Gizmos by Category
Gizmos A - Z
Decimo Vatman 120D Calc
Talking wristwatches, that speak the time using a voice synthesiser chip, first appeared in the early 1980’s. However, there is some confusion about who made the first one, which is a bit strange, considering that it’s a comparatively recent and was – at the time – a technically impressive feat, but we’ll come back to that momentarily. Meanwhile here’s one of the more affordable first generation models that appeared soon after the expensive groundbreakers. It’s the Micronta 63-5040 VoxWatch Talking Wrist Watch from 1986. Micronta was one of Radio Shack’s house brands, and they sold their wares, including the VoxWatch, in this country in the much-missed Tandy stores that once graced almost every UK high street.
Talking watches were, and still are, a bit of an oddity. They are clearly a genuinely useful aid for the blind and visually impaired. However – in the early days at least – most were bought by people with normal eyesight and a thirst for novelty and new technology, of which there was no shortage in the eighties.
VoxWatch was made in Hong Kong for Radio Shack and appeared in a number of different guises. The design differs little from the earliest talking watches, starting with a large and distinctive rectangular case. The face of the watch is dominated by what's effectively the 'speaker' grille, mounted above a modestly sized LCD panel. This shows the current time, day and date, elapsed time and alarm. Below the LCD there’s a case-wide push-button that triggers the time announcement and switches the LCD from time to numeric day and month display. The button on the left side of the case selects display mode (current time plus day of the week, elapsed time/stopwatch function and alarm time) and set time, date and alarm time. Two buttons on the right side are for setting the time, date and alarm and selecting alarm on/off, start/stop elapsed time display and hourly time announce. As well as the voice it also plays a short melody when the alarm goes off. Given the size of the ‘speaker’ (around 10mm), and the comparative crudity of the speech system it uses, it is surprisingly loud and perfectly intelligible, provided there’s not too much ambient noise.
The speech synthesiser chip that generates the voice turns up in a lot of early talking watches. It was probably made by (or based on) Texas Instrument’s LPC (linear predictive coding) technology, developed in the early 80s. Although it sounds a lot like the voice synthesiser used by Stephen Hawking, his one was a custom version of the Intel’s Speech Plus. VoxWatch is powered by four 393 watch batteries, which fit into a compartment on the rear of the case. It has a sturdy black rubbery strap and according to Radio Shack’s 1987 catalogue (published in late 1986) it would have cost $39.95 US. This ties in neatly with the £24.95 Tandy price sticker on the tatty box that came with it. In today’s money (early 2021) that’s around £74.00, which was (and for most people still is) a fair price to pay for a non-luxury watch.
Considering its age the watch you see here, (ebay £5.00, including postage), was in pretty good shape. It was sold as working but with marks and dents. This turned out to be mostly stubborn grime, though the thin metal speaker grille had been in the wars. It looked like a previous owner had tried to remove it, which many explain why it came off so easily. A few gentle taps of a toffee hammer sorted out the kinks but restoring the finish and re-labelling proved to be more of a challenge. In the end I produced two versions, which you can see in the photos. The first re-used the original metal grille, which was polished smooth and spray painted silk black. It looks pretty good but currently lacks the ‘VoxWatch’ logo. Version 2 was made by scanning the original, cleaning up the image in a photo editing program and laser printing it onto silver metallic film (both positive and negative). These look a lot more authentic but probably won’t stand up to much rough handling. Either way the end result is a very presentable and functional vintage timepiece. Incidentally, I didn’t have the exact button cells to hand, they are still available but I found that slightly thinner 377 cells work well enought for testing, though the contacts had to be lightly tweaked to keep the cells firmly in place.
What Happened To It?
Clocks that could reportedly talk have a surprisingly long history, back to 1910 in fact, for several experimental contrivances based on phonograph mechanisms. Credit for the first practical and widely used speaking clock belongs to one developed in 1933 by Bernard Hiller for the French telephone system. Details are sketchy but it appears to have used voice recordings made on belts of celluloid, which suggests that it was similar in principle to the optical soundtrack recording system used on movie film. The GPO’s telephone speaking clock or ‘TIM’ began came on stream three years later, in 1936. It also used an optical recording, this time on more robust spinning glass discs. Throughout the mid twentieth century various attempts were made to develop talking clocks using miniature phonograph mechanisms, though they mostly ended up as toys. The first truly portable, quartz-controlled speaking clock with a synthesised human voice was the Sharp Talking Time from 1979.
The prime suspects for the very first talking wristwatch are the British Trafalgar Watch Company, for the model 1200, launched in 1981, and an unnamed and seemingly undocumented one from a Swiss watchmaker called Palerma. This allegedly appeared a few months before the Trafalgar watch, but I have yet to confirm this or even find an image of one so if they exist they must be super-rare and probably worth a very pretty penny.
Talking watches have generally been treated as a bit of a backwater in the watch collecting community but prices have been rising steadily and vintage models like the VoxWatch can be found on ebay, in varying states of functionality and appearance, for between £10 and £50.
I briefly had a Trafalgar watches in the early 80s, sent to me for a review in a short-lived technology magazine that I used to edit called Next… The PR company never asked for it back so according to the laws of unclaimed review samples it became mine. It went into my desk drawer where a co-worker spotted it and asked to borrow it. And that was the last time I saw it.
Currently they change hands for £100 or more… Badged and branded variants of the Trafalgar, such as the much hyped Omni Voice (created for the Omni science and technology mag), and vintage talkers from the likes of Seiko and Casio can go as high as £500. Talking watches are still with us, and almost certainly still being bought and used by the visually impaired, but the novelty has definitely worn off. Basic models now cost less than £10 but should you ever feel the urge you can spend over £100 for classier and better-made examples with extra features like radio/atomic clock synchronisation.
First Seen: 1986
Original Price: £24.95 ($39.95 in the US)
Value Today: £30.00 (0121)
Features: LCD display, time, day, date, elapsed time/stopwatch, voice announce: time, time set, and alarm time elapsed time (at 5 minute intervals), melody alarm, flexible rubber strap
Power req. 4 x 1.55 volt 393 button cells
Dimensions: 35 x 45 x 10mm (ex strap)
Made (assembled) in: Hong Kong
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest) 7
Guy’s Brittannic Calculating Machine, 1952?
In a rare break with tradition the featured item in this episode of dustygizmos is totally mechanical in operation, i.e. no batteries are required (or indeed any sort of electrical supply) to make it work. What makes the Guy’s Britannic Calculating Machine vaguely relevant on a website largely devoted to electrical and electronic gadgetry is that devices this were still being made almost twenty years after the first electronic calculators appeared in 1952 and ten years after the introduction of transistorised calculators in 1963. By the early seventies the cost, size and performance of electronic calculators finally consigned these old hand-cranked marvels to almost overnight obsolescence.
The Britannic, in common with many other mechanical calculators of the time is based around an ingenious contrivance called an Odhner Pinwheel, which in turn was based on mechanisms dating back to the seventeenth century. More on the exotically named Wilgott Theophil Odhner, the chap responsible for this revolutionary (pun intended) contraption, in just a moment.
This Britannic is capable of performing the four most basic mathematical operations, namely addition, subtraction, multiplication and division and can handle calculations of up 18 digits in length. Whilst it looks fiendishly complicated operation is actually quite straightforward. It has three numeric ‘Registers’ for entering or displaying numbers. The first one – at the top is the bank of 12 levers. This is the Setting Register, the equivalent of a keyboard on a modern calculator, where you input numbers, from 0 to 9. Below that, on a sliding carriage are the other two Registers. The one on the left, comprising a bank of 10 digits is the Revolutions Register which displays the number of rotations of the large crank handle on the right of the instrument’s main body. Next to that is the Results Register, a bank of 18 digits, where, as the name implies, the results of calculations are shown. The silver topped lever is for zeroing the Settings Register and the two small cranks at either end of the sliding carriage are for zeroing the Rotations and Results Registers.
The actual Pinwheel is essentially a barrel, made up of discs each one having 9 retractable teeth that pop in or out, according to the number selected by the Setting Register lever. The teeth engage with gears that drive the numeral wheels on the Results Register each time the handle is turned.
Anyway, enough of that here’s a simple example of how it works, and pay attention because you will be tested on it later… Let’s say you want to add 631 to 294. Step one, move the three rightmost levers on the Setting Register to 6, 3 and 1. Turn the large crank one rotation clockwise and 631 appears on the Results Register below. Clear the Setting Register by moving the silver-topped lever upwards and enter the digits 294. Turn the crank one revolution and the total 925 appears on the Results Register. If you had turned the crank counter-clockwise the machine would have subtracted one number from the other. Multiplication and division simply involve rotating the crank one way or another multiple times, which is where the Rotation Register comes in. Needless to say there’s more to it, and much more that it can do, in the right hands. Apparently skilled operators were able to match or even exceed the speed of the earliest electronic calculators.
The Britannic featured here was made by a company called Guys Calculating Machines of Wood Green in London, possibly in the early 1950s, for reasons that will be explained later on. It’s hard to say exactly when as the design changed little over the years but it was popular and apparently produced in quite large numbers. This appears to be an unsual variant with a 12-digit Settings Register; most of the others I have seen have 10-digit registers.
It came from ebay and I stumbled across the auction listing a day or two before it was due to end. There had been no bids – it happens a lot and the real bidding often starts in the last few seconds -- nevertheless I added it to my watch list, mainly out of curiosity to see how much it would sell for. I caught up with it again five minutes before the auction closed and was surprised that there still hadn’t been any bids. I decided to kick things off with a cheeky bid of £5.00, and no real hope of it actually winning. Ten minutes later it was mine, for 99 pence! I can’t understand why it had been missed, okay, it didn’t look very pretty in the pictures and it was minus its wooden cover, but that wouldn’t normally have put off serious collectors and restorers. As it turned out it was really dirty and caked with dried grease and gunk but as you can see the machine and its wooden base scrubbed up really well. There is a problem with the mechanism, which keeps locking up. It’s probably nothing serious and it feels like it just needs a complete stripdown, degrease and rebuild. However, it also looks like the kind of job I would instantly regret, as tiny springs and gears fly out all over the place. One day maybe but for the moment it will be earning its keep as a rather splendid looking display piece.
What Happened To It?
Back now to pinwheel pioneer Wilgott Theophil Odhner. He was a Swedish engineer and businessman, working in St Petersburg in the 1870s. The idea came to him whilst repairing an early adding machine called a Thomas Arithmometer. He believed it could be improved, and he was right, though it took him 19 years to achieve his goal. Odhner’s pinwheel quickly became the industry standard for mechanical calculators and was ruthlessly cloned and copied by countless other companies around the world. One of them was Guy’s Calculating Machines, founded by Frank Guy who started out importing calculating machines from Germany. Following a request and some financial backing from the British Petroleum and Anglo-Persian Oil Company (later just BP) Frank Guy produced a copy, and later a refinement of the Odhner machine, called the Britannic, which is what you see here. Initially they were made just for BP but by the 1920s they were being marketed commercially, with Guy’s claiming it to be the only British Calculating machine. Guy’s was sold to the Muldivo Calculating Machine Company in 1939. This Britannic has a brass Muldivo badge with a Queen Victoria Street address pinned to the wooden baseboard. The fact that Guy’s is stamped on the calculator’s metalwork points to it being made close to 1952 which was when the company moved to new premises in Salisbury Square, near London’s Fleet Street. Muldivo continued making calculating machines and later switched to precision engineering until it was wound up in 1969.
It turned out to be 99 pence well spent. Britannic machines are not uncommon and the one’s I’ve seen on ebay recently have been priced at between £100 and £250 in some cases in much worse condition than this one. Antique and vintage mechanical calculating machines can fetch some very high prices, three figures and beyond. It is clearly a specialist field and 99 pee Britannics like this don’t turn up very often, but as this one proves, it can and does happen.
