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Wearable Tech: The First 8,000 Years

To mark the much-hyped launch of the Apple Watch, we travel back in time to chart the landmarks of true horological innovation

Tech bores like to claim that Apple is not as innovative as it appears, because it’s rarely the first company to bring a product to market. For instance, the pioneering MPMan MP3 player was launched in 1997, four years before the iPod went on sale, and Nokia’s 770 “internet tablet” went on sale in 2005, almost five years before the first iPad was released. Given the contrast between Apple’s stellar reputation and that of either Nokia or MPMan it’s clear that getting a product right is more important than getting it out first.

Wearable tech has been very much the buzz phrase of the past two years but actually the idea is ages old. Its bedrock was revealed in the 1960s when the historians Messrs William Hanna and Joseph Barbera began to broadcast their definitive portrait of life during the Stone Age. Their series, The Flintstones, was an animated depiction of prehistoric day-to-day life, and highlighted the era’s primitive prototypes. In the opening sequence to the show we see the quarry foreman wearing a sundial on his wrist – unlike the Apple Watch the unit’s battery life was not an issue.

Skip forward to around 1,000AD and the Vikings had a piece of wearable technology with health benefits of which Apple’s Mayo Clinic app can only dream. These Norseman wore amulets imbued with magical protective powers that helped to keep the wearer safe, which certainly puts pedometer functionality in the shade. Five hundred years later, craft had replaced magic as the driver of innovation and, by 1505, the German clockmaker Mr Peter Henlein had made the Pomander, which is regarded as the world’s first pocket watch. In practicality, Mr Henlein’s watches were too big to fit into a man’s pocket, and so were worn around the neck in a manner later taken up by Public Enemy’s Flavor Flav.

By the 17th century, pocket watches were commonplace and they reached their highest expression at the skilled hands of Mr Abraham-Louis Breguet, a Swiss watchmaker who invented the unfathomable tourbillon complication in 1801, and is considered the second greatest horologist of all time (after Dr Emmett Brown, who invented the flux capacitor and thus time travel). The complications Mr Breguet developed are comparable in sophistication to many of today’s apps – even Candy Crush Saga – although considerably harder to download. If you think we’ve been waiting a long time for the Apple Watch, spare a thought for Queen Marie Antoinette. It took so long to build her multi-complication clock that both she and Mr Breguet were dead by the time his son finished the project in 1827.

In 1903, there was a steep change when Dimier Frères & Cie, a watchmaker and importer, patented a wristwatch design with wire lugs – a detail that has come to define the form (watches had been worn strapped to the wrist before that date). However, then, as now, being at the vanguard of technology was no guarantee of success – Dimier Frères & Cie no longer exists and Mr Louis Cartier’s 1904 wristwatch for the Brazilian aviation pioneer Mr Alberto Santos-Dumont has gone down in history as being the world’s first.

For more than a hundred years wristwatches have been designed with action in mind; in 1926 Rolex introduced its waterproof Oyster watch, which could be worn while swimming. A year later the female endurance swimmer Ms Mercedes Gleitze performed for Rolex the ambassadorial role that the model Ms Christy Turlington Burns is currently playing for Apple. Ms Gleitze swam the English Channel wearing a gold Rolex around her neck and Ms Turlington Burns is elegantly demonstrating the Apple Watch’s pedometer functionality as she trains for the London Marathon. In fact, pedometers have an even longer history than celebrity endorsement – they were introduced to the US in around 1788 by President Thomas Jefferson, re-launched in Japan in 1965 as part of a forward-thinking campaign to get people to walk 10,000 steps a day, and adidas integrated an electronic pedometer into its 1984 Micropacer sneakers.

There is currently much talk of the effect the Apple Watch will have on the Swiss watch industry, which barely survived the problems it suffered when its stranglehold on the market was last loosened. In 1969, those upstarts at Seiko launched the 35 SQ Astron, the world’s first electronic quartz watch, and its arrival heralded the “quartz crisis” – for the following two decades demand for mechanical watches slowed to a stop. In 1970, the American watch company Hamilton’s first LED watch, the Pulsar, foreshadowed the Apple Watch in three specific ways: the case was made of 18ct gold, the design was inspired by 2001: A Space Odyssey and the price was a spectacular $2,100 – all of which may seem familiar to anyone who’s looked at the Apple Watch Edition.

Of course, the Apple Watch is capable of doing far more than just telling the time. Mr Tim Cook, Apple’s CEO, has mentioned that its ability to make telephone calls is the culmination of a dream he’s had since the age of five, when he first saw the cartoon-strip detective Dick Tracy speaking into a radio on his wrist. Twenty years later Michael Knight, the luxuriantly coiffured hero of the television series Knight Rider, was using a modest looking digital unit to summon KITT, his self-driving car. Nerds will want to know that Knight’s watch was actually a re-trimmed generic Hong Kong-made unit that came with an integrated AM radio.

This century, wearable tech has mainly focused on making exercise more fun, and more scientific. In 2001, Nike launched its Philips-produced PSA MP3 player. Although their 64MB storage capacity is now laughable, the ergonomics of the pebble-shaped players remain unsurpassed. Two years later, runners were offered more serious kit when Garmin started to sell the Forerunner 101, the first wrist-mounted GPS unit – to call it a watch is to stretch a point. And by 2006, Nike had teamed up with Apple, and the result was Nike+, which uses a chip in the sole of one’s sneakers that connects to the iPhone to track your time, route and calories burned. Heart rate monitors, it should be noted, date back to 1977, when Polar invented them for the Finnish cross-country ski team.

However, we only really entered the contemporary era of wearable tech in the past few years. In 2013, Pebble kick-started its own modern Stone Age family with its crowd-funded watch, and the popularity of what’s grandly called the quantified-self movement has seen Nike FuelBands, Fitbits and Jawbone UPs become as ubiquitous as Livestrong bands once were.

The key problem with products that place tech above aesthetics is that they tend to look inelegant. Conversely, when design is prioritised over functionality, the result does not move the dial. Apple sits alone in the intersection of the brains and beauty Venn diagram.

The promise of genuine game-changing technology in a watch a stylish man will be proud to wear is intriguing. A smart watch in every sense. No one’s done that yet. Perhaps Apple will be first to market after all.