The Digital Watch Revolution In The Soviet Union



A Relaxed Meeting

It is relatively well known that when Mr. Leonid Brezhnev served as Secretary General of the Communist Party of the USSR, he instigated policies seeking to reduce tensions with foreign powers, in particular towards the USA. As a result of this initiative, the SALT (Strategic Arms Limitation Treaties) were signed.

President Nixon visited Moscow in 1972, and Brezhnev returned the courtesy when he travelled to the United States the following year. In 1974, there was a further meeting in Moscow between the Secretary of State of the United States, Henry Kissinger, and his Soviet counterpart, and of course with Mr. Brezhnev.

There is an anecdote, which seems to be true because it is referenced in many articles and comments, that during this last visit, Brezhnev showed an interest in the wrist watch that Kissinger wore, which was the Pulsar P2, which had gone into production in 1970 and was the first digital wrist watch with an LED display. It is not difficult to imagine Kissinger wearing a Pulsar on his wrist, since it was a very exclusive watch, expensive of course, and technologically advanced for the time. Kissinger kindly showed Brezhnev his watch, at which point Brezhnev explained that the USSR had already developed this technology, but they were not yet in a position to produce it on a large scale.

The next day, Brezhnev gave Kissinger a digital watch model, with the B6-02 LCD module. The US Secretary praised the Elektronika watch, while examining it closely. He was allegedly told it would be a magnificent model for export. However, Kissinger’s concern was evident because he was unaware that the Soviet Union had CMOS technology, and this had serious implications. This meeting, so to speak, was the presentation of the Soviet Union in the field of digital watchmaking.

The Beginning Of Electronic Digital Watches

The electronic digital watch appeared very quickly, and was a global phenomenon.

Its invention is credited to a Bulgarian scientist, based in the USA, Peter Petroff.

Then, in quick succession, the Hamilton Pulsar consortium (with the 1972 Pulsar Led) and SEIKO in Japan (with the 1973 06LC), revolutionised the digital watch industry. SEIKO, in particular, introduced an LCD screen, which solved the problem of huge battery consumption encountered by earlier LED watches.

These digital watches became very popular, although in their early stages they were very expensive. The first editions of the Pulsar were presented in gold cases, and were sold by Tiffany & Co.. There were many personalities of the time (politicians, actors, etc. ) who soon began using and popularising these new digital watches, such as the case of Kissinger described above, or Roger Moore in the movie Bond movie Live and let die.

It was a time of huge and rapid innovation. By way of example, the entrepreneur Roger W. Riehl soon after created a true technological wonder, the Synchronar, the first solar-powered watch.

In Japan, the public’s enthusiasm for digital watches was arguably even stronger. Thus, they soon became mass-produced, and affordable. Together with models from Texas Instruments, Casio, etc., within a decade of launch, the production of digital watches dominated the global market. Traditional mechanical watch making, particularly in Switzerland, fell into what is known as the quartz crisis. The Swiss industry was already against the ropes after the emergence, and the great success, of SEIKO’s analogue Astron quartz, so it had little choice but to embrace this digital revolution. Mainstream brands, such as Omega, Longines, etc., soon launched novel products to the market, although by the late 1970s many of the Swiss watch makers went out of business, as the main Japanese producers dominated the market.

Below we show some examples of Swiss digital watches.

Meanwhile, In the Soviet Union

Strange as it may seem, the Soviet watch industry adaptation to the digital revolution was not as traumatic as might have been expected, even though the industry was very traditional and entirely focused on mechanical watch making. Aiding the change was the work from research institutes, spurred on by the USSR Ministry of the Electronic Industry, which had been working on complementary metal-oxide-semiconductor (CMOS) transistor technology since the mid-1950s, as a basis for the Soviet Space Programme and the arms race (this declassified CIA document explores this development).

A 1974 article in radio magazine echoes the novelty of digital watches, and includes a highly clarifying paragraph:

“В электронных часах все необычно. Если вы их приложите к уху, то не услышите привычного «тикания», в них нет движущихся частей, хотя каждую секунду, минуту, каждый час на индикаторе бесшумно сменяются соответствующие цифры. Заводить их нужно один раз в год. Правильнее было бы сказать менять батарейку и включать счетчики минут н часов. Делается это по сигналу точного времени нажатием кнопок. За месяц такие часы отстают или уходят вперед не более чем на пять секунд.”

which translated into English is:

“In an electronic watch, everything is unusual. If you put them to your ear, you won’t hear the usual “ticking”, there are no moving parts in them, although every second, minute, and hour the corresponding numbers on the indicator change silently. You need to start them once a year. It would be more correct to say changing the battery and turning on the minute and hour counters. This is done via the use of an accurate time signal and pressing the buttons. A month later, the watch will be slow or fast by five seconds at most.”

The appearance of digital watches in Soviet civil society represented a pretty radical, and rapid change. From the same article above, we can infer that their mass introduction followed shortly after.

“В электронных часах синтезированы новейшие достижения микроэлектроники и полупроводниковой техники. Их можно по праву назвать шедевром современной технической мысли. Такие часы недавно появились на мировом рынке. Оригинальную конструкцию электронных часов разработали также специалисты Министерства электронной промышленности СССР. Сейчас осваивается их производство, а вскоре будет начат и массовый выпуск.”

which translated into English is:

“An electronic watch synthesises the latest achievements of microelectronics and semiconductor technology. They can rightfully be called a masterpiece of modern technical thought. Such watches have recently appeared on the world market. Original designs of electronic clocks were also developed by specialists of the USSR Ministry of the Electronic Industry. Now, their production is being mastered, and soon, mass production will begin.”