First Seen: 1930
Original Price: £?
Value Today: £100.00 (0520)
Features: Odhner pinwheel mechanism, 12-digit setting register, 18-digit accumulating register, 10-digit revolution register, single-action rotor clearing lever, addition, subtraction, multiplication and division functions
Power req: N/A
Dimensions: 260 x 120 x 100mm
Made (assembled) in: England
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest): 7
Hy-Line 110 Clock Radio Alarm Phone, 1983
Many of us use the clock and alarm functions on our smartphones, to wake us up in the morning with soothing or strident sounds or maybe a streamed radio channel. It’s not exactly a new idea, though, and it turns out that combined radio-alarm-clock telephones -- albeit with wires attached -- have been around for 50 years or more, and quite possibly a lot longer if you count one-off prototypes and mad inventor contraptions.
This Hy-Line 110 Digital Clock Radio Alarm Telephone, which dates from 1983, wakes you up and lets you make or take phone calls. It wasn’t the first of its kind but it is a good example of what was going on in the bedside tech market of the eighties. This first thing to say is that it is essentially a fairly ordinary LED clock radio alarm. The telephone part, whilst undoubtedly a headline feature, is actually a separate, self-contained component. In fact the only things that link the phone to the radio alarm is a cradle for the handset and a small switch that mutes the radio’s speaker when the handset is lifted. The phone cable looks like it is connected to the radio but that’s just cosmetic trickery and the cable simply loops around a small hook on the base of the clock radio. The phone can be used without the radio, and it doesn’t even need a cradle or base unit as the line switch is built into the handset.
The technology used on the HY-Line 110 was state of the art back in the 80s. It’s built around two modules, the first being the LED digital clock. This has a bright 4-digit display driven by a TMS3450 microchip. It was the go-to chip for virtually every mains-powered digital clock back in the day. The timing signal is derived from the very reliable 50Hz AC mains supply. In the event of a power cut a built-in oscillator, fed by a backup battery, keeps it ticking until the power comes back on. The radio module is another one-chip design, this time it’s a ULN2204, another old friend, equivalent to the TDA 1083, which we last saw on the Radio 1 FM Novelty radio. This classic AM/FM radio chip does most of the heavy lifting but it does need the assistance of a few ancillary components (coils, capacitors, resistors and couple of transistors etc.) that help with the tuning and improve performance. There are no real surprises with the phone handset either; it’s a standard, no-frills one-piece design with a DTMF tone-dial keypad and basic facilities that include mute, last number redial and ringer on/off. The sounder is built-in and on the top there’s a red LED that alerts the user to an incoming call if the ringer has been switched off.
It’s really easy to setup with just a few buttons and switches on the top for the clock, snooze function and selecting manual or auto (alarm) operation. The rest of the controls, for volume on/off, tuning and AM/FM band selection, are on the side. Around the back there’s the mains lead, the previously mentioned phone cable clip and a metre-long wire, which acts as an antenna for FM reception. A compartment for the 9-volt backup battery is on the underside of the case.
Once again, in the current (at the time of writing) Covid-19 induced shortage of antique fairs and boot sales means that this Hy-Line 110 came from good old ebay. No one else wanted it so I snapped it up for the opening price of £3.00, plus a couple of quid postage. It was very clean and (mostly) in good working order. The only fault was dirty contact pads on the clock set buttons, which cleaned up easily with a cotton bud and a few drops of isopropyl alcohol. Once that was done and the case given a quick polish, the clock, radio and phone all performed faultlessly, or at least as well as they would have when new…
Whilst it was in good order cosmetically -- no scratches, marks or cracks, etc. -- the handset and the radio cases both clearly started out in matching white. The case is still bright white but the handset, being made of a different plastic, has yellowed slightly, suggesting that another manufacturer made it.
What Happened To It?
I could find no record of Hy-Line as a manufacturer which suggests it was probably a short-lived brand name appearing, as far as I can make out, on just one other product, a slightly more sophisticated looking clock radio alarm with a phone.
Sales of bedside clock radios today are almost certainly a fraction of what they were in the 1980s but they’ve never gone away for the simple reason that you can’t beat a proper clock display when it comes to effortlessly telling the time from a warm bed. Smartphones have, however, made the phone element of radio alarms redundant, which explains why combo models like the Hy-Line 110, have all but disappeared.
You could probably count the number of serious collectors of late twentieth century clock radios on the fingers of one hand so don’t expect it to turn into a serious investment prospect for at least another 100 years. Antique alarm clocks are another matter and we’re talking serious money for some of them but if you are interested in the technology aspect there are some spectacular clock radio designs dating back to the 1920s. Bedside clock radio alarms, in a form that we would recognise today, started appearing in the late 1930s and there are quite a few very on-trend designs from 50s and 60s that turn up on ebay for just a few pounds. And if you’re looking for something a bit different with future potential keep a lookout for Teasmade and similar tea-making alarm clocks, which first acquired a radio capability in the late 1960s.
First Seen: 1983
Original Price: £10.00?
Value Today: £5.00 (0520)
Features: Combined Digital alarm clock, AM/FM radio & telephone, LED display, snooze function, radio mute switch for handset, battery backup for clock
Power req: 240 VAC mains & 9-volt PP3 battery (clock backup). Phone: mute & last number redial, ringer on/off, LED ring indicator
Dimensions: 225 x 135 x 85mm
Made (assembled) in: China
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest): 5
Back in the dark ages, before everyone had a mobile phone – pre 1999-ish -- when you needed to stay in touch, because you were away from your desk or
there were clever little gadgets called Telephone Pagers. They had been around for several decades, since 1949 in fact, but they really took off in the 1980s, when Motorola introduced the first low-cost digital models with alphanumeric displays for showing short messages. Pager sales shot up and peaked around the mid 90s then promptly fell through the floor. It happened almost overnight, as the mobile phone became affordable, and started tickling our fancies. In their brief heydays inexpensive pagers were coming out of the woodwork and one of the most diverting designs was Swatch The Beep, which first appeared in 1991.
The name says it all, The Beep was a Swatch watch with a built-in pager, or so it appeared… In fact even the super smart Swatch white coats couldn’t quite cram in all the gubbins needed for a fully-fledged text message pager as well as one of their watch movements, into an acceptably small package, so they cut corners. The bottom line is that the caller could either send you a number to call back, or a crude (and sometimes rude) message, in the form of a string of 3-digit codes. So, for example if you wanted to split up with your boy/girlfriend (apparently one of the most popular applications) all it took was a call to the boy/girlfriend’s pager number followed by # 501 512 511 #. The codes are listed in a little book supplied with The Beep and this message decodes as: ‘Am mad at you, get out of my life, don’t ever call me again’. There is a rather obvious flaw in this system, though, and that is both parties need a copy of the code book to hand, or a really good memory, as there are 970 messages listed.
Oh yes, and it tells the time too, but joking aside even it’s limited abilities, compared with the other pagers of the day, was an impressive feat. The Beep is only a little bigger than standard Swatch Watches, about the size of one of today’s more discrete ‘sports watches, and since it is almost entirely made of plastic, it’s not a huge burden on the elbow and wrist. The most noticeable style point is the five golden horizontal strips criss-crossing the face. It looks a bit odd now but weirdness has always been something of a trademark on Swatch watches. In fact it is an integral design element and not five individual strips but a continuous wire, wound around the movement and pager modules. It’s the antenna, designed to pick up pager signals, beamed from a network of BT transmitters operating on the 135–150 Mhz frequency band (nowadays allocated to medical and rescue services).
The case on this version is see-through, not that there’s a lot to see and the only control is what looks like a standard watch winder. In reality it’s an elaborate rotary switch/push button, used to set the analogue watch (pull out one click, rotate slowly to move hands in minute intervals; rotate fast to move hands forward or back in hourly increments). Otherwise it controls what appears on the LCD screen. Press it in to display a simple menu; make selections by slowing turning the knob, and pressing it to OK the command. The analogue watch movement and pager’s internal clock operates independently so the only set-up operations are to adjust the time on the display and the pager’s operating hours, so you won’t be disturbed by the loud incoming message beep in meetings, or whilst asleep, etc. The Alert bleep can also be switched on and off, and when messages arrive it will store up to 10 at a time, with an option to protect 5 of them. New messages automatically delete the oldest ones in the memory.
Again it all sounds very reasonable, except that some of the information appearing on the LCD screen is incredibly small. It’s close to the point of being invisible to anyone with less than 20/20 vision, though since it was aimed at young people that probably didn’t matter too much.
There’s one other feature worth mentioning is two prongs on the back of the wrist strap clip. This is a release tool for the battery holder, attached to the opposite strap. The CR 2430 3-volt lithium battery it uses is an odd size. I’m not aware of anything that uses them these days but they are still widely available for a couple of pounds.
Swatch The Beeps are no strangers to ebay and they turn every so often sometimes – for no apparently good reason -- in small batches. That’s where I found this one, it cost a very reasonable £16.00, the opening, and only bid. It’s also notable that a quite a lot of them appear to be surprisingly good condition for such old items and come with their original boxes and instruction manual. If you’re really lucky you’ll also get a spare battery holder, the warranty guff and small stacks of postcards and business cards for handing out to people you wish to receive messages from. Hopefully there will also be a copy of the all-important and very politically incorrect codebook. This level of preservation is unusual and suggests that a fair number of people bought these things, played with them for a while, never received any messages or got bored trying to decipher coded messages and shoved the whole shooting match back in the box and stored it in the back of a cupboard. I am quite confident that if BT were still supporting The Beep pager service this one would work but the only thing it is good for now is telling the time or filling The Beep sized gap in your collection of Swatch watches.
What Happened To It?.
Although I didn't realise it at the time I lucky enough to be present at the conception of the Swatch Watch, in 1983, as one of a party of journalists attending a press conference in the Swiss town of Neuchatel. The meeting was called to announce the merger of two Swiss watch manufacturing groups, ASUAG and SSIH, in an effort to counter the threat of what came to be known as the Quartz Crisis. The two organisations became known as the Swatch Watch Group. Basically the Swiss watch making industry was being hammered by Japanese companies like Seiko, producing high quality watches powered by inexpensive and very well made quartz powered movements. I recall that many of us present thought it a rather bold venture...
Journalists attending the event were presented with a pre-production Swatch watch and a couple of circuit boards from the movement to show how well made they were. Inevitably they've disappeared and I was swindled out of the watch a year later by a clever Russian huckster. He stopped me in the street in downtown Moscow and offered me a 1000 ‘Rouble’ note for it. Needless to say greed and stupidity got the better of me. He warned me not to flash the note around so it wasn’t until I returned to the hotel and tried to convert it to Sterling that I learned it was a 1000 Zig-Zog note, or some-such, from a long forgotten East European state and worth then, and probably now, a little over 10 pence. I kept it though, as a stern reminder. I wasn’t too upset at the time, and being relatively naive and convinced that a Swiss cottage industry stood less than a snowballs chance in hell of taking on the mighty Japanese. You won’t need reminding how well the Swatch brand has fared in the intervening years…
The price I paid for this The Beep was about right. They’re not
one of those rare, sought-after, must-have Swatch editions and you’ll be hard pressed
not to find a good specimen for under £30, or less, especially if you are
patient. The chances of anyone switching on the pager network again is less
than zero, and the likelihood of it ever achieving collectable status seems
equally slight, after all they’ve been around for more than 30 years so it is
unlikely they have been overlooked. As an unusual example of an almost
forgotten technology it is quite interesting, though, and don’t forget, it
really does tell the time. You can also have fun explaining to the young folk
down the pub what a pager was…
First Seen: 1991
Original Price: £120 (caller pays 25p message fee)
Value Today: £30 (0120
Features: 10 jewel analogue watch movement, LCD alphanumeric message display, (time, on/off/auto power, silent operation), 10 message memory, message bleeper, leather strap with battery removal tool
Power req: 1 x CR2430 5 volt lithium battery
Dimensions: 500 x 15 x 155mm
Made (assembled) in: Switzerland
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest): 8
Blick Time Recorder Clock, 1940?
