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Know Your Watch: A Short History of Digital Watches

June 11, 2014.

VOID digital watch

Forty-two years ago watches changed forever, but the chances are you don't know why. Today's Know Your Watch post aims to enlighten you, because we're here to give you a brief history of digital watches.

1972 - The first digital watch

The luxury watch brand Hamilton were the first to put a digital display watch powered using electric batteries on the market in 1972. The Hamilton Pulsar P1 set customers back $2,100, which equates to around $12,000 USD in today's terms, however, this probably had more to do with the watch being set in 18 karat gold rather than the 25-chip circuit producing the LED display. Yes, LED. LCDs were still a little way off and you can tell the old LED watches apart almost instantly thanks to the soft red glow they emanate.

The Pulsar P1 was so power hungry that the digital display was only visible on demand when you pressed a button on the front of the watch. Only 400 units were made so it's no surprise that this watch is now a much-in-demand collector's item.

A short history of LCD screens


By the time 1972 was over a number of other watch brands had introduced LCD screens to digital watches, though they were still different to the ones we look at every day. This is because they used the so-called Dynamic Scattering LCD display which absorbed a lot of power and weren't as reliable as the Field Effect LCDs, which once introduced were quickly adopted for digital wristwatches.

One of the first watches to use the Field Effect LCD was the Seiko O6LC, a watch that digital watch design didn't stray too far from over the following decades. It also entered the market at a relatively affordable price costing the proud wearer just a couple of hundred dollars, though this was still a hefty amount back in 1973.

Plastic Fantastic!

The market moved quickly to develop digital watch parts at low cost and by the end of the 1970s anyone could get their hands on a digital watch for around $10 - $20. This was as much due to the development and use of plastic and synthetic materials as much as it was the new affordability of digital displays and electronic watch movements.texasinstrumentstarwarsled1


Before a new decade began you could find novelty digital watches being sold at prices kids could afford or they were even given away in cereal boxes. They were increasingly a popular merchandise item and a way to promote new films, and TV shows the most famous of which was the Star Wars digital watches released in 1977 by Texas Instruments (still using an LED), a company that really lowered the price of digital watches, a practise that ultimately landed the brand out of business.

Casio and Calculator Watches of the 1980s

Nowadays, a watch that lets you do a bit of maths seems a pointless and unimpressive feature, but back then it was futuristic and again Hamilton were the first to release a calculator watch (in 1976), though designs by Casio became the most popular during the 1980s, mostly thanks to the brand's affordability.CASIO_593_A163WA-1QGF_wristwatch

In the 2000s the hipsters did their bit to bring back some of these classic Casio digital watches - many of which are still sold today - and it's fair to say that some of the most popular digital watches of today continue to pay tribute to designs of the 1980s, like the SOND by VOID.

1990s - Game watches and more...

Another popular feature of digital watches in the 1980s and 1990s were the ability to play games on them. Think about the first mobile phones and how much you loved playing Snake, well, watches offered wearers similar 2D games; a trend that coincided with the new popularity of video games. Casio Game 10 was the first game watch with its version of Space Invaders in 1978 but the 1990s saw Nintendo take the lead by offering miniature wrist-mounted versions of Super Mario Bros which were very popular in Japan.

nintendo_game_boy_watch_1yxwrIn 1992 the "Watch Boy" watch based on the Game Boy was a much-sought after accessory, even though you couldn't actually play games on it. It's still a popular watch to own and original models sell for hundreds of dollars on eBay.

The 1980s and 1990s were a time when digital watch brands tried to outdo each other by adding new features. Seiko released the first TV watch in 1982, in 1994 Timex made it possible for you to share your PC's display to your watch, in 2001 IBM launched the WatchPad, one of the first digital watches that internet capability, and in 2002 Casio introduced the first camera watch to the world, an invention that was quickly usurped by the camera phone.

2000s - Digital watches get smarter, and smarter.

The term "Smartwatch" may seem new, but the idea of a watch doing more than just tell the time is no new idea. Even before digital watches entered the market, mechanical watch movements allowed for additional features such as displaying the date, and as early as the 1920s manufacturers were experimenting with "digital" displays, i.e. using numbers instead of hands to tell the time.


Phone companies were among the first to explore the concept of a watch that incorporates features of a mobile phone and in 2007 Sony Ericsson's MBW-150 model was one of the first that let you receive calls on your watch, the LCD ticker style display notifying you of the number calling (though interesting it had an analogue watch display to tell the time!). When Apple then made it possible in 2010 for their square iPod Nano to be wrist-mounted and display the time, the smartwatch became even more accessible and more of a "device" than just a timepiece.

2014 - What next?

Recent years have seen more and more hand-held devices enter the market and the popularity of Smartphones has somewhat overtaken that of Smartwatches. However, the record-breaking success of the Pebble kickstarter campaign in 2012 proved that there is still public interest and demand in the Smartwatch, something that the digital watch made way for.


The interesting thing about the watch design trends of recent years shows that a digital watch is not just desireable for its additional all-singing, all-dancing functionality. In other words, there is a growing number of wearers who just appreciate how simple a digital display is and how smartly it can suit the most modern and pleasing of wrist watch designs like the V01 by VOID, Extra Normal Grande Digital by Normal, and BN0036 by Braun.



Extra Normal Grande Digital




braun-watch-bn0036bkbkmhg-2Image sources: Pulsar P1, LCD ScreenStar Wars, CasioET watchWatch BoySony EricssonTimexPebble

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