Most would consider the invention and popularity of wearable technology a relatively modern phenomenon, especially when referred to as a ‘smart watch’. It’s a fair assumption, as the best-selling Apple Watch was only launched in 2015. But the concept of the smart watch and the innovation of wearable devices goes way back to the 70s and 80s. At the time, these original smart watches were niche pieces of invention and experimentation that never really reached past the tech-obsessed subcultures in Japan. However now, with Apple Watches and Fitbits on everyone’s wrists, it becomes clear how pivotal these wacky timepieces were in laying the foundations for the modern tech we wear everyday.
Just a few years after the first ever electronic digital watch was released by Pulsar, Hewlett Packard released what is often referred to as the first ever smart watch in 1977. It took the form of a clunky calculator watch called the HP-01 and was hugely unsuccessful. It was too heavy, fiddly and expensive for consumers at the time, but today it is hailed as one of the most desirable pieces of vintage electronics, exchanging hands at auctions for thousands of pounds.
It was not until the 80s when the calculator watch phenomenon really took off, with Japanese brands like Casio and Seiko offering cheaper, plastic pieces with buttons large enough to be pressed with a human finger. Marty McFly wore a model in Back To The Future, turning the gadget into an essential, nerdy fashion accessory.
Next up was the iconic Seiko T001 a.k.a. the Seiko TV Watch. Smart watches today are characterised by their high resolution screens which are able to show all sorts of content other than the time. The Seiko TV Watch was already working around this idea in 1982. Whether anyone needed or wanted this device is irrelevant because it was both groundbreaking and record breaking. The watch featured a 1.2 inch LCD screen that could show a number of channels and FM radio signals when hardwired to a receiver that had to be carried in your pocket. It wasn’t user friendly but it was still the wonder of the watch world. In 1983, Roger Moore’s James Bond wore the Seiko TV watch in Octopussy and later, Tom Hanks wore one in the movie Dragnet.
It embodied the direction these watches were going in; time and timing no longer had anything to do with it. It was just about having the engineering intelligence to miniaturise advanced technology to the size of a watch face.
The first Casio G-Shock came out a year later and although it didn’t have any random electronic appliances added on, it embodied a massive amount of research and innovation into the watches’ construction. It was popular early on among military personnel, athletes and outdoor adventurers for its unbelievable durability, before entering the world of skateboarding, hip hop and youth culture. Today the G-Shock empire is known as a super cool, fashion accessory power-house, boasting high profile collaborations with a range of music artists, streetwear brands and coveted designers.
Casio and Seiko continued to engineer quirky watch combinations well into the 2000s before the sleek, modern iterations made by phone companies started to appear. The GPS was integrated into a bulky timepiece in 1999 and a watch with a built-in digital camera came to market in 2002. These inventions are easy to romanticise as cool retro electronics or goofy gimmicks of technological exercise, but it is their unapologetic innovation that paved the way for the ultra-useful smartwatches of today.