This handsome Blick Time Recorder card stamp clock currently holds the record for being the largest, heaviest and slowest to be restored item ever featured in dustygizmos. The reasons for the delay in getting it working we’ll get to later, but first a few words about what it is and what it does.
If you’ve never seen or used one of these, or its modern equivalents, count yourself lucky. ‘Punch card’ time recorder clocks like this were, and probably still are, the bane of the British -- and many other nationalities -- working men and women. Its purpose is simple, to record the precise time of arrival and departure of employees at their place of work. In times past it was also a fairly obvious sign that an employer didn’t trust their workforce, and it has to be said, often with good cause, if my recollections of working in a factory in the late 1970s was anything to go by.
Anyway, clocking in and out was a twice daily and sometimes four-times a day ritual. So critical was the act of ‘punching’ in and out to your wages and employment prospects that much effort was put into cheating the system. Over the years these devices have become increasingly sophisticated, and nowadays employers have much smarter and more sinister ways of monitoring their workers, but the Blick model featured here harks back to simpler times. Provided no one was looking a friendly workmate might clock you in if you were going to be bit late. On old, unsophisticated and very well used machines like this one, which were still in widespread use until the 1970s, opening the case could be a fairly simple job. The locks were relatively crude and often so worn it could be done with an old key or screwdriver allowing you to fiddle the clock; at least that’s what I heard…
Time recorder clocks like this vintage Blick have just two main components; later designs tend to be a lot smaller with more integrated and compact mechanisms. The upper half of this Blick time recorder -- and most of its contemporaries -- is taken up by the all-important clock. This one is a relatively late model, dating from the 1940s, or thereabouts, with the clock movement driven by a mains synchronous* motor. Before that clockwork mechanisms were the norm. The latter are considered more desirable and generally quite easy to spot with a swinging pendulum visible through the glass door. Either way accuracy and reliability were essential so the movements tend to be high quality designs.
Beneath the clock is the equally robust card printer (or puncher). Two metal rods, driven by the clock, connect the clock to the printer mechanism. Their job is to advance the day/date printer rotors, shift the card holder up and down so the print head stamps the day and time in the correct box on the card and turn a wheel, behind a little window that shows the day of the week and whether it is morning or afternoon. To use it the worker simply takes their card from an adjacent rack and inserts the card into the slot beneath the clock. It was important to check that brass lever below the slot was correctly set to ‘In’ or ‘Out’, then the large lever on the right is depressed, to operate the printer. A bell sounds to confirm the action, both to the user and equally likely, to anyone monitoring the worker’s comings and goings.
The quality of the materials used, from the solid oak case to the mainly brass and cast iron components in the two mechanisms, is most impressive, and very heavy. This model, which is fairly typical of the classic wall-mounted upright design, weighs almost 25 kilograms!
I found this one at a large antiques fair a good few years ago, probably around 2005. It was complete but the case was in a shabby state and the works looked gummed up with stale oil and dirt. It's condition reflected the price I paid for it, which I recall wasn’t very much and almost certainly less than £20. It looked like a relatively straightforward restoration project so after lugging it home I set about stripping it down to its bare bones, carefully putting all the parts into several boxes; I must have been sidetracked by something more pressing because I promptly forgot all about it.
Over the years the boxes of parts became submerged and finally disappeared from view into the depths of my garage. In a rare fit of spring-cleaning earlier in the year the boxes re-emerged. Seeing all the parts once again inspired me, or rather made me feel guilty enough to finish the job I’d started over a decade earlier. After all, it only took a few hours to take apart, so it shouldn’t take more than half a day to clean it up and put back together again. Two months later and it’s almost finished…
I started with the case, which overall was solid and in fairly good condition, apart from the base. This had probably been left standing on a damp surface and was badly rotted in places. It needed replacing but finding a suitably sized slab of hardwood proved quite difficult. Eventually I found a manky old mahogany tabletop going cheap (£5.00) which had a large enough section of sound wood to make a decent base for the clock. Several other case parts had to be replaced, the back needed strengthening, the paint on the clock face stabilised to prevent further flaking and a new case lock fitted. All these little jobs had to take their turn and it was a couple of months before the case was wearing its final coat of Polyx oil, and, though I say so myself, looking rather splendid.
As it turned out that was the easy bit. Stripping down the clock and printer mechanisms all those years ago had been fairly painless. A coating of oil had protected them whilst in storage so cleaning and checking them wasn’t too difficult, but remembering how it all fitted together turned into a nightmare. Here’s a handy tip for would-be restorers. If you haven’t got access to original plans make notes and take photos, lots of them, before you remove a single screw. More importantly, store them in a safe place! As it happens I did follow my own advice and take a few pictures before disassembly but they must have been on a film or memory card that had vanished without trace…
Rebuilding the clock wasn’t as bad as I feared, and it helped that I had kept the parts separate from the printer but it came to a shuddering halt when I discovered that the ancient Synclock mains synchronous motor wasn’t working. Finding an original replacement was going to be next to impossible, replacing it with a modern motor was theoretically an option but it would involve a lot of fiddling and fettling, mating the old and new parts, so fixing the original motor seemed to be the best course of action. It checked out electrically so the problem had to lie in the small gearbox module. This is an intricate sealed mechanism and incredibly difficult to get at.
Over the years the oils used during manufacture eventually turn waxy, congeal and then harden, seizing the gears. The word on the web was that taking it apart non-destructively is very hard to do. It was the sort of thing only a skilful and well-equipped watchmaker would dare attempt, and justifiably charge you handsomely for doing it. Luckily I also found some references claiming that it is sometimes possible to free up a frozen Synclock motor gearbox with a week-long soak in fresh oil, but warned this was likely to be a temporary remedy. With nothing to lose I decided to have a go, but instead of clock or watch oil, squirted a shed load of WD40 into a small access hole, waited an hour then tried to turn the output gear with a pair of pliers. Eventually it started to move and within a few minutes the gears were moving freely. After reassembling the motor I hooked it up to the mains and it actually worked. I know this is a far from satisfactory solution and I will get around to draining the gearbox and refilling it with quality watch oil, but for the moment, and providing it’s only used for short periods, it is protected against further seizure and working well enough to test out the rest of the mechanism.
The printer took a very long time, and much guesswork to put back together. It was fairly obvious where all the larger parts went but there always seemed to be several springs, a lot of small screws and odd shaped bracket or rod without a home. Eventually after taking it apart at least half a dozen times the left over component count was down to a few washers, but with all of the moving parts seemingly doing their stuff I decided it was fit for use.
The final hurdle involved aligning the parts. Positioning the printer mechanism on the baseboard turned out to be quite critical so that all of the levers and rods lined up with the holes in the case and the rods with the clock mechanism. Eventually, after much trial and error (and the attentions of a chisel) it all fitted, and worked. Final tip: if you ever feel inclined to do a top-to-tail restoration job on one of these buggers, don’t, unless you have masochistic tendencies!
What Happened To It?
Today’s time recorder clocks – the few that haven’t been replaced by Big Brother electronic identity, management, security and access control systems -- are mostly small, soulless black or grey boxes, of no interest to anyone except the people that control them, and the poor sods who have to use them, so the less said about the current state of the art in employee monitoring the better.
Although it says ‘Blick Time Recording Ltd, 188 Grays Inn Road, London W.C.’ on the clock face and embossed into the cast iron case parts surrounding the card slot, it was actually made by the UK division of an American manufacturer called the National Time Recorder Company, probably in its Blackfriars factory in London, or possibly Orpington in Kent. Blick changed hands several times throughout the 60s and 70s and in 1982 it was acquired by International Time Ltd,. The brand eventually disappeared in 2005 following ITL’s takeover by the Stanley Security Solutions Group.
Outwardly the design has hardly changed from the very first National Time Recorder models, which appeared in the 1920s, to what you see here. I haven’t been able to find out much about when Blick switched from clockwork to electric timekeeping so the date of 1940 is a bit of a guess but, as always, clarifications are very welcome. For those who want to know more there is a very informative website all about time recorder clocks at www.workclocks.co.uk.
Valuation of any sort of vintage timepiece, especially one as specialised as this, can be a tricky business. The only reliable real world guides to what people are actually prepared to pay is ebay, public auctions and what is sold at antique fairs and markets. As it stands there appears to be very wide spread of prices, from under £100 for working but tatty specimens to well over £1000 for rare types and pristine examples sold by dealers. I’ve pitched this one at £350, taking into account the fact that it has been well used throughout its long and eventful life and the replacement base. The good news for anyone hoping to acquire one is that they make regular appearances in online and at local auctions. However, if you want one for anything other than a static ornament you would be well advised to do some homework before buying, or seek advice from a reputable clock or antique dealer. They look great and even earn their keep as practical and characterful timepieces but within the wooden case lurks a big, heavy and complicated collection of mechanical bits and pieces that may will need a lot of time, expertise and possibly deep pockets to get working, and regular maintenance to make sure it stays that way.
* Synchronous motor – a type of electric motor commonly used in mains powered clocks that relies on the maintained stability of the 50Hz AC mains supply to ensure accuracy. In practice mains frequency can vary slightly over a 24-hour period but power grid operators attempt to average out the variations in order to maintain overall long-term accuracy.
First Seen: 1940
Original Price: £?
Value Today: £350.00 (0919)
Features: Mains synchronous motor driven analogue clock, 240mm clock face, user lever operated day/date time stamp mechanism, operator accessible time, day/AM-PM adjustment, user selectable In/Out AM/PM lever, solid oak case
Power req. 240VAC 50Hz
Dimensions: 850 x 330 x 270mm
Made (assembled) in: England
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest): 7
Sinclair Microquartz Digital Clock, 1977
Long before recycling,
up-cycling and re-purposing became trendy the irrepressible Clive Sinclair (now Sir Clive) was making good use of electronic components that would otherwise be scrapped. Several of his designs for miniature radios and amplifiers dating from the early 1960s were based around out of spec transistors, bought cheaply from Semiconductors Ltd. He was at it again in 1977, this time recycling parts from his own innovative but ill-fated Black Watch wristwatch, launched a couple of years earlier. The result was the Sinclair Radionics Microquartz, a tiny digital clock with the same 4-digit LED display module and much of the circuitry from the watch. This time it was housed in a sturdy metal box, overcoming many of the reliability problems associated with the Black Watch’s flimsy plastic case. Unlike the watch -- also sold in kit form -- the Microquartz was ready built, which no doubt helped reduce the huge number of returns that plagued the Black Watch.
Microquartz went on sale for £12.99, significantly less than the Black Watch kit, which cost £17.95 (£25 assembled). Needless to say it is quite basic, even by the standards of the day. Pressing the round button on the front shows the time, and to save power it only appears on the display for a few seconds. Short battery life was a big issue with the Black Watch. The button cells it used tended to last only a few weeks; Sinclair, in his typically optimistic manner, claimed they were good for up to a year. Fortunately the Microquartz runs on two chunky 1.5 volt alkaline cells and even with regular use they should easily make it past the 12-month mark.
Holding the button down shows seconds and pressing it again displays the day. The only other control is a recessed button, used to set the time and date. Adverts of the day claimed somewhat mischeviously that it had ‘A big bold digital display for clarity’. The truth is the LEDs are miniscule with the actual digits only around 3 mm high. They appear a little larger, though, thanks to being mounted behind small lenses. This, and the fact that in order to see the time you need to be close enough press the button, limits it applications somewhat. It came with some double-sided sticky tape and the adverts suggested sticking it on your bathroom mirror or the dashboard of your car. A later version, the Microquartz GT, with a silver case and the set button on the rear, included a small metal mounting bracket.
