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Decimo Vatman 120D Calc
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
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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