Evolution of the smart watch: Part 1

Benj Edwards
20 February, 2013
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Smart watch technology marches on

Since the time computers filled a room and consumed gigawatts of power, man has imagined a computer small enough to fit on a human wrist. By the 1980s, that dream had been accomplished with the creation of the “wrist computer,” although to limited effect. It would take almost three decades before the computerised watch—the “smartwatch”—would finally take centre stage.

Here’s Part 1 of a survey of smart watches throughout history, from early precursors to modern marvels.

Mimo Loga (ca. 1941)

In the 1940s, the first calculator watches appeared. The Mimo Loga, seen here, had embedded movable logarithmic tables on the rim of the watch’s face that functioned much like a slide rule. It allowed the wearer to perform simple calculations on the go. Although non-electronic, it was the first time a wristwatch would assist in performing calculations. It would not be the last.Photo: Mimo

Hamilton Pulsar (1972) and Time Computer/Calculator (1975)

Another stop on the way to the modern smart watch came with the release of the world’s first electronic digital watch, the Hamilton Pulsar, in 1972. With the push of a button, it told the time in red digits rendered on a primitive LED display.Three years later, Hamilton released the world’s first electronic calculator watch, the Time Computer/Calculator, which required users to input numbers with a stylus because the number buttons on its face were small and recessed.Photos: diginut

Seiko D409 Dot Matrix LCD Memory Chronograph (1983)

In 1982, several watch manufacturers demonstrated wristwatch prototypes that could store arbitrary information that the wearer added. In 1983, Seiko released the first mass-produced databank watches, the D409 series. Serving as electronic memo pads, early D409 models could store 112 characters in memory for later recall. Users input the characters via a stylus on a novel touch screen LCD near the bottom of the watch face.

Companies continued making similar databank watches that stored memos and phone numbers throughout the 1980s, but few of them qualify as smart watches. Still, they demonstrated user input and memory storage.
Photo: Seiko

Seiko UC-2000 (1984)

Around the time it introduced the D409 watches, Seiko also released the Data 2000, which allowed users to input notes into memory via an external keyboard. The following year, Seiko went one step further with the UC-2000, seen here, which worked with an optional keyboard/printer computer unit that used the watch as a display.

While connected, you could write and run BASIC programs or load programs from ROM cartridges that displayed on the watch face. Detached, the UC-2000 could display memos, but could not run programs. It was almost a smartwatch, but not quite.

Photo: Seiko

Epson RC-20 (1985)

In 1985, Epson released what was probably the first true stand-alone computer watch, the Zilog Z80-based RC-20. Users could load different programs onto the RC-20 using a ROM-loaded accessory, then run them on the watch’s dot-matrix LCD display without any tethers or support units. In a sense, it was the first watch that could run apps.

Photo: Epson

Timex Data Link 150 (1994)

Many digital watch models of the 1980s integrated databank functionality, whether programmed through keyboard input or computer transfer. The Timex Data Link 150 was the first databank watch to support wireless data transfer between computer and watch.

In this case, you could transfer appointment and alarm times from a PC to the watch via an optical sensor on the watch’s face. You simply held the watch up to a PC monitor and special software on the PC made the monitor flash in a pattern that the watch could translate into data. Still, the Data Link 150 could not run programs.

Photo: Adam Harras/DigitalWatchLibrary.com

Seiko Ruputer (1998)

After the Epson RC-20, it would be more than a decade before any company significantly extended the wrist computer concept. In 1998 in Japan, Seiko released the Ruputer, a wristwatch-size computer. At its heart lay a 16-bit, 3.6MHz CPU; 128KB of RAM; and 2MB of storage. You could load any program written for the platform through transfer from a PC and see the results on the Ruputer’s 102-by-64-pixel LCD.While an impressive technical accomplishment, the Ruputer remained a niche product. The Ruputer appeared in the US almost two years later as the Matsucom onHand PC.Photos: Seiko

IBM Linux Watch (2000) & IBM WatchPad 1.5 (2001)

IBM significantly advanced smart watch research in 2000 when it created its Linux Watch (left), the first smart watch to run the Linux operating system. It packed 8MB of RAM and 8MB of flash memory into a small package run off a lithium-polymer battery.The following year, IBM collaborated with Citizen to create the WatchPad 1.5 prototype. That watch also ran Linux, only this time on a 74MHz ARM CPU. Neither watch appeared as a commercial product, but they served as important proofs-of-concept for the smart watch category.

Photo: IBM

Continue to Part 2…

By Benj Edwards (@benjedwards), TechHive.

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