Collecting, Repairing, and Wearing Vintage Digital Watches

Electronics enthusiasts have the opportunity to be on the very cusp of a trend with vintage digital watches (VDW). Vintage digital watches are those watches that from the late 70’s and throughout the 80’s. They’re unlike any watch style today, and for anyone around when they made their debut these deliver a healthy dose of nostalgia.

Monetarily speaking, it is not worth the money to pay a watch maker to restore a digital watch but for those of us with basic electronics skills we can put the time and effort into making them run again and be one of the few in possession of functioning VDW. It’s a statement as well as a sign of your own aptitude.

Earlier this year, Steven Dufresne walked us through the history of the digital watch. In this article we will dive into the world of vintage digital watch repair.

LED Wristwatches are Hard to Come By

LED watches were the very first digital watches because LED display technology pre-dates LCD tech. The first commercially available LED watch was the Hamilton Time Computer, shipping in 1972, followed by many others. With LED technology American watch manufacturers dominated the digital watch market in the early 70’s.

These early digital watches consume copious amounts of power, burning through batteries every three to six months even when used lightly. Most LED watches feature day, date, month, seconds, and perpetual calendar. Some even feature alpha-numeric segments for displaying the day. It is tough to find working LED VDWs. Plan to either pay a fair market value for a working one or to buy numerous modules (module is the name for the VDW movement) or complete watches to make one work. Given this scarcity, if you can get an LED working you will become king of the geeks.

I bought this watch, made by National Semiconductor, as new old stock (NOS). It was completely dead and suffered from battery corrosion that went so far as to damage bond wires going to the IC. I ended up buying two additional watches to make this one work.

Liquid Crystal Display (LCD) Watches of the 1970’s

If you want to wear something different consider a mid to late 70’s LCD VDW. These watches are fairly inexpensive and easy to service, most of the time requiring only cleaning of battery and button contact terminals.

With 1970’s VDWs you can find everything from perpetual calendars, chronographs, alarms, to world timers. In the 1970’s the digital watch cases were over-built, big, metal, and heavy. These bold designs hold up well today.

Fairchild, National Semiconductor, Commodore Computer Company, Texas Instruments

The legendary tech companies of our youth have only one thing in common; they each made digital watches in the 1970’s. Apparently, the sale price and the cost of goods aligned with the business plans of these behemoths of tech including; Commodore Computer, National Semiconductor, Texas Instruments, and Fairchild Semiconductor.

The Calculator Watch

Michael J. Fox wore one in the most iconic electrical engineering move of all time, Back to the Future. In the film he wore the Casio CA-50. Surprisingly enough you can buy one new today for $18-24.

If that’s not cool enough then consider the late 70’s calculator watches, many of which feature stainless steel buttons. Of all the watches in my collection the one pictured below gets the most attention. I like to tell my young daughters that this watch has an ‘elf keyboard’ on it.

But if you think that simple multiply, divide, add, and subtraction watches are not enough for your needs then you should consider stepping up to a scientific calculator watch like the Casio CFX-200 shown below. Look at all of those buttons!

The first Smart Watch, Seiko UC-2000

BASIC was the programming language of the 1980’s and if you wanted to run a BASIC program on your wrist there was only one way to do it; with a Seiko UC-2000 and 3000 series watches:

Every serious VDW collector must have one of these in her/his collection. The Seiko UC-2000 is still ahead of its time, not even the Apple watch can run BASIC programs yet.

King of VDW, the Ana-Digi

The king of all VDW is the Analog-Digital (so-called ‘Ana-Digi’). The Ana-Digi features both a digital display and an analog display on the same watch. The best part about it is that the analog display is electronically synchronized to the digital display, they both tick in unison! A technological tour-de-force of both digital and mechanical watchmaking.

The VDW Community

The watch collecting and repair community has traditionally been focused on mechanical time pieces, but recently Tibi Fleseriu has generated a tremendous interest and following in VDW through his YouTube channel. Like many others in this growing hobby, I discovered the world of VDW through Tibi’s channel.

Tibi’s interest in VDW started at a young age,

What got me started in VDWs is that I’ve always been a watch guy but never into mechanical watches, I was into the likes of altimeter watches and compass watches so some nerdy electronic device in your watch “It tells time but also does this…”. I eventually wanted to add a digital watch in the collection but wasn’t pleased with today’s new products so I ended up in looking what was in the hay day of digital watches. And here I am 5 years later with an obsession :). Moreover I have always been into electronics especially early miniaturization technology.