Whilst the robust housing made the clock more reliable it still suffered from the same accuracy problems that afflicted the watch and depending on the temperature and battery state it can gain or loose up to a minute a day. Apart from that it looks very smart and by all accounts it sold quite well, both here in the UK and the US, where it cost just under twenty dollars.
Until this one came along the very occasional Microquartzs’ that sold on ebay were way above my pay grade; spirited bidding meant they often went for between £100 and £200. To be fair the dearer ones were generally in mint condition, in good working order and complete with the original box and instructions. I’ve had ‘Microquartz’ on my ebay watch list for several years, with no great hopes of ever seeing one at a price I could afford or was prepared to pay, so I was surprised when this one popped up, with no bidders after 6 days. It was being sold as untested -- i.e. not working in ebayspeak -- even so they are rare and I’ve seen non-runners in good cosmetic condition sell for £50 or more. In the last few minutes of the auction someone put in a bid; I placed my cheeky bid of £20 thirty seconds before the end, fully expecting the world and his wife to jump in, but it never happened and my bid went unchallenged. Mind you, it was 7 o’clock in the morning... Not only did it turn out to be in remarkably good condition, requiring just a little light dusting and polishing, it actually worked, reliably so, once the battery and switch contacts had been cleaned.
What Happened To It?
At the time the Microquartz was launched Sinclair Radionics was experiencing one of its semi-regular cash flow difficulties. This was due in large part to poor sales of its miniature TVs (MTV1 & MTV1B) and failure to hold on to its early lead in the calculator market by not adapting quickly enough to LCD display technology. The hope was that the Microquartz would help boost the company’s failing fortunes and use up the large stock of unsold and returned watch parts. Unfortunately things were too far gone and eventually Sinclair had to be bailed out by the National Enterprise Board and a cash injection of £1 million from the National Research Development Corporation, to help fund the development of a pocket size flat-screen TV (the FTV1 – another ingenious but failed concept). It was by no means the end, though, and by the end of the seventies the re-organised Sinclair Research was riding high once again with its hugely successful range of home computers. More highs and lows, and a wacky electric car were to follow, but that is another very long story.
In spite of quite healthy sales Microquartz clocks are now few and far between, at least as far as ebay is concerned. This time scarcity can mean high prices. The one featured is a very rare exception though it’s entirely possible that bargains occasionally turns up at car boot sales and antique fairs. But if so I have yet to see it. Hang around ebay long enough and you might get lucky and find one for under £100, but only if me (if it's a silver GT version) and the many other Sinclair collectors out there don’t see it first!
First Seen: 1977
Original Price: £12.99
Value Today: £50- 100 (0619)
Features: crystal controlled clock module, 4-digit LED display (hours, minutes, seconds and day), display button, concealed set button
Power req. 2 x 1.5 volt LR1 cells
Dimensions: 80 x 44 x 12mm
Made (assembled) in: England
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest): 8
Casio WQV-1 Wrist Camera, 2000
A wristwatch with a built-in digital camera might not sound particularly interesting but back in 2000 when Casio bought out the WQV-1, it was a significant first. It wasn't an entirely new idea though. Sub-miniature film cameras have been shoehorned into watches since the turn of the last century. The first ones were chunky pocket or ‘fob’ watches, -- as opposed to wristwatches -- but they eventually managed that as well with a several now extremely rare models, like the legendary Steineck spycam from the 1940’s.
However, the size and appearance of some of those antique and vintage watch-cameras made it pretty obvious what they were. In contrast the WQV-1 is very discrete. You would need to be keen-eyed to spot the lens, but the crude – by today’s standards – image sensor, limited memory capacity and poor display, initially ruled it out as anything more than an innivative novelty product.
Starting with the basics, the WVQ-1’s combined watch display and camera monitor is a 120 x 120 pixel (14.4k pixel) monochrome LCD. Timekeeping functions include a 12/24 hour digital clock with date display, stopwatch, countdown timer and 5 daily alarms. The camera uses a 0.25-inch monochrome CMOS image sensor boasting 28k pixels. It’s mounted on the front edge of the watch body, behind a fixed focus (30cm - ∞) f/2.8 lens. It has an auto shutter and a rudimentary ALC (automatic light control) exposure system. There’s a 1-megabyte onboard memory, which can store up to 100 images. Pictures can be given a name, phone number, title etc. -- up to 24 characters -- using a so-called Data Bank option.
Pictures can be transferred to another Casio camera watch or a PC (Windows 95, 98 & NT only) using a built in infrared (IR) data port. It sounds archaic but IR ports used to be common on laptops. Desktop PCs needed an optional IR transfer pack, which included an IR module that plugged into the PC’s serial port and a suite of software for transferring and managing images. Two versions of the watch were produced; the one shown here has a resin case; the other slightly dearer model had a stainless steel body
Taking a photo is an absolute doddle, touching the large shutter button below the display puts it into camera mode and pressing it again fires the shutter. Exposure and shutter speed settings are automatic but there are a couple of manual options. For everyday shots the default is Outdoor mode; indoors, you need to select 50 or 60Hz mode, which eliminates flicker from fluorescent lights and can affect the shutter in low light. There’s also a Merge mode that combines two images into one, and Art, which engages a strange duotone effect. Power comes from a standard 2032 3-volt button cell. This lasts around 6 months, thanks in part to an auto-off feature that blanks the display if the watch is motionless for more than 60 minutes.
I paid just £15.00 for this one, the opening auction price on ebay. It was a welcome surprise as they appear quite regularly and typically sell for between £50 and £100. The lack of rival bidders was a mystery, though. Maybe there was something entertaining on the telly that evening, or the somewhat brief auction title wasn’t picked up by the normally eagle-eyed collectors. It was in near mint condition and looked like it had only been used once or twice. Everything was in the original box and some of the items in the accessory pack were still sealed.
It worked too, and after fitting a new battery and taking a few test shots – a bit hit and miss because the LCD monitor screen isn’t backlit – it was time to attempt a watch to PC image transfer. This proved to be an unexpectedly convoluted procedure, making me appreciate how far PCs and peripheral connectivity has progressed. It was just like the old days and the first hurdle was to find a PC with a 9-pin serial port for the IR sensor. Luckily I have one, an ancient and very well used Sony laptop running Windows 98. Miraculously it still worked and after a fair amount of faffing around I managed to extract the images from the watch.
In retrospect it was worth the time and effort, if only for the sense of achievement and satisfaction of getting a lot of old tech to work together. As expected the transferred images didn’t improve much on the big screen. To be kind a 120 x 120 pixel image is little more than a thumbnail so the amount of fine detail is minimal, as you can see from this example (expanded to 240 pixels). It's a close up of a garden ornament, shot in near ideal conditions. Okay, so the pictures do not bear close comparison images shot on modern cameras in phones, watches and all kinds on gadgets nowadays. However, the fact remains that this watch was then, and still is, an impressive technical feat.
What Happened To It?
A quick check on ebay recently turned up almost six thousand wristwatches with built-in cameras, both still and video, with prices starting at under £10.00. In other words they haven’t gone away, and judging by the accompanying blurb some of the better ones should be capable of producing quite decent quality images, and that’s without taking into account all of the other apparently useful smartwatch and mobile phone-related features.
Casio hasn’t gone away either and they’ve been a leading light in both mechanical and electronic timekeeping since 1946. They've also come up with some really out-there designs over the years. Who can forget the first watch with a touchscreen in,1991? The same year they introduced us to the first wrist-worn fitness trackers and blood pressure monitoring watches. TV remote control watches followed in 1993 and a year later a watch with an infrared thermometer. How ever did we manage before the UV sunshine exposure watch from 1994 and in 1999 they managed to squeeze a GPS function into a watch. A colour version of the wrist camera (WQV-3) was introduced in 2001 and in 2004 they beat Apple and Samsung by a good 10 years with a watch that had an on-board contactless payment chip. It goes without saying that they’re still at it with some of the smartest smart watches, fitness trackers, outdoor and GPS wrist-wear in captivity.
Over the years Casio's ingenuity hasn’t gone unrecognised and there’s a very active fanbase and collector community, which suggests the £15.00 I paid for was a very lucky break. However, Casio are prolific manufacturers and the brand is hugely popular so there’s no shortage of vintage models on the market. Accordingly bargains are not that unusual, especially when sellers fail to adequately describe their wares, or omit important details, like model numbers. Prices are very variable and whilst the WVQ-1 was a historic first it’s not that high on most collector’s wish list. That may be down to the fact that the camera is not very good, or PC connectivity is reliant on obsolete technology. But don’t despair, it's worth seeking out and even though the camera might not be up to much it still tells the time and the calendar dodged the Millennium bug bullet so will show the correct day and date up until 2039.
First Seen: 2000
Original Price: £250
Value Today: £50 - 150 (0119)
Features Timekeeping: 12/24 hour clock, day, date, 5 x daily alarms, hour time signal, countdown alarm, stopwatch, display time-out. Display: 20 x 20mm b/w 16-greyscale LCD, 120 x 120 pixels. Camera: 0.25-in b&w CMOS sensor, 28k pixels, Lens: f/2.8 fixed, f= 1.1mm, 30cm - ∞, 1Mb internal memory, 100 image capacity, Casio proprietary image format (convertible to BMP or JPG on PC software (optional £50). ALC exposure control, auto digital shutter 1/11 to 1/16600 sec, data comms: IR to another WQV-1 or PC via optional serial port adaptor, transfer speed 115,200 bps
Power req. 1 x 3v 2032 button cell
Dimensions (ex strap): 50 x 43 x 16mm
Made (assembled) in: Japan
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest) 7
Decimo Vatman 120D Calculator, 1976
You are excused for thinking that vintage calculators do not sound very exciting. To most people they’re not but for anyone who survived the UK school system, up until the mid 1970s, they were at the same time miraculous, and incredibly frustrating. Just ask anyone who spent years struggling to master things like slide rules and log tables. Those of us who were around at the time will probably remember, with horror, what it was like in 1975 BC (Before Calculators), and how difficult it could be to do even relatively simple sums that went beyond counting your fingers and rote-learned times tables, let alone tricky stuff like decimals, and scientific calculations.
Almost overnight calculators swept away centuries of mathematical misery, doing in a split second the sort of calculations that our poor human brains could take minutes or hours to do, and probably still get it wrong… Affordable pocket calculators, which first appeared in the mid seventies, were almost certainly most people’s first encounter with digital electronics and when someone gets around to adding up the numbers, they could turn out to be the most successful and influential consumer product of all time.
So how does the Decimo Vatman 120D figure in all this? It wasn’t a first of any sort or an especially notable design, but the name is significant. VAT or Value Added Tax was introduced in the UK in 1973 and it turned businesses into unpaid tax collectors. Filling out the monthly returns involved a good deal of additional paperwork, and a lot of calculations, previously carried out by the Inland Revenue. This wasn’t a major problem for larger concerns with finance departments, but for smaller companies and sole traders the cost of hiring someone who could handle all the extra work, or buying a suitable calculator, could be ruinously expensive.
The Vatman 120D was one of a number of desktop calculators that appeared, aimed at those small businesses. It was nothing fancy with all the basic mathematical functions plus the all-important percentage key. It could also handle square roots, there’s a rudimentary memory, a large, bright 12-digit fluorescent display and a full-size keypad. Weight and portability wasn’t a concern but it was designed to be in constant use, hence it is mains powered to avoid the perennial problem of the batteries dying, just as you get to the end of a long column of figures… Above all, it was keenly priced, typically selling for between £30 and £40 or around a third to a half as much as comparable office machines.
