Walter Isaacson: July 9, 1916. The great war was raging in Europe. The ferocious new tools of modern warfare, tanks, machine guns, airplanes had turned much of the continent into a killing field. But on that summer’s day, American readers of The New York Times were able to put aside all that grim news from the front to read an entirely different kind of dispatch from the paper’s European correspondent. That day’s big story, the war had unleashed a new fashion trend. People were starting to wear watches on their wrists. Until recently, the reporter noted, the bracelet watch had been looked upon by most Americans as something of a joke.
He referred to watches, and I’m quoting here, as a silly ass fad. But now a war was suddenly turning a silly ass fad into a necessity. Thanks to improvements in communications technology, modern armies can now coordinate their movements more precisely and that meant soldiers, or at least their commanders, needed to be constantly aware of the time. That was hard to do if you were always having to fish your watch out of your pocket. Putting that watch on a strap and tying it around your wrist was a logical solution to the problem. But that Times article in the summer of 1916 was not just about what soldiers were doing.
The breaking news was that civilians, men as well as women, were now starting to put watches on their wrists. Even the critics who had spent years mocking the bracelet watch now conceded that it was probably appropriate technology for what the reporter called general outdoor life. The question still to be answered was would it also be widely adopted for general indoor living after the war ended? I’m Walter Isaacson and you’re listening to Trailblazers, an original podcast from Dell Technologies.
Voiceover: What time is it? Winds automatically with just the slightest motion of your wrist. Its performance and beauty a source of pride. Springs and gears, pinions and bearings. Still ticking away. Far more steadily than any beating heart.
Walter Isaacson: The man usually credited as the father of the modern clock was a locksmith from Nuremberg, Germany named Peter Henlein, who in 1510 built the first ring powered brass clock. But whether a watch is electronic and sells for a few dollars or a mechanical masterpiece that sells for thousands or even millions, they’re all in their own marvels of engineering, innovation, and precision. Before moving on, let’s take a quick look inside the modern watch to see what makes it tick. Our guide is Carlene Stephens, a curator at the National Museum of American History in Washington, DC.
Carlene Stephens: The heart of a mechanical watch is the thing that makes it keep accurate time. For hundreds of years, that has been an oscillating balance and hairspring. The balance is a circle and the hairspring is a spiral, and together they rotate at a regular rate and it looks like it’s breathing.
Walter Isaacson: For roughly 500 years, the mechanical watch reigned supreme, but in the 1960s, its dominance was challenged by battery operated electronic watches. The first blow to the dominance of the mechanical watch actually came from a very old piece of technology, the tuning fork.
Carlene Stephens: My hero in this story is Max Hetzel. He was hired in the 1950s to automate watchmaking for a new plant in Biel, Switzerland. The research question was can an electric watch ever be more precise than a mechanical watch? Ad Hetzel’s answers was no. As long the watch has a balance and a hairspring, there’s no way to improve the timekeeping regularity. Then the second question was if the electric watch run by a battery can’t be more accurate, what would make a watch more accurate? And that’s where he came up with a very small mechanical metal tuning fork and that eventually became the Bulova Accutron.
Walter Isaacson: As impressive as the Bulova Accutron was, its reign as a piece of cutting edge technology was short lived. Tuning forks would ultimately not be able to compete against the many advantages provided by quartz. In the 1920s, researchers at Bell Labs had developed a clock that kept time using a quartz crystal that vibrated when subjected to an electric current. The competition to produce the first quartz watch was intense between several Japanese, Swiss, and American companies. The winner was the Japanese firm Seiko.
Joe Thompson: 1969 is when Seiko issues the shot heard around the world. That is when the world’s very first quartz wristwatch arrives.
Walter Isaacson: Joe Thompson is a journalist who has been writing about watches since the 1970s. He’s currently editor-at-large at Hodinkee.com, an online magazine about the watch industry. Joe Thompson says that the shot heard around the world in 1969 was particularly devastating to the Swiss watch industry.
Joe Thompson: The quartz crisis wreaked havoc on the Swiss watch industry. Perhaps the best measure of it is that in 1970 the Swiss watch industry employed 89,000 people. It bottomed out in 1988 at 28,000. So like all revolutions, this one was messy and bloody and there were casualties. And the primary casualties where in Switzerland wherein brands just couldn’t compete. They stuck with the mechanical technology and they went bankrupt.
Walter Isaacson: The quartz revolution of the 1970s made the Japanese watch industry world leaders and devastated many of the iconic Swiss companies, at least for a time. For a brief shining moment, it appeared to also revive an American watch industry that had been more abundant since the end of World War II. By the 1960s, watches had become too expensive to make in the US, but the Hamilton Watch Company, those people who had introduced the world to the first electronic watch, was still in business and still making watches in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, although it was struggling to stay afloat.
Walter Isaacson: Like everyone else in the late 1960s, they were trying to gain a foothold into the rapidly growing quartz market, but they were years behind their competition. The only way to catch up would be to come up with something that no one else was doing. The people at Hamilton decided they would tell the time digitally. All numbers, no hands.
