The Digital Revolution In The Soviet Union. Part 2.

@therussianwatchcorner

The LED Display Beginnings

As we learnt in the first part, early Soviet prototypes and experimental digital watch modules were based on LED displays. However, their high consumption and the technical difficulty of mass producing them led to the development of LCD displays. This is something that had already been predicted in a 1974 article published by the Soviet Journal Radio”.

“Индикаторы на светодиодах, в отличие от описанных, действуют как излучатели света. Светодиоды представляют собой как бы микроскопические кристаллические лампочки, испускающие свет на определенной длине волны. В настоящее время имеются светодиоды красного и зеленого свечения. Достоинство их в весьма большом сроке службы, намного большем, чем жидких кристаллов. Недостаток — в слишком большой по сравнению с жидкими кристаллами потребляемой мощности. Поэтому индикацию в подобных конструкциях делают эпизодической, то есть к ней прибегают лишь тогда, когда необходимо узнать время. Каким индикаторам в будущем будет отдано предпочтение, сказать трудно. Некоторые специалисты в своих прогнозах склоняются в сторону жидкокристаллических, как более дешевых и простых в производстве.”

which translated into English is:

“LED displays, in contrast to those described, act as light emitters. LEDs are like microscopic crystalline bulbs that emit light at a specific wavelength. Currently, there are red and green LEDs. Their advantage in a very long service life, much longer than for liquid crystals. Their disadvantage is that the power consumption is very large compared to liquid crystals. Therefore, the indication in such LED models is designed to be sporadic, that is, they only display the time when it is necessary to do so. It is difficult to say which type of indicator will be preferred in the future. Among predictions from experts, many are inclined towards liquid crystal, as they are cheaper and easier to manufacture.”

In the images below we can see one of the first “limited-watches” with an LED indicator display. This was on sale as early as 1975. It is important to distinguish between prototypes and limited series watches, which were made in very small production runs but were available on the market. This particular unit belongs to the Leningrad Museum Collection.

Although priority was given to the development of liquid crystal displays, LED display watches incorporating the B6-03 module were marketed between 1976 and pretty much the fall of the Soviet Union.

This takes us back to the anecdote discussed at the very beginning of the series, when Leonid Brezhnev alerted Henry Kissinger that the Soviets already had LED digital watch technology, but that they had not yet developed a programme to mass produce it. This situation was corroborated in the article by Mr. Marants:

“Первые КМОП БИС уже у нас появились, и ждать мы не могли. Пришлось пойти на семисегментный индикатор на светодиодах. Они были разработаны в НИИ «Сапфир» и имели рекордное для того времени соотношение «яркость-потребление». Часы с таким индикатором имели оригинальный и очень элегантный вид, в помещении обеспечивали достаточную контрастность показаний, но на открытом воздухе в яркий, солнечный день прочесть показания было затруднительно…Но главным недостатком было высокое потребление светодиодов, что не позволяло осуществлять непрерывную индикацию. Пришлось ввести специальную кнопку для вызова показаний.”

which translated into English is:

“The first CMOS LSI had already appeared, and we could not wait (to use them). A seven-segment LED indicator was developed at the Sapphire Research Institute and had a record brightness-consumption ratio for that time. A watch with such an indicator had an original and very elegant look, it provided sufficient contrast indoors, but in the open air on a bright sunny day, it was difficult to read… But the main drawback was the high consumption of the LEDs, which did not allow continuous display. You had to press a special button to display the time reading.”

The Triumph Of The LCD Display

Soon, a variety of research institutes, such as NII Platan”, “Fryazino”, “Sapphire” and “Reflector”, developed LCD screens which were later mass produced at the “Integral” factory.

Below we can see some of their respective logos, which appear on the back of the LCD screens.

