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How Dick Tracy Invented the Smartwatch

The detective’s two-way wrist radio paved the way for the Apple Watch and other wearables

(Sunset Boulevard/Corbis)
smithsonian.com

When Apple unveils details about its smartwatch at a showcase today, it’s anticipated that the company will immediately nab over 50 percent of the global market in wrist-worn mobile devices. But the trend of wearing your communication device on your wrist isn’t exactly new—it has its origins in Dick Tracy’s iconic wrist radio.

If you’re not up to date on your fictitious detective history, here’s a little refresher: Dick Tracy made his debut in 1931 in a comic strip that still runs today. He’s a tough-talking crime fighter who often uses technology to nab the bad guys. And in 1946, he started using a state-of-the-art two-way wrist radio while fighting crime.

Less than a year after the comic strip showed Dick nabbing criminals with a flick of the wrist, the term “Dick Tracy watch” was being used to market small portable radios, Harry McCracken reports for Time. And the idea of using a watch to communicate soon became what McCracken calls “the most indestructible meme in tech journalism”—a cultural touchstone that has outlasted cheesy movies, the radio revolution and even the debut of real smartwatches.

How did the detective get his hands on such an iconic piece of tech, anyway? From a billionaire industrialist, of course. The Dick Tracy Museum recounts how Dick got his hands on the “amazingly useful invention” here.

Over the years, Dick Tracy’s watch has done more than just serve as shorthand for portable two-way communication. It’s inspired the real thing, joining a long tradition of imaginary devices that have now become real. But despite predictions that the Apple Watch will cause smartwatches to become ubiquitous, don’t expect Dick Tracy to trade in his radio watch for an Apple model any time soon. He still prefers his wrist radio—and uses it in the comic strip to this day.

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