John Bergey: I felt we’re too far behind in the analog business. Unless we went digital, price wouldn’t matter and it turned out I was lucky and guessed right.
Walter Isaacson: That’s John Bergey. In 1968, he was 34 years old and the head of research and development at the Hamilton Watch Company. He headed the team that produced the Pulsar, the world’s first digital watch. In 1970, they built three prototypes and dangled them in front of the media. Everyone was eager to get a glimpse of the watch of the future, including the legendary host of NBC’s The Tonight Show Johnny Carson.
John Bergey: We got a call from NBC I guess it was. I went up. Met with Carson in the show. Gave Carson one of the prototypes. His assistant was Ed McMahon at the time. Ed McMahon held it and Johnny Carson looked at. Of course, they put down the lights so it was dark enough to see the digital displays in the studio. The first thing Carson says, “Hey, Ed. It’s upside down.” You can see the numbers, you know? He turns it around and pushed it a couple times and it worked. He says, “Boy. That’s really great. That’s the neatest thing I’ve ever seen.” And Johnny Carson took the watch and he says, “Well, I guess that’ll put Mickey Mouse of business.”
Walter Isaacson: The Pulsar finally went on sale in April 1972, two years after it was first introduced on The Tonight Show. Its official name was the Pulsar Time Computer, although it really wasn’t a computer. Telling time was the only thing it could actually do. 400 watches were offered up for the launch, and even with its $2,000 selling price, they sold out in three days.
John Bergey: It was exciting time. A lot of fun. Enjoyed every moment of it. We created a lot of history. A lot of famous people came around. Called up for Pulsar when it first started. One I remembered was from Betty Ford, who was President Ford’s wife. She said, “How much are they? I like to have one for my husband.” I said, “It was around …” If I remember, it was around $1,200. She says, “$1,200? Forget it.” I said, “No. No. I won’t forget it. I’ll send you one free. It’s for the president.” She said, “Oh my god. Thanks.” Anyway, we got a letter sometime thereafter thanking us very much for that wonderful watch.
John Bergey: He wore it quite bit as I understand. It was a lot of fun the whole thing.
Walter Isaacson: Unfortunately for John Bergey and the Hamilton Watch Company, the Pulsar turned out to be a shooting star that burned up very quickly. In 1972, it cost $300 to make the components for a Pulsar watch. Less than a decade later, it cost $3. Cheap digital quartz watches flooded the market. By the end of the 1970s, the Hamilton Watch Company was forced to declare bankruptcy. The American experiment with LED digital had failed and the Swiss was still focused primarily on mechanical watches, but watchmaking was too integral a part of the Swiss economy and culture to surrender without a fight.
Walter Isaacson: All mechanical production for Swiss watches was consolidated into one company led by a man named Ernst Thomke. One of the people Thomke hired was a young innovative engineer Elmar Mock.
Joe Thompson: AndMock was interested in making an inexpensive quartz watch. What he does amazingly is he ends up ordering an injection molding machine, which cost 500,000 Swiss Francs. Well, soon enough, Thomke ends up calling him in asking him what the heck is he doing and berates him for about a half an hour and then finally asked him, “Well, what were you thinking?” Then Mock explains to him, “I think we can make a plastic watch that would be really inexpensive.”
Walter Isaacson: Turns out that Ernst Thomke was also thinking that an inexpensive plastic quartz watch could be just what he Swiss watch industry needed to beat back the Japanese. Within a few months, they had a come up with a prototype and a name for their new watch. It was called Swatch.
Joe Thompson: They launched Swatch in 1983. Swatch becomes an enormous hit, but what really caused the revolution was that Swatch quickly redefined what a watch could be. It turned the watch dial into a painter’s palette and it became a celebration of artistic expression. It became almost an attitude and philosophy of life. It was the first watch to start what we now know as watch wardrobe. It was cheap enough that you could buy one, two, three for different outfits for different occasions. It became a sensation.
Walter Isaacson: By turning watches into fashion accessories, Swatch revolutionized the watch industry. Not just in Switzerland, but around the world. It was a great time to be in the watch business with one possible exception, companies whose main source of revenue still came from making expensive mechanical watches. They were feeling a bit nervous.
Hank Edelman: Well, yeah, of course, we thought it posed a threat. That was fairly obvious to us at that time, but the reality is that the whole premise of what we do is that we want watches to last.
Walter Isaacson: That’s Hank Edelman. He’s the chairman of the board of the Henri Stern Watch Agency, which imports and distributes Patek Philippe watches in the United States. Patek Philippe has been making very high end mechanical watches in Switzerland since 1851. He remembers the years after Swatch revolutionized the industry as being particularly challenging.
Hank Edelman: The expectation was that our kind of watch would disappear. That the idea of mechanical watchmaking handwork would no longer be needed. The presumption was that it was just a matter of time until watch companies like ours disappeared. Clearly that wasn’t the case.