Inside the case the beating heart of the Vatman is a NEC D1220C calculator chip. This was a popular choice for calculator makers of the day; it was one of only a small handful dedicated chips and it could be found in scores of machines from dozens of companies. The display is also worth a mention. It’s a VFD or vacuum fluorescent display and a direct descendant of the Cathode Ray Tube (CRT). Basically it’s an evacuated glass envelope with a row of 7-segment digital displays. It’s a type of triode valve and each segment is an anode with a phosphor coating that glows brightly when bombarded by electrons flowing from a nearby electrically charged cathode. VFDs had major advantages over rival LED displays, which at the time were still mostly very tiny and hugely expensive. VFDs were also superior to larger, more power hungry, and less digital-friendly ‘Nixie’ numerical display tubes. Liquid crystal displays or LCDs were around in the mid 70s but it would be a few years before they would be large or cheap enough for use in this particular application.
Boot sale and £1.00 is all you need to know about how it came into my possession, A few squirts of surface cleaner was all it needed to get it looking like it had just emerged from its box. It works perfectly too, which is pretty amazing for something that’s been around for more than four decades and probably in regular use for much of that time. They knew how to make stuff like this back then.
What Happened To It?
Decimo was a UK supplier of office equipment. For a while, in the 70s and 80s, it was quite a big name in calculators with more than 30 models, from pocket portables to mains-powered desktop types like the Vatman 120D. This one, like most of the others in the range, were made in Japan, essentially badge-engineered products that appeared under a variety of different names. Little or nothing of the company’s history has been recorded and without trawling company records it is hard to say when it was founded and eventually folded but it’s likely that it suffered the same fate as most other calculator makers. In the space of a decade or so, from the early 1970s, electronic pocket calculators went from being an expensive luxury item, to a cheap commodity. By the late 80s stand-alone desk calculators had drifted into obsolescence as computers had taken over number juggling duties in offices, with on-screen calculators and spreadsheet programs. Pocket calculators followed soon afterwards as functions were integrated into mobile phones.
For such an important and influential technology there is a surprisingly modest collectors market. A few very early or notable models can command quite significant prices but old workhorses like this one are practically worthless. Many were made but most of them ended up in dustbins long ago. In an ideal world that would make them worth something, but the fact is the £1.00 this one cost me is not unusual, and you’ll find plenty more just like it at car boot sales up and down the country. At this point I usually suggest that given the current low prices now might be a good time to start building up a collection, and it is, just don’t expect them to make you wealthy anytime soon, though your great grandchildren might thank you…
First seen: 1976
Original Price: £35.00
Value Today: £1.00 ( )
Features: 12 + 1 digit fluorescent display, 26 keys, percentage and root functions, number memory function, round up/down, switchable decimal places
Power req. 220-Volts AC Mains
Dimensions: 211 x 178 x 50mm
Made (assembled) in: Japan
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest) 7
Casio CA-90 Calculator Game Watch, 1981
A lot of people get quite excited by wristwatches. Sometimes it’s for a good reason, when they are miniature works of art or expensive pieces of jewellery, of historic importance or outstanding examples of micro engineering and craftsmanship. Others willingly pay well over the odds for otherwise rather ordinary watches simply because of a brand name printed on the dial, irrespective of the fact they are often cheaply made pieces of tat.
Then there are some hugely covetable timepieces that do not conform to traditional notions of what makes a watch truly special. Behold the completely bonkers Casio CA-90. It wasn’t terribly expensive -- around £20 to £30 in 1981 when it first appeared. Connoisseurs and collectors wouldn’t give it a second glance, then or now. In fact its only claims to fame are that it’s a good example of the madness of eighties digital watchmaker’s, it had a certain notoriety, and it’s (briefly) a lot of fun to play with.
Yes, it tells the time -- 12 or 24 hour format -- and shows the date, though it was an early casualty of the Y2K bug – more on that shortly. There’s a stopwatch function, it can show two time zones, it has a daily alarm, a basic four-function calculator and a truly dreadful ‘Space Invaders’ inspired game. In short it’s a brilliant piece of kitsch and a foretaste of what was to come. Watches like the CA-90 -- and it quickly spawned a raft of imitations -- were frequently banned from classrooms and examinations. It was also widely scorned for the abundance of daft features and annoying noises; mostly it has to be said, by those of the older persuasion, who didn’t own one. What goes around…
A calculator on your wrist sounds like a great idea, and it would have been but for the keypad’s impossibly small buttons and tiny display. Fat fingered and even normal fingered users found it frustratingly difficult to use. However, the strangest feature has to be the game. It doesn’t have a name as such but its origins are pretty obvious. The trouble is trying to replicate streams of advancing aliens using just a single line of digits on a titchy LCD screen.
Numbers appear from the right side of the screen and the way to ‘shoot’ them down is to mash the keypad until the aiming number matches the invader number. Each time one gets through a line appears on the Defence counter and if you manage to avoid getting three Defence lines and shoot down 16 invaders in less than 30 shots you advance to the next level. Every so often an ‘n’ appears; this is the UFO mother ship and hitting this gains bonus points.
And that’s the simple explanation… The odd thing is this difficult, convoluted and absurd little game could become very addictive, with owners vying for high scores. Apparently it was possible score a million or more points in a continuous 10-hour session. However, you needed exceptional bladder control (there's no pause option) and it was a good idea to fit a set of fresh batteries before starting as each hour of gameplay consumed up to 3 day’s worth of power.
For some reason one quite interesting little feature never made it into the instructions and that was the variable alarm tone. This changed the alarm beep from a near ultrasonic whistle to a quite pleasant chirrup in 9 steps. Was this an early example of the hidden ‘Easter Eggs’ hidden in many computer programs and electronic gadgets? It appears Casio didn’t foresee the coming of the Millennium, or didn’t reckon their watches would last that long and the built in calendar only goes up to midnight on the 31st of December 1999. There is a workaround, of sorts, which kicks the year display into 21st century mode but it throws the days and dates out. I’ve tried various suggestions on the web but never managed to make them work, and life is too short.
I’m not entirely sure where this CA-90 came from. I suspect it was a review sample, sent by Casio’s PR agency to one of the electronics magazines (Electronic Today International & Hobby Electronics) I worked on in the eighties. I don’t remember reviewing it so it was probably a swapsie for some other piece of kit kicking around the office. Judging by the condition I must have worn it for a while after which it ended up in a box of odds and sodds in a corner of my loft. When I eventually unearthed it a while ago it was clear the intervening 30 or so years had not been kind to the rubber-like strap, which was in an advanced state of decomposition. Luckily Casio watches have industry standard strap fittings so it wasn’t difficult to find a replacement but locating an original is likely to be a lengthy and probably expensive business.
Another stroke of luck was the fact that the button cells, which I stupidly left in the watch, had not leaked over the years. Equivalents are still available, though the modern mercury-free formulations are unlikely to keep it running for more than a few weeks or months. All of the functions still work, though the mode button, which selects various functions is a touch erratic and the contacts could do with a clean. There are signs that the LCD might be on its last legs with some slight black ‘bleeding’ along the top edge. It seems to vary with temperature and sometimes it’s hardly visible at all. It could be due to the glass layers de-laminating or dodgy contacts, either way it’s a sign of old age and best left alone, as any attempt to fix it will almost certainly make it worse.
What Happened To It?
Needless to say Casio, which was founded in 1946 and has the distinction of making the world’s first all-electric compact calculator in 1957, is still very much with us, and making calculators, cameras, phones musical instruments and watches of all kinds. They include a modern take on the CA-90 in the shape of the retro-styled Casio CA-53W-1Z, currently selling for around £20.00. Sadly, or thankfully – depending on your point of view – it doesn’t have any games but just about everything else from the CA-90 is present and correct.
The CA-90 wasn’t a first; Time Computer Inc. launched the Pulsar Calculator watch with a LED display in 1975, and the Unitrex Monte Carlo, which appeared in 1977, is credited with being the first watch to feature a built-in game. However the CA-90 was almost certainly the first modestly priced watch, game, calculator combo, which makes it a bit special and goes some way towards justifying the often startling prices being asked for them on ebay. Several optimistic sellers recently had them listed at between £500 and £700, though I doubt very much they sold for anything like that. Mint boxed ones do sell, though, often for as much as £200, though, £50 to £100 is more typical for clean examples. Even dead ones have value especially for case parts and modules, if they are in useable condition. My one has definitely been well used and the iffy LCD and replacement strap means it would probably struggle to achieve the lower end of my guessimated price range. It’s definitely worth preserving, and even restoring, though, as I reckon there’s a fair chance of one day finding another, or suitably cheap dead donor at a car boot sale or antique fair.
DUSTY DATA (Instructions)
First Seen: 1981
Original Price: £20
Value Today: £50 (1118)
Features Casio module 134, LCD display, 12/24 hour date/time, stopwatch, daily alarm, dual-time, game & calculator functions, variable tone sound, display backlight
Power req. 2 x SR1130SW 1.5volt button cells
Dimensions: 38 x 48 x 12mm
Made (assembled) in: Japan
Smiths ECS 60-Minute Process Timer, 1965?
Not so long ago if you wanted to measure how long something took to happen, or carry out some sort of action after a certain amount of time, and provided it was in less than one hour then this would have been one of the most popular go-to instruments. It’s a Smiths English Clock Systems (ECS) Interval or Process Timer. It will probably be familiar to generations of scientists, photographers, and school and university students. Like all the best functional gadgets it is very simple, both in how it is made, and the way it works, and that’s mostly due to it’s internal mechanism.
There are no microchips or quartz crystals to go wrong, no complicated displays, no batteries to replace or rows of badly labelled buttons and convoluted instructions to follow. Just wind it up, return the two hands to the zero position by pressing the right hand lever, and start or stop the timer with the left hand lever. The red hand shows seconds, the black one indicates elapsed minutes up to one hour.
Timers just like this one used to be really common, and for good reason. They were virtually foolproof, robust and with only minimal maintenance could be relied upon to work reliably for years, if not decades. This one only needed a spot of light dusting and a few drops of oil to get it going again and there’s no reason why it won’t still be working in another 50 or even 100 years.
The case is in two parts; the body is a one-piece alloy casting and it has a tinplate back panel that simply presses into place. Inside the mostly brass movement is about as simple as it gets; timing is regulated by a balance wheel and when correctly adjusted it can be accurate to plus or minus a few seconds a day, which back in the day was more than adequate for most purposes.
It didn’t always look as good as you see it now, though. When I found it at an antiques fair in Suffolk it was in a right old state, very scruffy with a lot of paint damage and some nasty looking scratch marks on the ‘glass’. Nevertheless, it stirred a few old memories and I couldn’t resist picking it up. It had been fully wound but it with a gentle shake it woke up and ticked for about a minute before grinding to a halt, so it definitely had some potential. The stallholder wanted £2.00 for it but there were signs of rain on the horizon and he accepted my opening offer of £1.00.
Three small screws hold the movement in the case and after removing another screw on the stop/start lever, it came out easily. I gave the case a very liberal coating of chemical paint stripper and left it overnight. The next day almost all of the paint had lifted and came away with the aid of a stiff washing up brush. The more stubborn stuff was removed with a kitchen scourer. The metal underneath was in near perfect condition and all it needed was a rub down with some fine wire wool and a wipe over with white spirit to prepare it for a coat of car body undercoat. I finished it off with another can of car spray paint, which I found in the garage and more by luck than judgement turned out to be a pretty close match to the original light yellow factory finish. The only tricky part was the glass, or more accurately, plastic cover for the face. Most of the scratches were polished out using nothing more complicated than some Brasso, and a lot of elbow grease. Only one quite deep scratch remains, and it probably could eventually be polished out, if I had a week to spare… There are a few light spots of rust on the tinplate faceplate, probably due to spending tie on damp fields waiting for a buyer, but they’re not going to get any worse so they can be left for another day. As it stands now it looks almost new, and after the oil change it runs continuously until the spring winds down, which, for the record takes around 24 hours.
