About LCD Watches
Practical, reliable, and newly retro.
1973 Optel Dynamic Scattering
LCD Watches are digital watches that use a "liquid crystal display" to show the time either as a set of black digits over a grey background or inverted as grey digits over a black background.
The first LCD watch (a collaboration of Swiss watchmaker BWC and the American company Optel) came out in late 1972, just a few months after the first LED watch. Since the liquid crystal display works by changing the way that light is reflected from its surface rather than emitting its own light, it can be extremely energy efficient. An LCD watch can run for a year or more on a single tiny battery while continuously displaying the time. Since an LCD display doesn't emit its own light, to be seen in the dark it must have a backlight requiring you to push a button to see the time much like an LED watch. To work around this problem, some LCD watches from the mid to late 1970s used radioactive Tritium to light the display continuously. These quickly disappeared around 1979 shortly after the Three Mile Island accident!
Michael J. Fox checks his
Casio in "Back to the Future"
Vintage LCD watches use the same amazingly accurate quartz crystal technology as modern watches. With an accuracy of plus or minus 30 seconds per year, you can set your watch once and forget about it until the batteries need changing years in the future.
Claims to Fame
LCD watches have been low on the totem pole in terms of cachet, but that is changing as children of the 1980s enter middle age. 1970s era LCD watches (especially geeky calculator watches) are becoming "retro-chic".
Sting Ponders his Casio
Sting wore a Casio digital watch in the 1980s band "The Police". In the 1985 movie "Back to the Future", Marty McFly can be seen repeatedly checking his black plastic Casio. Roger Moore wore a Seiko digital watch in the 1977 James Bond film "The Spy Who Loved Me", in 1981 for "Your Eyes Only" and again in 1983 for "Octopussy". More recently, 1980s digital watches have become retro. Ellen Page can be seen wearing a black calculator watch in the 2009 roller derby film "Whip It".
LCD watch technology of the 1970s was almost too good - accurate, robust, and cheap. Disposable digital watches could be made more reliable, accurate, and fully featured than the most expensive mechanical watches. The result of this was the "quartz crisis" which many venerable watchmaking firms did not survive. Swiss watchmaking firms were reluctant to adopt the new technology and 60% of them were wiped out. American companies such as Texas Instruments and Fairchild moved their manufacturing to the Far East and competed to bring the cost of watches down to $20. Soon they found that they couldn't make a profit and they too perished. On the plus side, you can pick up an inexpensive 40 year old LCD watch and it will still be working as accurately as any watch made today.