Home' Technology Review : March April 2011 Contents 34 Years Ago
technology review March/April 2011
One reason why it’s hard to predict
the fate of a new technology is that
it’s too tempting to focus on bugs
in an early version. We forget to look for
the bigger underlying idea that will become
apparent as the problems get solved.
Take something as ordinary as a digital
watch. As absurd as it may seem now, when
the first ones emerged in the early 1970s,
people wondered whether consumers would
be able to make the mental leap to telling
time by digital numbers. Besides that, the
contraptions had problems that made them
seem as if they might become a passing fad.
In January 1977, Technology Review
weighed in on the situation. By that time
digital watches had been available for half
a decade, although the earliest models were
specialty items: the first one available to
the public, a gold Pulsar LED created by
the Hamilton Watch Company and Elec-
tro/Data in 1970, sold for $2,100. Not until
1976, when Texas Instruments made plastic
LED watches that sold for $19.95, did digi-
tal watches start appearing on the wrists of
But even by then, success was no sure
thing. The 1977 TR column was in response
to a Consumer Reports survey of 635 digital-
watch owners. The survey showed that many
weren’t so pleased with what they’d bought.
For a while, it appeared as if our headlong
race into the 21st century would be timed
with a digital watch. The electronic devices
are being turned out by the millions and
snapped up by buyers. But lately indica-
tions are that the digital watch is but a fleet-
ing craze, and the bright, blinking watch
faces will vanish with platform shoes and
Many complained that the digitals are
hard to read. One type of display, the Light
Emitting Diode (LED), depends upon a but-
ton which is pressed to light the numerals
and tell the time; each button press drains
the watch’s battery. The other type, the Liquid
Crystal Display (LCD), is visible without but-
ton pressing, but is impossible to read in the
dark, for the display issues no light of its own.
Strong electromagnetic fields, as are gener-
ated by loudspeakers and the electric doors
of a commuter train, cause the watches to
go berserk, reported owners, and heat and
cold can be disastrous to accuracy.
Watch companies solved some of those
problems, but in the process they ended up
creating new ones.
For instance, some manufacturers make
an LED watch that lights the numerals at
the flick of a wrist. Many owners have been
irritated to discover that the watch lights
inadvertently, needlessly draining the bat-
teries. LCD watchmakers have built watches
that feature a light to illuminate the display
in the dark, but they require an extra bat-
tery and some button-pushing.
Timing events with an LED digital watch
is difficult if the wearer has to keep a button
pressed. And setting a digital watch usually
involves more complex button-pushing or
other manipulation than does setting a con-
These problems, too, were solved—for
example, by designing the stopwatch func-
tion so users needed to press a button only
once to start and once to stop. But bugs aside,
the writer also doubted that people would be
able to mentally adjust to the new technology.
Most people are unused to reading numer-
als rather than clock hands, and must make
abstract calculations to figure out time inter-
vals that are visually represented on the con-
ventional watch face.
Of course, the digital watch did eventu-
ally succeed. In the 1980s, versions appeared
with calculators, lunar phases, and foreign-
language dictionaries. Today most people
have a clock on their mobile phones, but the
digital-watch industry is still going strong,
with models created for everything from
scuba diving to mountaineering.
So take that as a lesson when you encoun-
ter a new technology: the first incarnations
might be clunky, but that’s no real indicator
of its staying power.
KristinA GrifAnti ni is Technology Review ’s As sistAnt
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34 Years Ago in TR
Digital Watches and Pet Rocks
the long-term value of an innovation often doesn’t become
apparent until it has gone through many product cycles—including
buggy versions that annoy early adopters.
By Kristina Grifantini
CAn i GEt YOUr DiGits? the first digital wrist-
watch ever mass-produced sold for $2,100.
Mar11 Years Ago.indd 88
2/9/11 8:35 AM
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