What Happened To It?
Old Samuel Smith set up his clock shop in London in the 1850s but it wasn’t until the early 1930s that the family owned company started making clocks in earnest and became known as Smiths English Clocks. Over the years it progressed from domestic clocks through to car and aircraft instruments and specialist products like this one. I cannot put a precise date on this model but it appears to be the last in a line of clockwork timers, previous models having a rounder case and top mounted stop button. I have given it manufacturing date of the mid 60s, which is mostly guesswork and based on the styling and materials but I am pretty sure it was the same as the ones I used in science lessons at secondary school in the 70s.
Interval timers like this are probably still in daily use but the arrival of low cost digital interval/process timers and stopwatches in the late 70s and early 1980s largely put paid to clockwork timepieces. Electronic devices are inherently more accurate as well, and better able to measure time to within a small fraction of a second. Modern devices often have extra features, like multiple timers, split time readouts and alarms, so it was pretty much game over for these old dinosaurs.
At the time I thought it was a real bargain but after looking through ebay it seems £1.00 wasn’t too far off the mark. Old timers like this one, albeit sometimes looking a bit tatty or needing some TLC, sell quite regularly on ebay, often for less than £5.00. That’s a paltry sum for a well-made horological instrument and I suspect vintage clockwork timers could be in serious danger of becoming collectible, and a lot more expensive. They’re not just pretty faces with pleasing ticks either; timers can be very handy and one like this could be the cheapest, best looking, and most accurate egg timer you’ll ever own…
First seen: 1965?
Original Price: £10.00?
Value Today: £10 (0417)
Features: 60-minute process/interval timer, H39 balance wheel escapement clockwork movement, approx 24 hour running time on a full wind, sweep second hand (red), elapsed minutes hand (black), pause/resume lever, reset lever
Power req. n/a (human powered)
Dimensions: 137 x 124 x 47mm
Made (assembled) in: Great Britain
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest) 4
Citizen Soundwhich AM/FM Radio Watch, 1985
Wearable technology, basically electronic gadgets that you put on, slip into or otherwise attach to your body, are regularly floated as the next big thing. Predictably it has yet to deliver much in the way of tangible doodads, that people might actually want or be able to buy -- apart from a few smart watches, fitness bands and who can forget the ill-fated Google Glass -- but don’t suppose for one moment that this is a new idea.
Wristwatch radios and even TVs have been around for ages. Cartoon detective Dick Tracy sported a fictional two-way wrist radio back in the mid 1940s, which became a practical reality in 1947, following the development of valves not much larger than grains of rice. When transistors started appearing in volume, in the late 1950s, the floodgates opened. We’ve looked at several examples of vintage wearables in dustygizmos, including classics like the Sinclair FM Radio Watch and Seiko’s ‘James Bond’ TV watch, both from the mid 1980s, so here’s another from the same period.
It’s the Citizen 086884Y or ‘Soundwich’ AM/FM wristwatch radio, first seen in 1985 and arguably one of the best looking attempts to combine the functions of a timepiece and radio receiver. Don’t be fooled though, the main photograph only shows part of the story. Whilst a well-specified 2-band tuner is indeed built into the case of this watch, it seems that there was no room left for a battery, on/off switch or earphone socket. They’re all fitted inside a separate clip-on module that links to the radio via a set of four gold plated contacts on the side of the watch case but sadly, once it is attached, it doesn’t look quite so cute. It is still a pretty impressive feat of miniaturisation though, and when you open up the case you can see how it’s done.
The LCD watch or Calibre No. D031, to give it its official designation, is a fully self-contained module with its own battery. It seems likely that this was an off the shelf component used elsewhere in the Citizen product range. The radio is also a single module or substrate but this was almost certainly purpose designed for the Soundwich. The small size is mainly due to a custom chip and SMCs (surface mount components). Until the early 1980s these had been largely confined to specialised applications in the computer and aerospace industries; they were rarely seen in consumer products due to what was then high manufacturing costs.
Given the relative sophistication of the radio – this may well be the first dual-band AM/FM watch radio – the watch is a bit of a disappointment. The display is tiny in relation to the case and it has only the most basic functions, namely time in hours and minutes or seconds, and the date. Adjustments and mode selection is carried out using a pair of buttons (one recessed) to the right of the display. The service manual says the clock is ‘fully automatic’, stating that February ends on the 28th day, but since it has no way of knowing what year it is, it cannot correct for leap years, or summer/winter time for that matter. The radio is much easier on the eye and there are separate tiny tuning dials for AM and FM reception, with the band switch in between, and a volume control on the side. It works really well too, with good clear sound on both bands through the companion magnetic earphone. This is largely thanks to an internal ferrite aerial for AM signals and using the earphone cable as an antenna for VHF broadcasts. Unlike most other wristwatch radios I’ve used, this one is reasonably sensitive, stable and the volume is loud enough for listening on the move.
I came across this one whilst trawling ebay for miniature radios; I was aware of the model and had seen them on the auction site from time to time but they had always been well out of my price range, typically selling for between £100 and £200. This one, with a reportedly rare white case (most of them are black) had a starting price of just £15 and the picture and description were both fairly vague. I could tell from the fuzzy photo that the strap was wrong, the radio battery box was missing, and the seller stated that the watch wasn’t working properly with missing digits, all of which must have stifled interest from the usual watch and novelty radio collectors. It looked like it should be fixable so I put in a speculative bid. As it turned it was the only one and when it turned up a few days later I was pleased to discover that it was in pretty good shape. The watch display was restored simply by fitting a new battery and I managed to find a matching replacement strap for £2.40. Using drawings from the service manual, (available online), I was able to construct a new battery box, which, though I say it myself, is a pretty fair copy of the original, and it really works. Given a decent 3D printer I have little doubt that an even more precise recreation could be made.
What Happened To It?
Citizen is one of the oldest of the Japanese watchmakers, dating back to the 1920s and at various times it has been the world’s largest producers of watches, though since the mid nineties it has diversified into printers, pocket TVs, calculators, hand-held games, computers and so on. They’re still going strong, but as far as I can tell the Soundwich was its only foray into the wacky world of wristwatch radios. You can take it as read that the concept never really took off, and for a number of fairly good reasons. It’s a faff having an earphone or headphone cable dangling off your wrist, or running up your sleeve; lots of movement and small size usually means poor performance and short battery life. The watch displays tend to be tiny and they’re generally quite expensive. Nevertheless, over the years numerous manufacturers have had a go at it and new models appear every so often but, like the Soundwich, they rarely hang around for very long. Citizen’s online archives are not very helpful and it’s difficult to say when production stopped or how many were made but since relatively few of them turn up on ebay, it probably wasn’t very successful. At the time of writing a couple of sellers in Italy and Argentina seem to have a stash of NOS (new old stock) models but they do not appear to have battery boxes, which makes the asking price of £200.00 plus a bit steep.
First seen 1985
Original Price £40?
Value Today £80 (1115)
Features DO31 Calibre watch module: 12mm LCD display, time (hr, min, sec) & date (month, day) functions. Radio: AM/FM reception (535 – 1605kHz/88 – 108MHz), independent AM & FM tuning controls, volume, separate battery module & earphone connector, ferrite antenna (AM)
Power req. watch: SR621; radio: 3 x LR44 button cells
Dimensions: 45 x 32 x 15mm (ex. strap & battery module)
Weight: 34g (42g with battery module)
Made (assembled) in: Japan
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest): 8
Exactus Mini Add Mechanical Calculator, 1958?
Praise be that we live in an age where calculators costs less than a pint of beer. Those of us born before the mid 1970s had no such luxury when it came to doing our sums and most of us spent a good deal of our time in school grappling with slide rules and being baffled by log tables.
We were also unlucky enough to grow up with an archaic and peculiarly British currency system where, for no apparent reason a pound was made up of twenty shillings, which in turn comprised 12 pennies and until 1960 a penny was sub-divided into 4 farthings. Even with the farthing gone currency calculations remained fiendishly difficult and most of the population drew a huge sigh of relief when decimal currency was introduced in 1971.
For shopkeepers and those handling money on a regular basis it wasn’t too bad, they either achieved a level of metal dexterity and were able to do £sd sums in their heads, or they had tills and mechanical calculators to do all the hard work for them. For the rest of us, and you were in a hurry you had to do a rough estimation or work it out on paper, or if you really wanted to do it the hard way you had one of these…
It’s an Exactus Mini Add mechanical currency calculator and it probably looks like a simple way to do pound shillings and pence calculations. It’s an ingenious design with numbers printed on metal slides that appear in little windows at the top of each column. In its default mode it does additions, but flip over a hinged panel and it’s all ready for subtractions. The number are moved by a metal stylus, there are no batteries, and in theory nothing to go wrong, and since it is made of metal (aluminium) you can drop it on the floor and it won’t fall apart. To reset the device just pull out the handle at the top and all of the sliders are moved back to zero. It sounds wonderful, so what’s the catch? Well, here’s how you do a basic addition sum.
Insert the metal stylus into the holes to the right of the first number and draw the slides down to the bottom of the column. The chosen number now appears in the circular windows. To add a second number to the first, if the digits are printed on the silver sections of the slider, just use the same method. However numbers printed on the red parts of the slider cannot be added since the slide has only 10 (or 12) numbers, so it cannot move down far enough. In this case you need to subtract the complement of the number and add ten in the next column. This is accomplished by inserting the stylus in to the hole opposite the wanted number, move it to the top of the column, slide the stylus sideways and move it around and down the u-bend at the top of the column. It gets worse, especially on sums of two or more numbers involving a lot of ‘carries’.
What Happened To It?
The Exactus was one of several makes of mechanical calculator and they were frequently sold through mail order; it was a regular in the classified sections of 50s and 60s newspapers and magazines like the wonderful old Exchange and Mart. No doubt regular users could eventually become quite adept at manipulating these things but it’s hard work, especially as they age, the slides get a bit stiff and the slots become worn. I’m guessing a lot of owners gave up and they ended up in the bin or the backs of drawers and were quickly forgotten. Even if they had lingered on into the 60s and 70s decimalisation would have killed them off, and the final nail in the coffin of mechanical calculators of all types came in the mid 70s with the introduction of low cost electronic calculators.
Nevertheless quite a few seem to have survived. Most weeks you’ll find one or two on ebay and this one cost me £5.00. It’s not an especially clean example and it lacks the wallet, instructions and stylus but it does work. You can expect to pay upwards of £20 for one in half decent condition with all of its accessories, and several times that for the rarer makes and models. Collecting mechanical calculators is still a bit of a minority interest so there’s good potential for grabbing a bargain, especially if you go for fixer-uppers and are handy with a screwdriver and oil can...
First seen: 1958?
Original Price £2 10s 6d
Value Today? £5.00 1212
Features: Stirling (£sd) calculator, addition and subtraction, column display, stylus included
Power req. n/a
Dimensions: 106 x 70 x 5mm
Made in: England
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest): 4
Back in the early 1960s Clive Sinclair had the bright idea of attaching one of his tiny radios (the Micro-6) to a strap so it could be worn on the wrist. His early radios were notoriously insensitive and unreliable and needless to say the idea never caught on but the notion of wearing technology on the wrist clearly stayed with Sir Clive and in 1975 he pioneered one of the first digital watches. Later, in 1984, he asked Dagfinn Aksnes, a Senior Product Designer at Sinclair Research, to begin work on a combined LCD watch and FM radio. The full story behind this remarkably innovative product can be found here.