Tibi describes the atypical VDW collector,

She/He is a watch enthusiast foremost but he is not one to aspire to Rolexes, JLCs or Patke Phillippes
She/He does not aspire to what we call “haut horology” pieces

She/He usually has a side hobby or more involving vintage electronics, gaming or computing
She/He likes to tinker or at least knows a little more than changing a battery on a watch
She/He is a nerd whether we are talking watches or electronics
She/He had some part of his life in the 70s to 90s

Sound familiar? You have a home in the VDW community.

How to Repair a VDW

There is no way around it, sooner or later your watch will break or you will want a piece that requires repair to make it run.  Fortunately most VDW repairs are well within the abilities of the readers of Hackaday. As a reference, you will want to get a copy of The Digital Watch Repair Manual which is the best repair manual on repairing digital watches. Once you have familiarized yourself with how VDWs work I suggest you watch this video on how to service a common VDW, most VDW repairs are not even this involved:

Combine both traditional mechanical watchmaking skills and now you can repair an Ana-Digi as shown in this video. And here is how to repair the Sieko UC-2000 who’s most common problem is damage to the inductive communications coil used to load and read data to/from the watch.

Where to Buy

Once you have found your VDW muse and are itching to buy one for your collection, here are my suggestions;

Buy a new one:

The easiest way to get into VDW is to buy a new one. Casio continues to manufacture numerous models unchanged since the 1980’s including the calculator watch CA53W, the ubiquitous F91W, the ‘Casino Royale’ and others. With a new watch you will not have to worry about getting it wet or doing repairs.

Buy new old stock (NOS):

Get the experience of owning a new watch from the 1970’s. Millions of digital watches were manufactured and some of these were never sold. These watches were shelved, never to be uncovered again until the advent of online auction sites. Today you can find many examples of NOS VDW watches.

Buy used:

There’s nothing like the character of a used watch. As strange as it may sound, watch collectors like to leave the scratches on the case and the gouges in the crystal of their vintage pieces because it tells a story. In other words, the wear on your watch is akin to the wear on a good pair of jeans. So do not worry about the scratches and scuffs. A fully operational watch with wear is a desirable look these days.

The Future of VDW

The value of things vintage watch has skyrocketed in recent years.  I cannot even buy late 40’s Bulova movements without paying about 4x what I had 7 or 8 years ago. Similarly, digital watches are on the verge of mass-interest by the greater watch community. According to Tibi:

These gems are in finite numbers, they don’t make them anymore at least not the way they used to. Mechanical watches are still being produced today in many forms and prices but digital watches not so much…

Don’t Forget to Wear Your Vintage Digital Watches

For the first time as hackers and electrical engineers we can be at the forefront of fashion. Wearing a VDW is an achievement because you’re able to make it run again. It’s a statement as well as a conversation piece because nobody wears 1970’s and 80’s digital watches anymore. For these reasons and more let’s not forget to wear our digital watches.

75 thoughts on “Collecting, Repairing, and Wearing Vintage Digital Watches

  1. Huh. I remember having a calculator watch in the late 1980s and thinking that it was a relatively new thing that wouldn’t have been possible 10 years previous. i guess I was mistaken then.

    1. in 1980, a guy at my school had the Pulsar calculator watch, he lost the stylus for it and tossed the watch in the trash. (a gift from his step-father, his step-father was rather wealthy)

    2. I also had one until I jumped into the pool with it. One single time I forgot to take it off was enough :-( The 3V of a CR2016 do some damage quite fast in this low power electronics. Although I opened and dried it about 15min later the display only flashed (still with 1Hz) quite erratically.

      1. I had a TI, once they dropped to a “reasonable” price, which was probaby $50, 1976 or 77. I think the strap broke, I had it in my pocket for some reason. I was mowing the lawn, and there’s a noise which means nothing until later when I realize the watch isn’t in my pocket. It fell out, and went through the lawn mower. It was the plastic cased TI watch.

        I was lucky, by then priced had dropped, so I could replace it with a metal cased TI watch, I think it was a clearance price.

        It was a shirt period of time, no more than four years. In 1980 I gladly bought a Casio LCD watch for less, giving up the button pressing, and the battery replacement. I eventually left it in my pants when washing them. After that I always went for water resistant/proof watches, and always cheaper.

