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Back to the Future With Apple’s Rumored Smart Watch


For the last couple of decades we’ve watched as our technology has caught up with the world of Star Trek much faster than Gene Roddenberry could ever have imagined back in the 1960s, when Kirk, Spock and the gang first rode into our living rooms, mostly in “non-living” or “dead” black and white, as not many of us had “living” color back then.

Well, here we are, nowhere even close to the 23rd century of the original Enterprise, and we already have our smart phones, which are an awfully lot like the gee-whiz communicators into which Kirk would bark “beam us outta here” whenever a bug-eyed monster got too close for comfort. Indeed, we even have satellite phones, which could presumably communicate with the crew of the Enterprise if they were in orbit around our third rock from the sun. Though we don’t yet have replicators, holodecks or transporters, we can only imagine its only a matter of time before we can pick them up at Best Buy too.


So we’re used to figuring out the direction in which technology is going from watching Star Trek, or maybe even the first three of the Star Wars movies. Well, now there’s a new pointer to the future–and a damned unlikely one at that.

Who knew that one day we’d be looking back to a film noirish, crime and punishment newspaper comic strip called Dick Tracy from the 1930s through the 1980s to define and illustrate our future for us, but that’s precisely what’s happening now that the smart money is betting that Apple is soon to unveil some sort of smart wristwatch. We’ll assume it’ll be Internet connected and that you’ll be able to communicate using the thing. We’ll also assume it’s going to be the best thing since the two-way wrist radio.

The latter is the Dick Tracy tie-in Apple should make if they really want to get some fast traction and make some noise with this thing they have planned. Before coming out with their smart watch, complete with a retina display, surround sound and all the other stuff they’re going to throw at us, they should release an Internet connected audio only device–something that can talk and listen but can’t play “show and tell.” If they do, I promise you, us old farts will really sit-up and take notice–because we’ll know that Apple has finally controlled magnetism and is truly set to control and master the universe!

For those of you who are under forty or so, let me explain.

The character Dick Tracy, the Sunday comics staple who was the biggest and baddest detective in an unnamed Midwest city, loved technology so much that in January of 1946 he began sporting a two-way wrist radio. That was about as cool and high tech as it got back then and, as you might imagine, it really gave him an advantage over the bad guys. As the Adam West version of Batman would say years later, “Wowie zowie! Bam! Bang!”

I remember in the nineteen fifties (I wasn’t born yet in the forties, so I didn’t read the funnies then) how impressed I was with this two-way wrist radio. But because my dad was an electronic engineer, I knew a few things that led me to have some valid technical questions, even when I was barely old enough to read. For example, I wondered how they ever managed to make vacuum tubes small enough to get into something that was only a little larger than a standard wristwatch.

Another thing I wondered about was the power source. Tubes, you see, ate up tons of electricity (we measured power usage in tons in those days). The portable radios of the day were about the size of a suitcase, with most of the room being taken up by batteries.

But I digress…

The Dick Tracy strip was created by Chester Gould, and in his Chicago…er, unnamed Midwest city…of the 1950s, when I started reading, there was no Internet–surprising for such a supposed visionary, eh? Not only that, the two-way wrist radio was unable to even connect with the Bell System to make phone calls, perhaps because of Ma Bell’s rule that only equipment manufactured by Western Electric could be used on their system, but maybe because there was no real visionary pointing the way.

Dick Tracy, you see, relied on a mere cartoon character, an inventor with a massive weight problem called Diet Smith, as his chief visionary officer. If Gould had only created a Steve Jobs or, better yet, a Linus Torvalds, by 1964 we might have all been watching the Beatles on Ed Sullivan on Hulu, using tiny vacuum tube devices strapped to our wrists.

But hey, don’t get me wrong, this Diet Smith guy wasn’t incompetent by any stretch of the imagination. By 1964, he’d already made the two-way wrist radio obsolete when when he figured out a way to put a cathode ray tube into a tiny wrist device, thereby creating the two-way wrist TV. It still couldn’t connect with the Bell System, but I’ll betcha it could be used to tune-in Huntley-Brinkley for the evening news.

The two-way wrist TV wasn’t Diet Smith’s only great invention. Most people, for example, think that the first humans didn’t land on the moon until 1969. However, a well kept historical secret, known only to people who read the newspaper funny pages, is that Dick Tracy’s police department actually went to the moon in the Magnetic Space Coupe in the early 1960s. In those days there was a race of people living there, including a gal named Moon Maid who married Dick Tracy’s son Junior.

Oh, I almost forgot–the technology behind the space coupe was so powerful that whenever it was shown in a panel of the strip, it was usually accompanied by the words, “The nation that controls magnetism will control the universe.” Somebody needs to let Obama know about that; it’s information that might prove useful.

Which leaves me with one last question. If Apple indeed brings some kind of smart wristwatch to market, will the existence of the two-way wrist TV qualify as prior art when the inevitable patent wars ensue?

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Christine Hall has been a journalist since 1971. In 2001, she began writing a weekly consumer computer column and started covering Linux and FOSS in 2002 after making the switch to GNU/Linux.

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