With the Apple Watch Series 4 making its debut, we have a pretty clear vision of what to expect in a “smartwatch” in 2018 and what the benchmark is. Hell, when the first version reared its head in 2015, it felt pretty genre-defining. But while the Apple Watch has helped solidify what the perception of a modern smartwatch is, the road to its development was paved with an extraordinary number of watches that attempted to computerize the wrist-worn timepiece and expand upon its functions. In fact, many of the seemingly cutting-edge aspects of the Apple Watch today were first introduced in watches that are decades old.
So when exactly did the watch become “smart”? You could argue that the race began with the development of quartz timekeeping in the late 1960s or the introduction of the first digital watch in 1972, but the introduction of the Seiko TV Watch in 1982 feels like a good start. In addition to a digital screen with the traditional timekeeping functions, the watch’s dial featured a then- state-of-the-art LCD television screen that could receive UHF and VHF channels (as well as FM radio signals), though only when hooked up to a receiver that had to be carried in your pocket and hardwired to the watch. Like a modern smartwatch, the TV Watch would eat through its batteries, consuming two AAs after watching five hours of television.
What in retrospect is an exceedingly goofy device probably felt pretty revolutionary at the time, given that at the time of its launch, the watch was featured prominently in the 007 film Octopussy, albeit without the dorky receiver attached. This wouldn’t be Seiko’s only contribution to smartwatch history, either: the same year that the TV Watch’s debuted, Pulsar — creator of the first digital watch and then a sub-brand of Seiko — released the NL C01, a databank watch that could store a whopping 24 digits of information. That was quickly followed by another databank timepiece, the Data 2000, which could store 2,000 characters and which connected via electromagnetic coupling (aka wireless docking!) to an external keyboard allowing users to log information. As you’d probably guess, the watch didn’t exactly take off.
Soon after, “computer watches” entered the fold in the form of Seiko’s RC and UC series that could connect to popular personal computers at the time — the Apple II, the Commodore 64, etc — via a hardwire connection. What’s more, some of these watches boasted microprocessors and memory and were actually programmable, though very limited in their functions. The RC-20, for example, could run programs the wearer coded on their PC and then transferred to the watch (it also had a very early touchscreen); similarly, the UC-2000 came with a keyboard-like dock that essentially turned it into a tiny computer when off your wrist.
The next wave of smartwatch innovation didn’t really hit until the early 1990s, but this was then when products began to resemble the smartwatches of today. Casio, for example, released a bevy of digital watches with expanded functions that have become de rigeiur on wearables today. In 1990, it debuted the JC-10, which could monitor steps, calories burned and distance traveled like a modern fitness-tracking wearable. A year later, there was the VDB-1000 that was, in essence, a wrist-worn touchscreen PDA; the BP-400, also launched in 1991, could even monitor heart rate and blood pressure.
Then, in 1994, things kicked up a notch. Casio debuted the VivCel VCL-100, which featured an antenna that could detect when your phone was ringing and vibrate to alert you — basically, a push notification. Upping the ante was Seiko, which released the Receptor Message Watch which functioned as a wrist-worn pager, though it’s limited space and seven-segment display meant messages had to be short and the characters you could use were limited. Most notable of all, though, was the introduction of the Timex Datalink.
Yes, Timex would prove to be an early innovator in smartwatches, though not without the help of Microsoft. The watch, as the name suggests, could store simple data, like some 150 phone numbers, and synchronize contacts, appointments and other information with your computer. Wirelessly. Bluetooth was invented in 1994, though consumer products using the wireless tech wouldn’t actually debut for several more years, so the Datalink synced by, as a commercial put it, “light beams.” What this essentially meant was that your computer’s CRT monitor would flash a series of barcodes that the watch would receive and decode. The DataLink even ran “WristApps” which, while rudimentary, did include games and even a golf scorekeeper.
In the late ’90s, there were several attempts to update wearable technology. Seiko, for one, introduced the Reputer in 1998, not so much a watch but a wrist-worn computer with its own processor and memory as well as an LCD screen and an 8-point joystick. At the same time, Canadian inventor Steve Mann developed a Linux-powered wristwatch, and in 1999, Samsung made a watch phone that could provide 90 minutes of talk time before the battery would die. A few years later, Fossil (yes, that Fossil) introduced a similar timepiece, the Fossil Wrist PDA, which ran Palm OS 4 and featured a touchscreen.
In 2003, Microsoft debuted what was arguably one of the biggest leaps in wearable technology at the time with the introduction of the SPOT (Smart Personal Objects Technology) watch. While it didn’t connect to the internet, it could receive news, weather, sports scores, text messages and other types of data via an FM radio frequency network — called MSN Direct — developed by Microsoft. Microsoft worked with Citizen, Fossil, Swatch and Sunnto to build watches with the technology that would, ultimately fail. In 2008, production of SPOT watches ended, and service for the MSN Direct network upon which they operated was discontinued in 2012.
But around the same time that SPOT died, the new generation of smartwatches seemed to be on the horizon with the introduction of the Pebble Watch on Kickstarter in 2012, which was, for some time, the most funded project on the crowdfunding platform. Pebble eventually shuttered a few years later, but it introduced the concept of the Smartphone-connected timepiece to the buying public. Not long after we had the Samsung Gear, and then the Apple Watch.
What almost all of these watches have in common is that they proved to be commercial failures. At least until recently, the idea of a wrist-worn computer was a hard sell, but today Apple manages to sell millions of Apple Watches to people who gleefully snatch them up. So while you could argue that the concept of a smartwatch is still a fundamentally flawed one — and many people do — there’s no getting around the fact that for decades many companies have strived to prove otherwise.