“I want the entire smartphone, the entire Internet, on my wrist”*…
As the world watches the clock for the release of the Apple Watch, the Computer History Museum reminds us that watches-that-compute have a very long history…
Ubiquitous, wearable computers have been a dream since at least the 1930s. Chester Gould’s comic strip Dick Tracy introduced the 2-Way Radio Watch worn by members of The City police force. At first merely a combination radio and wristwatch, eventually Tracy’s watch added television and other technical capabilities.
This comic strip, in turn, influenced Gene Roddenberry’s communicators on the television series Star Trek, and other images of watch-like communication/computation devices can be found throughout science fiction. The recent announcement of the Apple Watch has renewed interest in computerized wristwatches and revived the idea of a wrist-worn computer that is cool. Of course, the idea is hardly new but it took a long time for the wristwatch computer to reach levels that Dick Tracy achieved.
The earliest combination of the watch form factor with a computational device dates from late 19th century. English company Boucher’s received a patent for a circular slide rule in a pocket watch shape in 1876.
French company Meyrat & Perdrizet made a slide rule chronograph in 1890. The central portion of the device was a standard pocket watch face, with a circular slide rule with an independent hand surrounded it. Two dials at the top of the watch allowed it to perform calculations…
Follow the story– the introduction of wrist instruments in the early 20th century, the advent of electronics– at “It’s About Time: The Computer on Your Wrist.”
* Steve Wozniak
As we strap it on, we might send timely birthday greetings to John Harrison; he was born on this date in 1693. A self-educated English carpenter and clockmaker, Harrison invented the marine chronometer, In the absence of a way for ships at sea accurately to ascertain their longitude, sailing was dangerous; cumulative errors in dead reckoning over long voyages led to ship wrecks and loss of life. Indeed, the perceived threat– thus, the desire of a defense– was so great that Parliament offered a Longitude prize of £20,000 (£2.75 million) for a solution. Harrison’s approach, which won that prize, was to create a clock so accurate that it could eliminate those errors. His “chronometers” were accurate to within seconds over long periods; his winning clock was off only 39.2 seconds over a voyage of 47 days… and helped create the conditions in which the Age of Sail flourished. (More detail on the longitude problem and Harrison’s answer here.)