Walter Isaacson: Today against all odds and thanks to some very clever marketing, the mechanical watch business is thriving. In 2016, mechanicals accounted for 27% of all Swiss watch export. At $15 billion, they represented 80% of total sales, but now there’s a new threat on the horizon. One that will likely not significantly impact the mechanical watch industry, but which for the first time in 30 years, threatens the reign of electronic watches. It’s actually a double barrel threat. The first is the smartphone. Millions, maybe even billions of people no longer feel the need to wear time around their wrist.
Walter Isaacson: Time maybe heading back into the pocket from which it emerged a hundred years ago. The second potentially disruptive innovation is the smartwatch, a touchscreen computer that users can wear on their wrists. The smartwatch burst into prominence in September 2014 when, which much fanfare, Apple introduced the world to the Apple Watch. But the idea behind the smartwatch goes back a long way. You’ll recall that when the Pulsar watch was introduced in 1972, its official was the Pulsar Time Computer, but that proved to be more hype than reality. Apart from being the first digital watch, there wasn’t really anything computer-like about the Pulsar.
Walter Isaacson: Let’s go back even further. All the way back to January 1946. That’s when the readers of The Dick Tracy comic strip were first introduced to his remarkable two-way wrist radio. It was a futuristic gadget that featured both a standard analog watch face and a walkie talkie that Tracy could use when the bad guys had him in a jam. In 1964, the strip’s writers upgraded the wrist radio into a two-way wrist TV, introducing the world to video conferencing for the first time. Arguably, one of the biggest fans of The Dick Tracy watch was a serial inventor in Toronto named Steve Mann.
Steve Mann: My name is Steve Man and I’ve been inventing, designing, and building wearable computers for about 43 years now. One example of the wearable computer is the smartwatch that I invented and built 20 years ago back in 1998.
Walter Isaacson: Steve Mann is a professor at the University of Toronto. 20 years ago while exploring ways to consolidate a variety of digital applications into a single wearable device, he came up with the idea of putting it on a watch.
Steve Mann: You see, back then people had tape recorders to record sound. They had cameras to take pictures. They had telephones, calculators. We had all these different things that were separate, and I kind of envisioned that they would all be coming together in one general purpose device that’s kind of like a general purpose computer that you wear on your body. I looked at different forms of it. Back in those days, almost everybody already wore a wristwatch. People would typically wear a wristwatch so they knew what time it was.
Steve Mann: What I figured is that one of the things we already wear could be that one thing. I simply envisioned this idea of making a computer be a wristwatch.
Walter Isaacson: Step one was to develop a prototype of the wrist computer. One day while in Germany for a conference, Steve Mann stumbled across some oversize kid’s watches in a store. The watches also had a compartment for storing gumballs. That gave him an idea.
Steve Mann: They had a regular watch and then there’s some room for some gum in there. What I did is I thought, “Oh, those are pretty good. I could probably build a computer into that,” and so I bought a whole bunch of them and built general purpose computers into them.
Walter Isaacson: So Steve Mann built his general purpose computer inside the watch. Among its functions was video conferencing, just like Dick Tracy. By 2000, he was ready to introduce it to the world. He went to the International Solid-State Circuits Conference to participate in a session that examined the question when might The Dick Tracy watch go from the realm of science fiction to reality. Much to the amazement of the people at the conference, Steve Mann showed them that the day had already arrived.
Steve Mann: I downloaded my video conferencing app and ran that and everybody was kind of blown away by it. They thought, “Wow. This is really amazing.” And so a number of these people who were running this conference said, “Wow. This is a new field of research. Steve Mann is the Father of Wearable Computing,” is what they said. They said they recognize this is a new discipline.
Walter Isaacson: It would be another 15 years before the Apple Watch hit the market, but by that point, to Steve Mann, smartwatches had become old news. Mann is how convinced that eyeglasses, not watches, are best suited to house a multifunction wearable computer. He has shifted his research in that direction. It’s estimated that about 18 million Apple Watches were sold in 2017. That’s an impressive number, but when you put 18 million in the context of the billion watches that are produced every year around the world, it starts to feel niche. Prices are starting to drop as more players entered the smartwatch market and more features are being added all the time.
Walter Isaacson: Fitness apps are driving a lot of smartwatch sales these days, but it remains an open question whether smartwatches will revolutionize the watch industry the way that quartz did in the 1980s or will remain the specialized product they are today. The one thing you can count on, according to Carlene Stephens of the National Museum of American History, is that in the watch business, you can’t ever really count on anything.
Carlene Stephens: I think the most important lesson we can learn from the history of the watch is that change is inevitable and the future is not foretold. There was a moment recently where it appeared that cellphones were going to kill the wristwatch, but I think recent events with the Apple Watch, the Fitbit, all of these wrist worn multifunction personal timekeepers shows we shouldn’t count the wristwatch out yet.
Walter Isaacson: In other words, there’s still a lot of life left in this silly ass fad. I’m Walter Isaacson and you’ve been listening to Trailblazers, an original podcast from Dell Technologies. On the next episode, we’ll look at the world of car racing, from its humble beginnings in the early 20th century to today’s high tech computers on wheels. If you want to find out more about any of the guests we’ve talked to in today’s show, you can head to our website at delltechnologies.com/trailblazers. That’s delltechnologies.com/trailblazers. Thanks for listening.