8 Calculator Watch Facts to Nerd Out Over
Last week, I stumbled into this very retro calculator watch from artist Nathan Bird of the wonderful site HahaBird. I don’t know why I want this watch so much. It doesn’t tell time. I don’t know how to use an abacus, and I don’t generally like things dangling from my wrist. Yet, somehow, it’s just nerdy enough that I want to clasp it to my arm and wave it in front of anyone who was ever on a math team (full disclosure: I was on the math team). Nathan’s got an instructional on his site here, if you’d like to make a similar abacus watch for yourself. But ever since seeing the post, I’ve been wanting to look up more facts about calculator watches. Here’s a little of what I found:
1. No One Trusted Calculators
It may seem strange today, but digital calculators had to earn the public's trust. When the first Japanese pocket calculators debuted in a big way, people were so skeptical of the tiny machines' accuracy that Sharp Electronics bolted an abacus to the calculators so that users could check their work. The site Retrocalculators shows four different models that were produced up until 1985.
2. The First Calculator Watches Were Sold At Tiffany…
The first Pulsar calculator watches debuted in 1975. They were solid gold and retailed for $3950 (nearly $18,000 in today’s money; tuition at Harvard was $3740 a year back then). But you couldn’t just pop over to a local Radio Shack to pick up a watch. According to the New York Times, the limited edition of 100 watches were only available at Tiffany, Nieman-Marcus and Marshall Field.
3. … and Every Watch Came with a Free Pen!
Pocket Watch Show
Like an early stylus, the first editions came with a pocket pen to help those with clumsy fingers navigate the keypad. The pens also functioned to help note down answers since the early calculators didn’t have memory keys and could only read 6 digits across.
4. The Circuit Boards Were Gorgeous
The folks at Crazy Watches took a peek inside the Pulsar 901 to reveal this beautiful circuitry (h/t Medium). The watch matches the Steve Jobs ideal of making sure that even the parts you don’t see are still aesthetically pleasing.
5. Math for the People
It didn’t take long for the company to churn out an “economy” version. For $400 (just $2000 in today’s cash) you could pick up a steel version of the same calculator. By the early 1980s, the competition had driven down prices on cheaper models to under $20.
6. A Watch for Closet Nerds
Casio Ad, 1985
Casio soon figured out how to add all sorts of features to the basic calculator watch. For people who didn’t want to look like the sort of people who need a calculator on their wrist at all times, Casio introduced an “invisible” feature in 1985, where users could swipe numbers and symbols across the watch face with their fingers. Answers would display in the subtle band above the standard watch face. For those who were more comfortable with their Atari-loving selves, the company added a “Space Invader Game” to complement calendar and alarm functions.
7. It’s One Thing that Sting and Michael J. Fox Could Agree On
I don’t know what else belongs on the Venn diagram where their interests overlap, but in the 1980s, both idols sported calculator watches proudly.
8. This Might Be the Best One
Pocket Watch Show
With 41 buttons around the watch face and all your trigonometric needs fulfilled (there are sin and cos buttons!), this Citizen Quartz watch is probably my favorite old timey calculator watch. Well, other than the abacus watch above.
For a whole lot more on the history and evolution of calculator watches, be sure to check out this wonderful Medium story. And for a stunning gallery of Nerd Watches, be sure to poke around the Pocket Calculator Show and Crazy Watches collections.