Liquid crystal display (LCD) technology uses light-modulating crystals and polarizers to create a flat-panel display. It was pioneered by Texas Instruments along with Ebauches SA in the early 1970s as an alternative to power-hungry LED and was brought to market by Longines, Omega, and later Cristalonic.
Dynamic Scattering LCD
The first LCD time display debuted on April 13, 1971. The SSIH showed the Tissot Astrolon watch in Le Locle as well as the world's first look at a liquid crystal display from Omega. The Omega Opto-Scope was a portable digital chronograph with an LCD 7-segment display showing 6 digits plus decimals. The new LCD technology promised dramatic power savings over LED, with continual display of the time possible for the first time on a flat panel.
By 1972, work was progressing on LCD watch displays, with four separate projects on display at the Basel Fair on March 6, three of which used a display produced by Optel Corporation and the other a Texas Instruments display:
- *Optel/Ditronic SA* - A collaboration of Buttes Watch Co. (BWC), Delvina SA, Glycine Altus SA, Montres Milus, and Wyler SA, this watch featured a conventional rotating crown to set the time
- *Optel/SGT/Waltham* - A lower-cost design from the Swiss/American collaboration sold as the Waltham Walchron, also later sold by Jules Jurgensen as the Optcom
- *Optel/Tissot/Lanco/Hamilton* - Another less-expensive design that was never produced (Tissot Data Recorder, Lanco OTX, Hamilton Lazar)
- *TI/Ebauches SA/Longines* - A model showing seconds and date as well as hour and minutes, a first for a digital watch, shortly before the Synchronar
The Ebauches/Longines watch used a 32 KHz quartz crystal and was accurate to one minute per year. The significance of this watch was recognized when it was chosen for the Industrial Research Award in Chicago that year as one of the most advanced products of the year. It used Texas Instruments' "dynamic diffusion" LCD technology, which was similar to the technology of Optel. Ebauches also offered this to OEMs as the Swissonic 2000 or ESA 9260 movement, but the entire effort was cancelled when TI ceased production of LCD displays in 1973, unable to produce them in volume with satisfactory quality.
Another consortium of watchmakers introduced an LCD project with the Optel display at the Hanover Messe later that year. The Pallas quartz watch was produced by Adora, Eppo, Exquisit, Ormo, and Para. This watch was also announced in the Netherlands as the Lasita Quarz.
Still another dynamic LCD display was created by Intel subsidiary Microma. Produced by Hamlin, the Microma 360 was released for sale in October 1972 through multiple channels in the United States. The French Herma-Lov, Finhor, and Villers-le-Lac used a Microma display the following year, as did the Nepro Lady Quartz and the Timetron of Hong Kong. Citizen may have also used a Microma display in their Solid State Liquid Crystal Quartz watch of 1973.
It is not clear which of these was the first to market, but Optel was able to ship only a few thousand displays by the end of 1972, so many of these watches could claim the title. The Longines and Microma watches also reached the market that year. Although dynamic LCDs were easier to manufacture, they were more power-hungry, had poor readability in bright light, and tended to degrade with age. No company was able to produce a satisfactory display with this technology.
Field Effect LCD
The American company Gruen re-launched around the LCD watch by January 1973. Their Teletime used a field effect LCD, which provided better contrast than TI's dynamic diffusion LCD, especially in bright sunlight, and required much less power. Another benefit of field effect was a faster refresh rate, enabling a blinking dot to indicate the seconds. Gruen quickly rose to prominence, as they were able to sell their innovative solid-state watch for just $150 in the United States. These displays were produced by Ilixco of Cleveland, Ohio, which was a pioneer of the technology in association with Kent State University. Other Ilixco watches included the Pacemaker of Canada and the Cox Quarza.
A consortium of Ebauches SA and Faselec of Switzerland and Brown Boveri in Baden, Germany was also developing a field effect LCD, and this would be widely adopted, including by Longines, as the new Swissonic 2000. It was released for sale in 1973 as well.
Seiko, Citizen, and Orient developed a similar display in Japan in 1973. Seiko's Cal. 06 was the first "six-digit watch" with running seconds. Citizen's Cal. 9010A was the first to show time, day, and date in late 1973 or early 1974.
Optel also pivoted to produce field effect LCD displays, and many watches designed for their dynamic display were retrofitted or re-engineered for this new display. This included the Pallas and the Segtronic from American Express.
The market was flooded with new digital LCD and LED watches introduced in 1974. This included the first ladies quartz watch with an LCD panel, introduced by Nepro at the Basel Fair. Pricing had fallen as well, with Gruen selling digital LCD watches for $150. These became much more popular in the following years, displacing other inexpensive LED, digital analog, and Roskopf watches.
One unusual watch in 1974 was the Heuer Chronosplit, which used an LCD for timekeeping and a separate LED display for the chronograph function. Seiko would be the first to implement a chronograph in a single display in early 1975, followed closely by Mondaine's Digi-Stop. Seiko would add an alarm to their LCD chronograph for the first time in 1977.
In early 1976, Cristalonic entered mass production with a solar digital LCD watch. This German firm would set the template for this combination of technology, which would become available from many companies in the following years. Mikado added a second battery for a backlight later that year, and Citizen added an alarm to their Quartz Crystron Alarm LC.
Omega created the first digital analog hybrid watch in 1976. Their Chrono-Quartz used analog hands for the running time and an LCD display for the chronograph function. This would become common with time-only watches as well in the 1980s, and is one of the few digital watch concepts that continues in high-end watches.
Although most early LCD watches used seven-segment displays of digits, the idea of a display of hands was just as early. Suncrux in the United States marketed the La Croix watch in 1973, which displayed hour and minute hands formed by an LCD screen. The watch was invented by Shiguru Fukomoto of Japan and Suncrux was a joint Japanese/American company. The watch did not sell well. A similar patent was filed in the UK that year as well.
Texas Instruments launched their own pseudo-analog LCD watch at the Basel Fair in 1979, sparking interest in the concept. Seiko's Cal. G757 appeared in 1980, as did Casio's AA series and Orient's Sound Monitor (with both analog and digital on one LCD). ESA introduced multiple pseudo-analog LCD watches that year, including the Cal. 931.771 932.051 "Golden Quartz".
Another early LCD technology was electrochromism, which was developed by the CEH in Neuchâtel as well as American electronics companies. It allowed differently-colored background but didn't go further than the laboratory.