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Digital Watches

Posted by Big Boo on October 28th, 2008

The image accompanying this post gave me quite a surprise, as believe it or not, it’s a modern watch available to buy today!  It looks stunningly like an old watch that I had during the 1980’s, right down to the positioning of the little alarm icons and AM/PM indicator.  I guess if the design ain’t broke, why fix it?

Digital Watches were very much a fashion item of the 1980’s, but the first instances of them actually appeared in the 1970’s.  I remember my Uncle had one of these early watches which used light emitting diodes (LEDs) to display the time.  LEDs consumed so much power though that the watch display was kept black most of the time, and to see what the time was you had to press a button to make it appear in all its glowing red glory.

By the mid 1970’s Liquid Crystal Displays (LCDs) had replaced LEDs in watches.  LCD displays were far less battery hungry, and allowed a battery life measured in years rather than months.  I don’t pretend to understand the physics of such displays entirely, but it has something to do with polarised light filters and the alignment of liquid crystals when an electric current is applied to them.  When current is applied the crystals rotate to align in a direction at right angles to the polarised light filters, and light cannot pass through, making that area of the display appear black.  If you want a more accurate description, take a look here!

The first Digital Watches did little more than tell the time and date, but thanks to companies such as Casio, who’s name is synonymous with the timepieces, all kinds of weird and wonderful features started to be added that would have been hard or expensive to do on a regular analogue watch.  The most common features were stop watch functionality and an alarm.

The alarm feature obviously required the watch to make sound, which was usually little more than a series of high pitched beeps.  Since this resource was now available an hourly chime feature was added to many watches that made a couple of beeps once the time hit the hour.  This was particularly funny at school when there would be a series of random beepings every hour caused by a classroom full of kids all wearing digital watches whose time varied by a range of a few minutes.

Before long the calculator watch appeared, with a grid of number and mathematical symbol buttons arrayed under the screen, and by the end of the 1980’s Data Bank watches started to appear that allowed you to store information such as telephone numbers or dates of appointments.  There have even been watches with mini TV screens in, and those with a programmable remote control, so you can turn the volume up on your TV from your watch – though I can’t think why you’d ever want to…

There were also higher end watches that were both digital and analogue, including those that simulated a regular clock face with hands using a highly complex multi-sectioned LCD panel.  These often had metal straps to increase their value rather than the more common rubber strap, and to be honest it was probably worth the extra cash since the rubber straps had a tendenancy to break easily if you took your watch on and off regularly.  I remember I must have gone through at least four replacement straps for one of my digital watches without having to change the battery once!

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