        The Casio Waveceptor I got about 2006 still runs fine off the first battery, and it was only $20.
        It of course syncs up with WWVB every night a much more complicated watchbthan that first TI.

        Michael

  2. Well, that could be a maga-ified path to follow: restore that technology that was used to build those watches, rebuild factories that were using handworkers that were polishing the cases and soldering the electronics of those watches, as well as:
    buy back vintage cars from Cuba, keep the oil lobby pumping the ground and power internal combustion engines, restore the magnificent -vintage- glory of the -past- land of freedom:
    A great museum for tourists mixing the gold rush, vintage coca-cola ads, ugly 70s haircuts, some hippie communes, roller-costers, all the terrible movie productions that invaded the world in the past 50 years, icons of nutrition like burgers, (…) and of course: retrotechtacular vintage digital watches (and bagderlife).

    While the rest of the world, envious, will ride desperately silent automatic e-cars, eating tasteless and too healthy insect-based soylent.

    Mass tourists would flow in and spend their crypto-yuans on vacation at the giant, nostalgic, route 66, a.w.o.l. amusement park. How fun that will be !!!

  3. A very pleasant read Gregory, the hobby is indeed growing and there are many hidden “garage tinkerers” with this passion that need to be aware there is a community, and this article adds to the momentum. The references to the major variations are spot on and will be a good start if you want to get into collecting (LED, LCD, Calcs, Computer-watches, etc) and also a good incentive if you want to walk the path of the tinkerer or the NOS collector.

    Here are some groups that are a must if anyone want’s to join the community:
    https://www.facebook.com/groups/1672356263010011/?ref=bookmarks
    https://www.facebook.com/groups/Retro.Vintage.Watches.Restorations/?ref=bookmarks

    PS. Love your NSC watch, make sure you KEEP the box :) and now I am tempted by some of the watches in the images from the article.

    1. Oh yes i’ve kept the box for the National Semiconductor. I paid $14 for it NOS, but the module was completely destroyed by an old battery left behind in the watch. I was able to rehabilitate a module for it. I’ve found that mine lasts about 3 months on a battery.

    1. Excellent idea! I think the Accutron deserves its own article, early 60’s American time keeping at its best; a watch that ticks 340 times per second with a perfectly smooth sweeping second hand and burns through batteries like a V8 engine burns oil. I have two in my collection and i’ve recently purchased a repair manual for the 218 movement. I will attempt a service on my 218 and if successful i’ll write it up for HAD.

      1. Hello again GLC! Great work from you as usual! Corrections, please! The original Accutrons do NOT “tick!” The Tuning Fork in the Accutron Caliber 214 series oscillates at 360 x/second. When they are Phased (“tuned”) correctly at the Index and they are clean and oiled they run 12-18 months on a modern Silver Oxide 1.55v battery. They were also guaranteed, for the first year, to run within 2 seconds/day. I usually get them to run within fractions of a second… so that over 6 months they are often “off” by only 1-3 minutes. All this after 4-6 decades! Cheers! Robert

  4. I have one of these vintage “smart” watches in storage somewhere. I can’t remember what it can do but I do remember programming it by holding it in front of a flashing computer monitor. Looks like its time to dig it out again.

  5. Missing here is a mention of the HP-01, HP’s foray into the digital watch world. Came out in 1977, iirc, was, of course, very expensive, and the nail in the coffin? Wan’t RPN. Ah well. Nice to see that people are restoring these things.

    1. Yes, many famous/high profile watches would have been nice in the article but that would have made it too long to be readable. But if knowledgeable people mention it in the comments will spark the interest of others, so Yeah, Great mention!

  6. I have yet to see an Ana-Digi more beautiful than my Casio ABX-20. Though it does not qualify as VDW as defined in this article because I bought it in the early 90’s.

    No, I’m not running it in the mode where it displays the world map.

  7. i remember when the watch was a thing in my childhood, there was a store near to our house where i can buy various watches in a non working condition for a very cheap price, the trick was, mostly, that you needed to clean the lcd and the pcb contacts and voila you had a working watch :) i had so many so i went to school with a different watch every day :)

    1. Yes exactly, most of the time you simply need to clean the zebra strip connecting the LCD to the PCB as well as the button and battery contacts then they’ll work again like new. Also you might want to remove and lubricate the pushers. I like to replace the gaskets as well. Some folks will fix a broken trace with silver paint, i haven’t needed to do that yet. Tibi has gone so far as to fix bond wires going to chips within the module.