For years it was thought that the watch was just another one of Sir Clive’s experimental products that he regularly floated to the media but rarely saw the light of day. This one was different, though, it actually went into production in 1985 and was close to going on sale when a mysterious warehouse fire in the US destroyed almost all of the 11,000 watches made and the project was shelved.
The fire and the fact that the watch never officially went on sale has made it one of the rarest Sinclair products there is so I was delighted to have finally got my hands on one, and best of all, it actually works.
One of the biggest surprises, if you have only ever seen it in pictures, is how small and neat and it is. The second surprise for Sinclair aficionados is the unexpectedly high build quality. Many Sinclair products fall apart if you so much as look at them but this one is a real piece of craftsmanship, I would like to say it’s built to last but sadly some of the materials used are doomed to deteriorate, but more on that after the guided tour.
The watch is in three parts held together by a tough hinge that wraps around the wrist. The lower module contains the 3-function LCD clock (time/date/alarm) and its battery. It’s fairly unremarkable and the tiny screen is barely visible but it is backlit and the knob on the side switches between loud and soft alarm and radio. The speaker and amplifier module are in the middle and contain a tiny moving coil speaker; the knob on the side controls the volume. Last but not least is the FM tuner and this houses a clever tuning device – see Dagfinn Aksnes’s write up for more details. Suffice it say it’s ingenious but like many Sinclair innovations, not necessarily built to last and it appears to be a common cause of failure on the few watches that come up for sale. Between each section there’s a set of rubber bellows, to keep out dust and moisture, and running between the sections and inside the strap, acting as the aerial there’s a flexible printed circuit, which was quite a novelty back then. The button cell for powering the radio is held in the strap clasp. Tiny circuit boards inside the case make use of another pioneering technology, surface mount components and all in all it is a truly impressive feat of miniaturisation and it looks pretty smart too.
What Happened To It?
A combination of the warehouse fire and financial problems almost certainly put paid to the watch, at least that’s the official version. However, reading between the lines on the various stories that have appeared there may well have been other factors at work. But whatever the reason for its demise, it was a bit of an oddity and unlikely to have sold in large numbers. I reckon that there were three basic problems. First performance; decent FM reception is only possible within sight of a transmitter and for obvious reasons the sound quality is poor and it's not especially loud. To be fair it was originally designed for the US market, where FM stations tend to be a lot more powerful, but even so it would still be quite difficult to listen to comfortably without clamping it to your ear. Second, the watch element is far too small and at the time ‘proper’ digital watches with shed-loads of functions were selling for just a few pounds. The third reason, I suspect, would have been the price. It was never officially announced but my guess is that whatever it was, it would have been too expensive for the cash-strapped mid-eighties, if the costs of the hand assembly and high quality materials were to be recovered.
If it had made it into the wild I think there would have been a lot of returns. Parts, like the strap and bellows wouldn’t have aged well, especially in a humid atmosphere or wrapped around a sweaty wrist and would probably have failed within a few months and clever though it was the flexible printed circuit was just asking for trouble. Fortunately my one, which I bought a while ago on ebay for £85 (a very good price, probably as the auction ended late on a Wednesday morning…) has been very well looked after and here are no signs yet of decay. I can’t say for sure but I doubt that more than a couple of hundred FM Radio Watches survived and judging by the ones that turn up on ebay from time to time, most of those are dead, missing parts or in an advanced state of decay. If you ever come across one, and it’s in decent condition, and the price isn’t too steep, it could turn out to be a very worthwhile investment.
First seen: 1985
Original Price £?
Value Today? £100 - £800 1112
Features: 3-function (time/date/alarm) LCD watch with built-in FM radio and loudspeaker
Power req. 2 x 1.3v button cells
Dimensions: 65 x 22 x 10mm (ex strap)
Made in: Great Britain
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest): 9
Sharp CT-660 Talking Time Clock, c1979
Talking clocks have been around for a surprisingly long time and the first one, which used a recording of a human voice, dates back to 1878, just a few years after the introduction of the phonograph on which it was based. Then there's the telephone speaking clocks, and they first appeared in the 1930s but it wasn't until the mid 1980s, following the development of inexpensive voice synthesiser chips, that the idea of talking clock for the home became a practical reality.
These days many electronic devices have voices and we take speech synthesis pretty much for granted but I believe the Sharp Talking Time featured here could be one of the earliest examples of a self-contained battery powered talking gadget.
It dates from the late 1970s and for its time it is surprisingly sophisticated. Press the yellow button on the top and it announces the present time, in a wacky robotic voice, not a million miles from the one used by Professor Stephen Hawking. It also has an hour function - it announces the time on the hour, there's a simple timer (1, 5 and 30 minutes), a stopwatch function and a daily alarm, with the spoken announcement preceded by a few plinky bars of Boccherini's Minuet. A hinged flap on the underside that covers the set-up controls opens to form a simple stand. It's really well-made and the chrome plastic and brushed aluminium panels still look good after all these years.
What Happened To It?
There was a brief craze for speech synthesis in the mid 1980s and all manner of things started speaking to us, from car dashboards to washing machines. Gradually the novelty wore off but you can still get talking clocks and watches, most computers can be persuaded to talk to you, and it plays a big part in automated telephone systems and so on.
I can date the Sharp Talking Time fairly precisely to around 1979, which was when I first heard about it whilst writing for a gadget magazine. This one was given to me by Sharp at a press conference in 1980, probably at the launch of a new VCR. Back then we used to be given a lot a promotional freebies and it has to be said they were often more interesting than the products we were being shown. I guess that I played with it for a short while before it ended up in a box in the loft, which explains the better than expected condition. It still works and the quirky voice is great reminder of how far speech synthesis has come in the intervening 30 or so years.
When they went on sale they cost in the region of £50 - £60 so it's unlikely that many were sold and probably very few have survived so it could be quite rare. I doubt that it's of much interest to horologists and clock and watch collectors, at least not yet but give it another 50 years and it'll probably be worth a small fortune...
First seen: 1979
Original Price £50?
Value Today? £10 0812
Features: LCD display showing hours, minutes and seconds, rotary volume control, 'speak' button, wrist lanyard, alarm, timer (1, 5 & 30 minutes), stopwatch function
Power req. 2 x AA
Dimensions: 114 x 60 x 23mm
Made in: Japan
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest): 8
Avia Swissonic Electronic Watch 1965?
Most people think that electronic watches first appeared in the mid 1970s but whilst it is fair to say that the earliest digital watches, with LED and later LCD displays date back to the seventies, electronic watches have been around since 1960.
The first of the breed was the legendary Bulova Accuton, which used an electronically ‘excited’ tuning fork, that ‘hummed’ at a constant frequency of 360Hz and was connected, through an ingenious mechanical linkage and gears, to the hands. This watch was accurate to within 2 seconds a day and was even used by the NASA astronauts on early space missions..
Sadly this isn’t an Accutron, but one of a number of watches that came hard on its heels, cashing in on the then trendy ‘electronic’ tag. ‘Battery powered’ would be a more apt description, though to be fair the tiny circuit board inside does have a handful of electronic components (a transistor, resistor, inductor and a capacitor). The circuit is a simple oscillator that drives a coil that produces a magnetic impulse that swings the balance wheel. From that point onwards it’s just like any other mechanical watch, nevertheless, it’s still quite a feat of engineering though it’s nowhere near as accurate as the Accutron.
This one, which I have owned since new, is accurate to around plus or minus 10 seconds a day, depending on the temperature, and the state of the battery. Speaking of which, they lasted only a few weeks. The battery cover, on the back, is helpfully marked with the numbers 1 – 12, to remind you when it is time to fit a new one.
It's a bit battered and showing its age but it is superbly well built; the case looks and feels like it has been hewn from a solid ingot of stainless steel. It’s really chunky and together with the metal strap it weighs a hefty 200g. It’s so well made, in fact that this one, which has been languishing in a box of old watches for the best part of 20 years, started working as soon as a fresh battery was inserted.
What Happened to It?
Very basic electronic watches like these were a passing fad that lasted only a few years. Accuracy was always an issue and it was easily outperformed by mid-priced mechanical watches. The ‘hearing aid’ batteries cost a pound or two and were hard to come by so they were quite expensive to run. I’m not sure when they finally disappeared but I suspect it was towards the end of the sixties when modestly priced ‘self-winding’ watches, became very popular.
Highly accurate electronic 'quartz' controlled watches with analogue faces started appearing in the mid 1970s but digital watches didn’t really catch on until the late seventies, when LCD models arrived and prices plummeted. This now almost forgotten episode in watch design deserves more recognition though sadly watches like this one probably won’t become classics or highly collectable, like the Accutron. Nevertheless, if you ever come across one grab it, it’s a little bit of horological history.
First seen: 1965
Original Price £25?
Value Today? £50? 0612
Features: Electronic movement, sweep second hand, date display, luminous hands, battery replacement 'reminder'
Power req. 1.3v button cell
Dimensions: 40 x 45 x 11mm (whd)
Made in: Switzerland
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest): 8
Rolling Ball Clock 1980?
Credit for the first clock to feature a rolling ball belongs to English clockmaker Sir William Congreve, who patented his design back in 1808. However, it was a far cry from the one you see here. In Congreve's design a ball rolls down a zig-zag track, which pivots as the ball reaches the end, acting like a pendulum.
This rolling ball clock was invented by Harley Mayenschein, an American engineer, who patented his design in 1979. Once a minute a ball is scooped up from a track at the bottom by a rotary arm and released at the top. On early versions the arm rotates continuously, on later models it does it in one action. The balls collect on counterbalanced pivoted arms. As soon as the arm is full the weight of the balls causes it to tip, one ball rolls onto the next level, the rest are returned to the 'reservoir'. The clock in the picture shows 5 balls on the lowest 'hour', arm, there are 4 balls on the 5-minute arm, giving a total of 20, and one ball on the minute, arm, so the time is 21 minutes past 5.
The earliest examples use a mains synchronous motor to drive the arm, on later versions the clock is governed by a simple clock movement. A cam on the minute dial operates a small switch that operates the arm that loads the balls. It's ingenious, fascinating to watch, especially at 12.59, when it gets a bit noisy as all of the arms empty their balls. Power comes from a set of 4 C-cells, held in compartment in the base, or from a mains adaptor
The original rolling ball clocks were handmade, out of wood but such was their popularity that Harley Mayenschien set up a company to make them, called the Idle Tyme Corporation, in the early 1980s. This was about the time when I first came across them whilst editing a magazine called Gadgets and Games.
What Happened to It?
It never went away and over the years several different versions have been made, both ready built and in kit form, there's even a giant one that uses bowling balls. This one is a fairly recent example, possibly late 80s, made by Arrow, who licensed the design in the early 1980s. I picked it up recently at a car boot sale for £12. Modern examples, made in China and badged Time Machine, can be found in gadget shops selling for around £30. I suspect original Idle Tyme clocks, made out of wood, are extremely rare and I wouldn't be at all surprised if good ones are now worth several hundred pounds.
My thanks to Joe Mayenschein, the son of Harley Mayenschien, who writes to tell me that Idle Tyme has started manufacturing original wooden ball clocks once again, more details from the company's new website at: www.idle-tyme.com
First seen: £1979
Original Price £40
Value Today? £40 0312
Features: quartz controlled clock movement, pivoting hours, 5-minutes and minute arms, ball-bearing time indicators
Power req. 4 x C cells or mains adaptor
Dimensions: 16 x 26 x 20cm
Made in: USA
Hen’s Teeth (10 rarest): 5
Sinclair Black Watch, 1975
The Black watch was the first of Clive Sinclair’s forays into the world of digital timekeeping and another ground breaking product, being the first, and as far as I am aware, the only DIY digital watch kit. This was back in 1975, when digital watches were still rare, exotic and very expensive. At the time the kit cost £17.95; a ready-built version was also available for £25.95, which was a tidy sum thirty and a bit years ago
It’s a really stylish design with no visible controls, or display for that matter, you have to press two barely visible circular pads on the panels, just below the display window to fire up the tiny LEDs. This helps to prolong battery life, even so most users, checking the time 4 or 5 times a day would need to change them every week or two.
