From bulky TV-remote watches to miniature computer games,Tom Bailey takes a nostalgic look at retro wristwear
Mini FM radios, cigarette lighters, laser pointers, pagers, complex new methods of telling the time; there’s very little that watchmakers haven’t tried to put on our wrists over the past 50 years. Sometimes it worked, and sometimes – like Steven Seagal trying to pass himself off as a cook in Under Siege – it really didn’t. Either way, you‘ll more than likely have fond memories of many of these timepieces. Sure, they‘re not exactly oligarch-friendly, nor will you see them adorning the pages of a luxury style bible. But aged 12 and 3/4, most of us would have happily swapped a Breguet Double Tourbillon for a watch you could play Mario on. Besides, when you see the prices some of these beauties are fetching on eBay, you’ll almost certainly regret having donated yours quite so freely to the church jumble sale all those years ago...
The one that played mario
Nelsonic Super Mario Bros 3 (eBay price: £63)
Unless you specifically didn‘t want to be dubbed ‘king of the playground’ by your peers, or offered a pack of Scampi Fries in return for three goes, there’s no way you’d pass up the chance to own a video- game watch that you could play Mario on. The LCD beauty featured flick book-style animation, tiny directional buttons and a speaker for authentic arcade beeps. Hilariously basic by today’s post-GTA V standards, but now highly sought after – much like the legendary Pac-Man watch, which came with a miniature screw-on joystick. Expensive on eBay, yes, but if you do still get a hankering for Scampi Fries, it’s not a bad investment.
The one ahead of its time
Timex Data Link 150 (eBay price: £87)
It’s 1995. Bill Gates rules the world, Miley Cyrus is three (her excessive tongue-lolling shocks no one) and every baggy-chinoed exec in the US has a ‘PDA’ electronic organiser. “What if the PDA could be worn on the wrist?” wondered Gates, and the world’s first smartwatch was born. The Data Link could store 150 phone numbers, had a scrolling diary and – prophetically – could be synced wirelessly with any vomit-coloured IBM. By holding the watch’s optical sensor against a series of flashing white lines on the monitor, data leapt from PC to watch. Execs – not to mention exam cheats – loved it.
The one for junior astronauts
Bulova Accutron Spaceview 214 (eBay price: £500)
If you ever visit the moon, try not to trip over an Accutron clock. A few of them were abandoned on the surface by the Apollo 11 astronauts during the 1969 landing. They brought them along for the ride since the Accutron was the most accurate clock and watch movement in the world. Its secret? A tiny tuning fork that vibrated at 360 times a second – so game-changing that the US government reportedly tried to hush it up during the Cold War. Perhaps that explains why Hunter S Thompson made a point of wearing one himself. After all, he wasn’t exactly known for hitting deadlines...
The one with a drum kit
Seiko Frequency (eBay price: £220)
By the mid-Nineties, pretty much everything – apart from an oyster shucking knife and a drum machine – had been crowbarred into wristwatches. Drum machine it was, then. Seiko hired Japanese techno DJ Tetsuya Komuro, and the Frequency was born; all the usual watch functions plus six drum patterns and a BPM counter. Styled with a dash of Transformers chic, it should have been a hit. Sadly it wasn’t, and sales were somewhat slower than the device’s boom-shaka-laka rhythms. The Frequency can now change hands for twice the original £115 price, but it’s fair to say Seiko’s engineers still regret not fully exploring that oyster-shucking concept…
The one with a rubbish TV
Seiko TV Watch (eBay price: £205)
In the Eighties, ‘portable’ TVs were roughly the size and weight of an oscilloscope; portable in the sense that they had a handle. So just imagine seeing a TV wristwatch in the Bond film Octopussy – then being able to actually buy it in a shop. Sure, the 1.25in LCD screen was black and white (007’s was colour), but modern man could now stride down the street watching Grandstand. Extraordinary. One catch: the Walkman-sized TV/FM receiver, which had to be stowed in a breast pocket with a wire running down your sleeve to the watch.
Oh, and watch out for that lamppost, squire...
The one that could change channels
Casio CMD-40-1ZT TV Remote Control Learning Watch (eBay price: £50)
A watch that could mimic a TV/VCR remote? Was this even legal? This is what schoolboys wondered – before embarking on Beano-grade class disruption. For the next five years, no teacher could show a VHS of The World At War without a channel changing, the volume blaring or Hitler squeaking in fast forward. There was similar havoc in pubs as grown men cranked up the football commentary. Want one? They’re easy to find: sneak into any school staff room and find the box marked ‘confiscated’.
The one that reinvented time
Swatch Netsurfer (eBay price: £50)
The first dotcom boom was characterised by explosive optimism coupled with insane hubris. Overnight, anything without an ‘@’ in it was torn down and fly-tipped in the digital equivalent of ‘mattress alley’. The concept of time? “We’ve scrapped that,” announced Swatch in 1998. “We’re replacing it with Internet Time.” Enter the Beats watch, which divided each day in 1,000 ‘Beats.’ Derision ensued, and it was swiftly pointed out that these ‘Internet Time’ watches didn’t account for our elliptical orbit – nor our leap years. Nail? Meet coffin.