      1. Yep, but that was one of the hardest fixes by far, especially because the watch wasn’t mine. Anyway the outcome was that it can be done with nerves of steel and patience. :)

      1. You’re too kind – I would hardly call it thin as it’s much thicker than the prop used in the movie (which was just a prop). I used custom low profile 11 segment SMD LEDs (you don’t see that too often these days) as well as a custom lipo. This was my hardware project so I never got to optimizing the thickness of the design. Thanks for the feedback!

  8. Bah! Real Vintage Watch Enthusiasts go for pre-WWII chronographs that you actually have to wind. ;)

    And get off my lawn! (So I can figure out how to get all the phone numbers out of my Casio VDW, which works when I put a battery in it…)

    Srsly, interesting, BISTR that the TI watch was very early in the history, basically as a marketing device for their LED displays.

    1. Very nice. I don’t think the tedious way of discovering the LCD pinout with sticky tape is really necessary. It’s like in genetic research, where you knock out something to see what it does. But in that case you could just use a transformer with a few volts AC, connect one end to ground and touch the other pole to various segments. Capacitance to the environment takes care of the ground return path.

  9. Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the western spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun. Orbiting this at a distance of roughly ninety-two million miles is an utterly insignificant little blue green planet whose ape-descended life forms are so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea.”

    ― Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

  10. Two of the most sought after calculator watches are the touchscreen models made by Casio. One used a virtual keypad. The other one required the user to draw numbers and operators on its face. Unfortunately the digitizers are fairly easy to kill with scratches.

    Some years ago I bought one of the keypad type for 50 cents at a thrift store. Worked perfectly with a new battery. Sold it for $50 on eBay.

  11. Well, this post reminded me of a LED watch I had sitting out in the garage, I’m not the original owner, but it has been in my possession for 30+ years.
    It is gold tone with a “twist o’ flex” type of band, stamped on the back cover: “Mercury Time NY, USA”
    I just put a couple of LR44’s in it.
    Nothing… (sigh!)

  12. Not all Ana-Digi watches had the two parts synchronized– I have (had) an innovative time corp watch from the early 90’s that essentially shoehorned two independent machines into one watch (of course, I think ESD killed it). Looks (kinda) expensive, actually cheap. Probably good to strip for the case for a future project though. Although, at least I know now I’m not crazy to try to resurrect a National Semiconductor watch from the 80s whose tritium is decayed and the inside is somewhat corroded.

      1. When T decays, it emits electrons of 16,8keV, the result is 3He. So you have to use a higher voltage to recharge it. As you don’t have electrodes, you must expose it to a powerful electron beam of sufficient voltage. Perhaps you can get a historic color TV (the one with the big and heavy picture tube) which happens to produce an electron beam of 25keV. But probably you have to condense or even freeze the helium to expose it effectively to the beam, what is quite difficult. And somehow you have to get it into the tube and prevent the vacuum from escaping during this procedure. But you only want to neutralize one of the two protons of the 3He, other wise you get pure neutronium, and I am not sure how to prevent this. Not to induce a neutron-star on earth, this could have bad consequences, as this stuff is so incredibly dense.
        Of course you could always try to get new tritium, according to Wikipedia it is produced naturally from nitrogen exposed to high energy cosmic radiation, so you could collect it in the upper atmosphere

  13. Ha! What a hoot to read the title and then open the page to see a Nat Semi watch.
    I worked at Novus (which was Nat Semi’s original name for their consumer products division) in the earliest days of their foray into calculators and watches. I was the company Product Specialist, and when we came out with the digital watches, I flew all around the country, hitting a city a day for a week or two, teaching jewelers and watchmakers about digital watches and showing them how they could repair our watches. Another of my jobs was to create repair “manuals” for all our products. I still have, somewhere, a few of those “manuals”, not to mention a couple of the prototype watches and repair tools which I managed to hang on to. But before Novus, I was also Product Specialist at Unicom, one of the earliest calculator manufacturers. I still have the prototype for our first LED calculator – introduced sometime around 1972 or so.

    1. Would be great to see a youtube video of you walking us through some of these items. Scans of the manuals are invaluable today, i for one was unable to find any documentation whatsoever on my National Semiconductor watches even though there is a great deal of interest in them today.

  14. “Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the western spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun. Orbiting this at a distance of roughly ninety-two million miles is an utterly insignificant little blue green planet whose ape-descended life forms are so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea.”
    ― Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

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