The LCD screen offered lower consumption and, most importantly, the possibility of displaying time continuously. In the words of Ms. Natalya Grigorieva:

“Интересно, что в самом словосочетании «жидкий кристалл» кроется, на первый взгляд, определенный парадокс. Казалось бы, два несовместимых понятия. Но на самом деле этот удивительный оптический материал действительно является органической жидкостью, хотя и обладает молекулярной структурой кристалла. Если к прозрачным электродам, между которыми находится жидкое кристаллическое вещество, приложить даже очень небольшое напряжение, его молекулы изменят свою ориентацию так, что начнут рассеивать падающий на них свет. Кристалл становится непрозрачным и видимым.”

which translated into English is:

“Interestingly, within the very phrase «liquid crystal», at first glance, there is a certain paradox. It would seem to blend two incompatible concepts. But in fact, this amazing optical material is indeed an organic liquid, although it has the molecular structure of a crystal. Even a very small voltage applied to the transparent electrodes between which there is a liquid crystalline substance, will cause its molecules to change their orientation so that any light on them begins to scatter. The crystal becomes opaque and visible.”

Ms. Grigorieva adds:

“На этом свойстве жидких кристаллов и основан принцип действия индикатора электронных часов. В нем капля такого кристалла, заключенная между прозрачными стеклянными пластинами, с помощью напыленных на ее внутренние стороны прозрачных электродов разбивается на сегменты, различные комбинации которых составляют ту или иную цифру. В результате подачи электрических импульсов на соответствующие электроды на индикаторе высвечиваются хорошо различимые цифры. Причем, чем ярче освещенность окружающей среды, тем интенсивней светятся цифры на индикаторе. Особо ценным свойством жидкокристаллических индикаторов является чрезвычайно малая потребляемая мощность — около 0.01 мкВт. Одной миниатюрной батарейки достаточно для работы в течение года. Правда, здесь весьма остро стоит проблема старения кристалла, который, видимо, по истечении нескольких лет службы придется заменять.”

which translated into English is:

“This property of liquid crystals is behind the principle of operation of the electronic watch indicator. In it, a drop of such a crystal, enclosed between transparent glass plates, is divided into segments using various transparent electrodes deposited on its inner sides, various combinations of which make up the digits. As a result of the supply of electrical pulses to the corresponding electrodes, clearly visible numbers are displayed on the indicator. Moreover, the brighter the ambient light, the more intense the numbers on the indicator appear. A particularly valuable property of liquid crystal indicators is their extremely low power consumption of about 0.01 μW. A miniature battery is enough to power it throughout the year. True, the problem of crystal ageing is very acute here, as, apparently, after several years of service, it will have to be replaced.”

In the image below, we can see the schema of the B6-02 module, with the functional elements of the LCD display.

Quartz Oscillator Production

The quartz oscillator is the beating heart of an electronic watch. The impulses from the oscillator, monitored through the CMOS transistors, deliver the necessary precision to achieve almost exact time keeping, with the smallest of errors.

Quartz oscillators were developed in the plants of the “Phonon” Institute in Moscow and “Morion” in Leningrad. They oscillated at 32768 Hz. Mr. Marants also refers to thermo-compensated quartz oscillators, although I have not come across any evidence on this in the sources that I have had access to, possibly because they were not developed for the domestic watches.

From the cited article:

“С миниатюрным «кварцем» для часов проблем не было. Кварц на частоту 32768 Гц (215) был разработан, в кратчайшие сроки освоен и выпускался в необходимых количествах предприятием «Фотон». Кроме того, были разработаны термостатированные кварцы, которые в специальных часах-хронометрах обеспечивали значительно более высокую точность хода.”

which translated into English is:

“There was no problem developing miniature quartz oscillators for watches. Quartz with a frequency of 32768 Hz (215) was developed, its production quickly mastered, and produced in the required quantities by the Photon enterprise. In addition, thermo-compensated quartz was also developed, which provided significantly higher accuracy for special chronometer watches.”

In the image below we show the logos of “Phonon” and “Morion”, respectively.

In relation to quartz, in general, there is an interesting quote from the same Radio Journal article (No. 4, from 1974):

“Специалисты в шутку говорят, что, если бы кварц не был так широко распространен в природе, он бы ценился на «вес бриллианта» — столь дорога для радиоэлектроники способность кварца генерировать колебания высокой стабильности.”

which translated into English is:

“Experts jokingly say that if quartz had not been so widespread in nature, it would have been valued by «weight, as a diamond» given that the ability of quartz to generate highly stable oscillations is so valuable for radio electronics.”