In another interesting article, Mr. V.G. Marants, who was involved in the development of digital watches both at the NII Chasprom and the Soviet Pulsar Institute, makes an interesting observation in relation to the novelty of the digital format in watches. Quoting from the original in Russian:

“Очевиден всегда возникающий вопрос: а зачем в обычной бытовой практике иметь на руке время с точностью до секунды? Действительно, в этом нет никакой необходимости, и обычные механические часы имеют «суточный уход» 20-40 сек. И это устраивает. Ответ лежит в другой плоскости. В течение какого времени набегает погрешность, которая перестает Вас устраивать? Крайне низкое потребление КМОП БИС делает возможным непрерывную работу наручных часов без смены батарейки до 2—3 лет. И тогда именно точность хода Ваших часов становится фактором, определяющим время автономной работы часов. То есть время, на которое Вы можете забыть о необходимости заводить часы, сверять их показания с сигналами точного времени, но быть уверенным, что они показывают время с приемлемой для Вас точностью.”

which translated into English is:

“The question that always arises is obvious: why would you require one second accuracy for ordinary activities? Indeed, this is not necessary, and ordinary mechanical watches have an accuracy of 20-40 seconds. And this is perfectly adequate. The answer lies in a different plane. When does the recurring error cease to be adequate? The extremely low consumption of CMOS BIS technology makes it possible to continuously use a watch without changing its battery for up to 2-3 years. And then, it is the accuracy of the movement of your watch that becomes the determining factor, not the battery life of the watch. That is, the period during which you can forget about the need to start the watch and check its reading against an exact time signal, yet be sure that it shows the time with a degree of accuracy that is acceptable to you.”

The author emphasises the obvious accuracy advantage of an electronic watch versus a mechanical watch, determined in terms of the the time of use and its battery life; that is, an electronic watch calibrated to have an accuracy of 0.5 seconds per day (like those incorporating the module B6-02) gave the same daily accuracy error of a mechanical but after a whole month of use, so the owner needn’t worry about re-setting his digital watch to the right time for weeks on end. In the article, Mr. Marants also cites other advantages. First, there is no longer a need for precise mechanics. Second, reading the time accurately is very easy.

The USSR had already built mechanical digital wrist watches, but their use was not widespread. The Zarya 2006 “jump hours” is a good example of this type of time piece. Relative to these, digital displays represented a major breakthrough, at least from a usability point of view.

The first prototypes of digital Soviet watches are shown in the image below.

The creation of the first prototypes of electronic modules for digital watches dates back to 1972/3. They were carried out by the Institute for Electronic Semiconductor Research, better known as “Pulsar”. Its website provides a useful chronology, citing that Pulsar was the first to start developing electronic watches. Various versions were developed, with liquid crystal and LED displays. These were produced at the Pulsar plant and subsequently transferred for development to Minsk.

Pulsar made different prototypes of digital watches with the two existing technologies at the time, LED and LCD displays. The chronology is especially interesting in light of the Elektronika B6-03 model, with an LED display, which was produced from 1976. This particular model will feature in a subsequent post. However, the prototype that moved on to mass production incorporated the electronic module B6-02, created specifically for an LCD display watch.

In the images below we can observe with great detail one of the modules, possibly the first B6-03, from September 1973.

While the image below shows a B6-02 module, from 1975.

If we make a virtual visit to the “музей электронных раритетов”, that is to say the “Virtual Museum of Electronic Oddities”, we can find the chips and schema developed by Pulsar for the module B6-02.

The creation of these prototypes became a state-sponsored task, in the words of Mr. Marants.

“Задача срочно разработать наручные электронные часы была поставлена перед институтом в начале 1973 года. И сразу была взята, как теперь принято говорить, «под личный контроль» первым заместителем министра электронной промышленности В.Г. Колесниковым. Вся эта срочность и высокое внимание объяснялась двумя причинами. Отечественные механические часы среднего класса типа «Слава», «Полет» и др. отличались высоким качеством и низкой ценой, пользовались хорошим спросом в СССР и за рубежом и составляли заметную статью в нашем экспорте. Но с появлением первых электронных часов стали из этой ниши вытесняться. Поэтому вопрос решался на правительственном уровне.”

“The Institute was set he urgent task of developing an electronic wrist watch in early 1973. And immediately, as is now customary to say, “personal control” was taken by the First Deputy Minister of the Electronic Industry, V.G. Kolesnikov. All this urgency and high attention was due to two reasons. Mid-range domestic mechanical watches, such as those made by “Slava”, “Poljot”, etc., distinguished themselves by their high quality and low price. They were in good demand in the USSR and abroad, and represented prominent export items. However, with the advent of the first electronic watches, they began to be squeezed out of this niche. Therefore, the issue was resolved at the government level.”

One of the main problems encountered by the engineers was planning for mass production, a challenging task given that the Soviet watch industry was solely dedicated to the manufacture of mechanical watches.

“Поскольку работа была задана не как технологическая демонстрация, а как создание конкретного товара, надо было решать конкретные вопросы: выбрать схему генератора, выбрать тип индикатора, разработать конструкцию и дизайн, найти компромисс между всей системой параметров и свойств часов и их ценой. Это было ново и интересно для нас, так как гражданская продукция имеет ту особенность, что покупатель должен захотеть оплатить ее действительно из собственного кармана.”

“Since the task set was not a technological demonstration, but rather the creation of a specific product, it was necessary to solve specific issues: the generator circuit and indicator type had to be selected, a design had to be completed, and a compromise had to be found between the technical parameters and properties of the watch relative to its price. It was new and interesting for us, since products for civilian use have the peculiarity that buyers must want to really pay for them from their own pockets. ”

To be continued… In the next post, we shall show you where the LCD displays were build, will review the quartz oscillators used, and much more!

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