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Handheld Devices

Sinclair Black Watch was the Apple Watch of its day

Just as Proust has his narrator Swann remember things past thanks to the taste of a madeleine cake soaked in tea, a tweet by the estimable Fast Company reporter Harry McCracken sent me back in search of lost time. The madeleine equivalent in Newcastle-Upon-Tyne in the far north-east of England en ces jours? Sinclair’s Black Watch, the Apple Watch of its time – all of 40 years ago.

My brother Paul got one for his birthday not long after the device was released. The internet says it would have cost £24.95 fully assembled, which I believe it was, although a DIY kit could be had for seven quid less. The year was 1975 or 1976 and £24.95 would have represented perhaps three days’ wages for my father, the main breadwinner of the house - as was expected of men in those days.

sinclair-black-watch

Image credit: Prof.Dr. Jens Kirchhoff at German Wikipedia, via Wikimedia Commons

Those were different times, but then aren’t they always? The current monarch still reigned but we had a Labour prime minister in the shape of the affable pipe smoker and Huddersfield Town fan Harold Wilson and then the bluff Jim Callaghan. Americans had Gerald Ford, less well remembered these days perhaps than Betty Ford, his addicted wife who was brave enough to dry out and talk about how she did it. Of the bumbling Ford I only remember two things. The first was a comical pratfall while skiing (although, considering the hover-pad flared trousers, outsize shirt collars and kipper ties of the time, it’s a wonder any of us stayed upright for long). Second was the wonderful acidic criticism that Ford couldn’t fart and chew gum at the same time. Oh for a politician today with the wit of Lyndon Johnson…

Anyhow, my brother became the early adopter of our neighbourhood – indeed was flocked by gawping admirers when he revealed this state-of-the-art device. This was a time when black was the colour and we all loved the John Player Special Lotus F1 racing car – essentially a black-and-gold cigarette pack on wheels that did seven miles to the gallon. The Sinclair Black watch was very black, was all black, and shorn of extraneous hardware, thus anticipating the iPhone.

The Black Watch was a status symbol and like many status symbols it wasn’t that great at doing the basics. You pressed the screen for red digits to appear when you wanted to, you know, tell the time on your wristwatch, thus helping to drain the battery. It was sensitive, not always reliable and tough to read in sunlight. Some things don’t change.

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Image credit: Prof.Dr. Jens Kirchhoff at de.wikipedia, from Wikimedia Commons

But it was in demand, different, and the advertising sent us (us being geeky boys) into paroxysms of techno-desire just as the Sinclair name was emerging as a very British equivalent to Apple. Clive Sinclair was the sort of eccentric scientist we Brits admire: a brilliant inventor and innovator with just a touch of the Professor Branestawm.

Later we learned to love his computers the ZX 81 (you can put a cup on the flat keyboard!), ZX Spectrum and the QL. We had the Spectrum, plugging it into a cheap mono tape cassette recorder for storage and a portable CRT TV for display. My father, desperate to justify a £125 outlay, regarded the Speccie as the centre point of a new approach to home automation. We never did keep our accounts or recipes on it nor write letters but we did play lots of Horace Goes Skiing and Psion Chess until plugging in a 48K RAM pack fried its circuits.

sinclair-zx81-setup-photomanipped

Image credit: Mike Cattell via Wikimedia Commons

Later Sinclair efforts were less well received although the C5 personal electric vehicle caused lots of excitement and was I suppose the Segway of its time. It was hopelessly impractical on the road, of course and I well remember the Punch magazine cartoon of a C5 driver explaining to a police officer: “I’m not kerb-crawling; this is as fast as it goes.”

Today, Sinclair is a rather obscure figure to most of us, denied the TV fame afforded to Alan Sugar who is now known for presenting a TV show where once his Amstrad computers and audio equipment sold heavily. This being the UK, both can now use ‘Sir’ in their names which may or may not be something.

Anyway the Apple Watch has, I suppose, hundreds more functions than the Sinclair Black Watch but I fear that its early editions are destined for the dustbin of history, or its sister destination the landfill dump. Times have changed a lot since the Seventies. Some of these changes are for the better: I no longer wear synthetic fabrics, eat frozen foods of questionable origin or breathe in cigarette smoke at every turn. But the eternal questing for more in technology will soon relegate the Apple Watch to a thing of Proustian reminiscence, tinged with laughter at the way we once were.

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Martin Veitch

Martin Veitch is Contributing Editor for IDG Connect

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