Below we include an interesting video about quartz production in the Soviet Union, found in an excellent web page carrying wonderful old Soviet footage.

The Mass Production Of Digital Watches

It is relatively well known that the mass production of the first digital watches made in the Soviet Union was assigned to the Integral plant, located in Minsk, of which “Elektronika” and “Kamerton” were to become recognised brand names,

However, there is fairly reliable evidence, provided by Mr. Andrei Babanin, indicating that production of early variants actually began at the ZIM plant. This spanned a brief period, around the end of 1974 and beginning of 1975, after which, manufacturing was indeed shifted to Minsk.

In the following image we can see some of the first units made. If you look closely at the display digits, it is evident the first two on the left have straighter numerals, while those on the watch furthest to the right are more rounded, and slanted somewhat rightwards. This is because the former two used the first chips, from 1974, whereas the latter used a new microchip, made from 1976 onward, with what are the characteristic “Elektronika” numerals on display.

ZIM’s Masleninnkov factory manufactured and distributed the first digital watches, on a small scale, before all the production moved to Minsk. Only the very privileged few were able to enjoy these, as they were very expensive for the bulk of the population. The image below is from a period brochure from the ZIM factory.

While it seems unquestionable that the ZIM factory was involved early on, Integral began manufacturing and assembling digital watches pretty much simultaneously, and established the brand “Elektronika.” Integral worked with different production plants and research teams, as indicated in the the video below.

Very soon, production capacity was boosted, and by 1978 the first cumulative million units had been manufactured. This interesting article describes the early days of production, the spectacular progress of mass production, and the widespread acceptance of digital watches by society.

“— Производительность завода была шесть миллионов часов в год. Была пора, когда мы за год произвели десять миллионов часов, — вспоминает Александр Лазаревич.”

“Электронные часы должны были стать массовым продуктом. Первые электронные наручные часы, произведенные в Минске, — «Твист 2Б», «Поле 4» — стоили 140 рублей. После цены на наручную «Электронику» постепенно снижались: в конце 70-х часы можно было купить за 78 рублей, в конце 80-х — за 50 рублей. «Все с удовольствием покупали», — вспоминает Александр Лазаревич.”

which translated into English is:

“— The plant’s production capacity was six million watches a year. There was a time when we produced ten million watches in a year, — recalls Alexander Lazarevich.”

“Electronic watches were to become a mass-produced product. The first electronic wrist watches produced in Minsk — the «Twist 2B» and «Field 4» — had a cost of 140 roubles. After, the price of Elektronika wrist watches gradually decreased: by the late 70s, the watches could be purchased for 78 roubles, by the late 80s, for 50 roubles. «Everyone bought them with pleasure», — recalls Alexander Lazarevich.”

They were also exported to Western countries under the “Sekonda” brand, with the United Kingdom one of the main consumers, as we can see in this entertaining video ad, from 1977.

Elektronika watches were also produced for export to the Latin American markets, to Cuba and beyond, with Spanish characters on the watch faces, such as the one we show below.

During the manufacturing process, the watches underwent strict quality controls, as indicated by A. Lazarevich, who led the testing department.

“Часы проходили 38 видов испытаний. Среди них были испытания на климатические воздействия (холод и тепло), воздействие влаги, соляного тумана, искусственного пота, солнечной радиации, многократных ударов и синусоидальной вибрации. Проверяли и точность суточного хода при разных температурах.”

which translated into English is:

“The watch went through 38 kinds of tests. Among them were tests for climatic influences (cold and heat), exposure to moisture, sea mist, artificial sweat, solar radiation, repeated shocks, and sinusoidal vibration. We also checked the daily accuracy at different temperatures.”

At the end of the 70s, complications and additional functions began to be added to the modules, and over 50 different watch models were created in the second part of the 80s.

To be continued… In the next post, we shall present a selection of the most emblematic digital watch models that were manufactured in the USSR.

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  1. […] Digital watches were expensive at first and unattainable to ordinary people, but they gradually came down in price and started to compete with electrical watches. By the mid-1980s, Luch stopped producing the 3055 and thereby put a definite end to the short, but fascinating, era in the history of Soviet watch making. […]

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