished in the 80s, 90s, and early 2000s, feature-rich digital watches were ultimately made less useful with the arrival of PDAs, cell phones and ultimately smartphones few of us go anywhere now. Digital watches have always managed to thrive in niche markets as action sports types and adventurers embraced watches with a plethora of environmental sensors, but the data management models from Casio and Timex have slowly taken off. disappeared and eventually evolved into the smartwatches we know today.

But I don’t get the same kind of James Bond thrill wearing an Apple Watch as my old Casio databank. It does a lot more than the Casio, but I don’t interact with it in the same way. It’s just kind of there, providing random notifications from a smartphone hidden elsewhere. My Casio digital watch was the center of my gadget world when I left home, the center of all my attention, and although I had little use for most of its features, I was still happy to have it, just in case I had to find a random relative’s phone number and be the hero of an emergency that never ended up happening.

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