The Digital Watch

From space age fantasy to everyman timepiece to wearable tech

Words: Dylan Muhlenberg

Like the South African power grid, the wristwatch is under threat. The culprits? Take your pick. From your cellphone, to your laptop, to your oven, to the DSTV info bar, to your car’s dashboard, to the sun… nowadays almost everything comes with the added function of telling you what the time is. Still, the humble wristwatch continues to fight back and will stand the test of time because as the video machine (RIP) proved, nobody has time for a blinking 00:00, and nothing does the job quite as well as a watch does. 

Besides, it’s not just for telling the time – if you build a solid watch collection you can mix and match these with the rest of your wardrobe to create looks that keep you on point, with the added benefit of making sure you’re on time.

There’s a horror-show amount of horological jargon, which is why we love the digital watch so much. Simple to use, cheap as chips, and sturdy, the digital watch truly is the timepiece for the masses. We’ve been wearing one since back in the day, when we copped our first rubberised Fong Kong version from the same place our old lady bought her bread and milk, and today we own a gold Casio number with a calculator embedded in the face!

What is retro now was the realm of science fiction back when Stanley Kubrick’s A Space Odyssey provided a glimpse of the future with a digital clock featured in his 1968 film. Hamilton, the same company responsible for the Kubrick clock, was the first watch with a digital display, and their 18-carat gold Pulsar was available at the heady price of $2,100.

Instead of hands, the first digital watches used a seven-segment LED display for each of the four digits, and because these early versions were so power-heavy, you had to press a button on the side of the watch to see the time displayed. This was done by passing an electric charge through inorganic materials: red light LED was generated by aluminum gallium arsenide and the green LED that came later was produced using gallium nitride.

Sometimes compared to the moment when the wristwatch replaced the pocket watch, an even bigger innovation was Liquid Crystal Display, which allowed a lower power level to reflect light onto a passive screen, making the display permanent and allowing for the addition of seconds and other elements like AM, PM and whether an alarm had been set.

From the 1980s onward, digital watch technology was a thing, and with the Japanese driving it, things went as wacky as the nation’s game shows. In 1982 Seiko produced a watch with a small built-in television screen, then a digital watch with a thermometer, then a watch that could translate 1,500 Japanese words into English and then, in 1985, Casio produced the CFX-400 scientific calculator watch. By 1987 Casio had produced a watch that could dial your telephone number and Citizen answered back by introducing a watch that would react to your voice. In 1995 Timex released a watch that allowed the wearer to download and store data from a computer to their wrist. 

Since their apex during the late 1980s to the mid 1990s high-technology fad, digital watches have mostly devolved into a simpler, less expensive timepieces with little variety between models. 

Until now.

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Wearable tech is more than just a buzzword; it’s the digital watch having reached its full potential. Essentially a computerised wristwatch or a wearable computer, these can do anything from tracking your fitness to running a mobile app to playing audio and video, and even capturing images. The explosion of connected devices makes wearables the biggest innovation in technology since sexting, and by using sensors and a web connection it can help you with everything from being organised to losing weight.

A smart watch will connect your phone to a wrist worn device that will notify you of calls, messages, emails, social media and, yes, it even tells the time... 

Full circle.