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Intelligent Machines

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.

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 Electro/Data in 1970, sold for $2,100. Not until 1976, when Texas Instruments made plastic LED watches that sold for $19.95, did digital watches start appearing on the wrists of everyday people.

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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 indications are that the digital watch is but a fleeting craze, and the bright, blinking watch faces will vanish with platform shoes and pet rocks.

Many complained that the digitals are hard to read. One type of display, the Light Emitting Diode (LED), depends upon a button 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 button pressing, but is impossible to read in the dark, for the display issues no light of its own.

Strong electromagnetic fields, as are generated 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 batteries. LCD watchmakers have built watches that feature a light to illuminate the display in the dark, but they require an extra battery 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 conventional watch.

These problems, too, were solved—for example, by designing the stopwatch function 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 numerals rather than clock hands, and must make abstract calculations to figure out time intervals that are visually represented on the conventional watch face.

Of course, the digital watch did eventually 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 encounter a new technology: the first incarnations might be clunky, but that’s no real indicator of its staying power.

Kristina Grifantini is Technology Review ’s assistant editor.


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