It gets worse; the four-digit display only shows the time, (hours, minutes and seconds) though a time and date version was produced. The metal strap is quite well made but the rest of the case is rather fragile and it marks easily. It also has a tendency to self destruct, so all in all it was up to Sinclair’s usual standards…
What Happened to it?
It was a huge flop, the kit was virtually impossible to build, even for those experienced with a soldering iron. The electronics are based around two printed circuits, one of which is flexible and prone to fracture. The push button contacts are incredibly unreliable, but even when it was working it was inaccurate and gained or lost, according to the ambient temperature. The clock chip was easily damaged by static discharge; some users even claimed it would blow if you wore a nylon shirt. It ate batteries and if you dropped it, it flew apart. Tens of thousands of Black Watches were made but the return rate was very high and it was a financial disaster.
Working examples of the Black Watch turn up on ebay from time to time but alas this one no longer functions. It didn’t cost very much -- £15 at an antiques fair -- and I reckon that was pushing it. Runners especially if they are in good condition and boxed, can easily fetch £100 or more.
It’s not quite the end of the story and in 1985 Sinclair went on to make an outlandish and, for its day, technically advanced combined watch and FM radio. Several thousand were made but most of them were destroyed in a warehouse fire shortly before it was due to go on sale in the US. These are now incredibly rare and when they do turn up on ebay they invariably sell for between £300 and £500, and I have seen them going for as much as £800.
First seen: 1975
Original Price £26.00
Value Today? £26.00 1011
Features: Time display (hours, minutes and seconds), two-button operation, wrist strap
Power req. 2 x 1.2 volt button cells
Dimensions: 28 x 50 x 10mm (case, excuding strap)
Made in: England
Hen’s Teeth (10 rarest): 8
Binatone Digivox ‘Digital’ Alarm Clock, 1975?
Normally I can date a gadget fairly precisely, usually to within a year or two, but I freely admit to guessing the age of this one.
I reckon the Binatone Digivox Digital bedside radio alarm clock came out sometime in the mid 1970’s but I’m happy to be proved wrong. My reasons for that date are simple; the word ‘Digital’ was becoming a buzzword following the appearance of digital watches and calculators. The brown 'mockwood’ case is classic mid-70s design feature and at that time Binatone were a canny bunch and no doubt thought this was a quick and easy way to hop on the bandwagon, because as you can see, the word Digital is being used somewhat loosely…
The clock display is actually mechanical; the numbers or digits are printed on little hinged panels, attached to a rotating reel, and they flip over as the reel turns. It’s driven by a highly accurate synchronous electric motor, but the point is, no digital technology is involved anywhere in this product, not in the clock and definitely not in the 3-band AM/FM radio.
Feature-wise there’s not much to say. The clock and alarm adjuster knobs are on the left (the latter turns a reel graduated in 15 minutes intervals, covering a 24 hour period, and on the right there’s two knobs for tuning and two slide switches for waveband and mode (on/off/mode). The only other refinement is a small permanently on neon bulb to illuminate the display at night. It’s idiot proof and it works, and there’s no fangled Snooze button to confuse things.
What Happened to it?
As we all know bedside radio alarm clocks never went away but towards the end of the 70s LED displays had become so cheap that there was no point making clocks like this anymore so I’m guessing it wasn’t around for very long. Pukka ‘digital’ displays became the norm though interestingly even today most models are no more accurate as this one. That’s because most mains powered clocks derive their time timing signals from the mains frequency, which is very carefully maintained at an average of 50Hz over a 24-hour period. This practice goes way back and has used to ensure mains powered clocks keep good time since the year dot.
This one came from a car boot sale and it set me back £1.00. After a quick wipe over, a squirt or two of contact cleaner and a check around to make sure it wasn’t going to burst into flames, the clock and radio powered up and both ran straight away. A lot of these clocks were sold though probably not that many are around to tell the tale so it could be an area for future collectors of late 20th century ephemera, and if any alarm clock collectors or Binatone experts read this I would really like to be able to put a more accurate date on it.
First seen: 1975?
Original Price £10-£15
Value Today? £1 - £5 0611
On/off volume switch, tuning, waveband,
clock/alarm adjust & set
Dimensions: 270 x 135 x 80mm
Made in: Hong Kong
Hen’s Teeth (10 rarest): 5
Sinclair Cambridge Calculator, 1974 (Manual)
It’s impossible to overstate the impact electronic calculators had on us all back in the 1970s, until that point if you wanted to do a complex calculation, and by that I mean anything that didn’t involve the times tables, you had to resort to fearful things called Logarithms, master the intricacies of the mechanical slide rule, be employed in an office or very well off and own an adding machine.
Although adding machines and later calculators had been around long before Clive Sinclair got in on the act, few could afford them, let alone lift them… The Sinclair Cambridge was the first affordable pocket calculator, though it’s debatable how many ordinary folks could afford to lash out £43 on one of these gizmos, equivalent to several hundred pounds in today’s money. Kit versions were also available, though I seem to remember they didn’t hang around for very long since like most Sinclair DIY kits, they had a tendency not to work.
The Sinclair Cambridge, and this is the later Mk 3 version, had just four functions (add, subtract, multiply and divide, plus a Constant (K) functions, which is a very crude sort of memory, but just being able to carry out calculations to 8 decimal places, on a little box that would fit in a shirt pocket was nothing short of miraculous. Sadly build quality was up (or down) to Sinclair’s usual standard and they could be quite unreliable, and the keys were such a loose fit that they rattled, but hey, this one, picked up from ebay for £20 still works, even if you do need a magnifying glass to see the display.
What Happened To It?
For a few years Sinclair did quite well with calculators and later models featured increasingly complex scientific functions but inevitably manufacturers in the Far East started churning them out at prices that home-grown manufacturers like Sinclair couldn’t compete with. In any event, by the late 70’s Sir Clive had started turning his attention to computers and within a couple of years calculators had become basic commodity items and therefore of little interest to most people. This one came with its original felt carry case and instructions, which is quiet rare. Quite a few of them were made, so they’re not too difficult to find but runners are a bit thin on the ground, and if you’re in the market for one make sure you check the battery compartment as a leaky battery will destroy the innards.
First seen: 1973
Original Price £43
Value Today? £25 0311
8-digit LED display, 4-functions plus
Dimensions: 111 x 50 x 28mm
Made in: England
Hen’s Teeth (10 rarest): 6
Bowmar LED Digital Watch 1972
You can tell when a gadget has acquired nostalgia value because the market is suddenly awash with modern reproductions. That’s certainly starting to happen with that classic piece of 70s cool technology, the LED watch.
These crazy devices really stated to take off after getting a weekly airing on the TV series Kojak, starring the bald lollipop-sucking detective, played by Telly ‘who loves ya baby’ Savalas. Early LED watches also had numerous walk-on roles in movies as funky or futuristic props and one model -- forget which -- featured prominently in a couple of scenes in a Bond film. At first they were horribly expensive, the first few models sold for several hundred pounds but by the mid seventies the price had dropped dramatically and very soon everyone had one.
What made the whole LED watch phenomenon really weird was the fact that they were completely useless because they only told the time when you pressed the little button on the side. It had to be that way because early LEDs consumed vast amounts of power and if lit continuously would suck the button cells dry in just a few minutes. As it was they only lasted a few weeks -- a few months if you didn’t use it very often -- making them one of the most impractical time pieces, of all time…
This one is a Bowmar and occasionally it can be persuaded to work but it’s not a very good example of the genre but the case and strap are in pretty good shape. Unfortunately they’re almost impossible to repair and all you can really do is replace the module, which is simply not economic.
Bowmar were an American company specialising in LED displays and they were briefly quite well known for making one of the first electronic calculators; its modest range of watches were assembled in Hong Kong.
What Happened To It?
LED watches vanished almost overnight when the first Liquid Crystal Display (LCD) watches started to appear in the late seventies. Most of them simply gathered dust and were eventually thrown away, or the button cells were left inside and they leaked and corroded the innards but judging by the numbers on ebay a fair few have survived. If you are interested in starting a collection be warned that most of the ones you will see are repros, and if you do buy an original, make sure that it works.
First seen: 1972
Original Price £25.00
Value Today? £10.00 0311
Press button time display
Dimensions: 35 x 35 x 00 mm
Made in: Hong Kong
Hen’s Teeth (10 rarest): 5
The Technical Standard Slide Rule 1966
To anyone under 30 a slide rule is probably something of a mystery (as it was to many of us over 30...), but before the advent of the electronic pocket calculator this was the quickest and indeed the only way to do complex sums, without resorting to a computer.
Those who managed to master its intricacies were able to carry out calculations faster than any adding machine or early calculator, and were often more accurate, however, they could be fiendishly difficult to drive, particularly the more specialised models.
This one is a little more advanced than the basic models forced upon maths students, and judging by the crib card on the back, detailing formulas for calculating the densities, specific gravity and cubic weights of materials like brick, cement, clay, slate and various metals, it was aimed at builders and architects. It’s missing its slider or reticule, used to align digits and read out the results but otherwise it is in good condition and still has its well-worn cardboard box
What Happened to it?
Slide rules disappeared very quickly in the mid 1970s following the arrival of the first affordable pocket calculators and with it came a great sigh of relief from generations of baffled schoolkids.
A few die-hards hung on to their slide rules but it was a doomed technology, mind you, they did have one big advantage over early calculators, they didn’t need batteries…
First seen: 1968
Original Price £3
Value Today? £5 0211
Features: Logarithmic slide rule, reversible slide, common formulas and calculations on rear, inch/cm rulers
Power req. n/a
Dimensions: 305 x 45 x 15 mm
Made in: England
Hen’s Teeth (10 rarest): 5
Radofin Triton 1400 Pocket Calculator 1974
At first glance there’s nothing particularly remarkable about this pocket calculator but look a little closer, the display uses microscopic 7- segment LEDs instead of an LCD and there’s fewer buttons than you would expect to see on a modern device. The Radofin Triton 1400 is actually over 30 years old and was in the first wave of cheap pocket calculators, following just a year or two after the pioneering models launched by Sharp, Texas and Sinclair.
This particular model was made in Hong Kong but Radofin was actually a UK company and its first machines were built in the UK.
By current standards it is extremely crude, and the software is riddled with bugs, especially if you try to make it do ‘impossible’ sums – enter divide > point > zero and watch it go quietly mad... The ‘K’ button (it is supposed to mean ‘Konstant’) is an early attempt at a memory function, though it is also very easily confused. Nevertheless, at the time using one of these things for the first time and being able to carry out complex calculations in fractions of a second was nothing short of a miracle, especially for a generation that had been bought up with and struggled with the complexities of logarithms (whatever happened to them?) and slide rules.
What happened to it?
Calculators continued to get smarter, smaller and cheaper but one of the biggest innovations was the introduction of the LCD in the late 1970s, which replaced the battery sapping LEDs used previously. We now take calculators totally for granted, they’re cheap enough to be given away, they dangle from key rings in short they are just another disposable commodity, but they have a fascinating history and very early models from the 70s, which were built in comparatively small numbers, are becoming sought after collectibles. If you see one at a jumble or car-boot sale, especially if it has an LED display grab it!
First seen: 1974
Original Price c. £20
Value Today? £10 0111
Features: 8-digit LED display, four functions (plus, minus, subtract & divide)
Power req. 9v PP2
Dimensions: 120 x 65 x 25 (very approx)
Made in: Hong Kong
Rarity: 7 (1 = common, 10 = Hen's teeth)
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