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The Cold War technology that seduced Steve Wozniak,...
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The Cold War technology that seduced Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple

Friday, 15 January 2016
By Frank Rousseau
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5 min read

Danny Boyle’s “Steve Jobs” biopic, released end 2015, cast Michael Fassbender as the technology guru who died in 2011, Kate Winslet as his marketing chief, and Seth Rogen in the role of Steve Wozniak, the not so public figure who changed the face of the world as co-founder of Apple in 1976. This “other Steve” talks us through a rather unusual Watch.

Woz, as any IT historian will tell you, is the real brains behind Apple. The man without whom Steve Jobs would never have become the high priest of high tech and an icon of the twentieth century. On the day we met him, this unsung hero was wearing a rather peculiar watch which, unlike its owner, is crying out to get noticed!

What's that watch?

It’s a Nixie watch, so-called because of the two 140-volt Nixie tubes, invented 45 years ago. I’ve been wearing it for the past ten years. It’s the same technology that was used during the Cold War to make numeric displays for the first digital voltmeters, frequency counters, etc. The glass tubes are filled with gas at low pressure. They also contain a wire-mesh anode and cathodes shaped like numerals. This technology was also popular with the military as well as with research units, especially when developing first-generation calculators such as the Sumlock-Comptometer, that we weren’t yet calling a calculator!

Look, no hands!

What I like about this watch is its simplicity. As you can see, there are no visible pushers. How does it work? Child’s play! Just tilt your wrist and it displays first the hours, then the minutes as large, glowing numerals. Despite the disadvantage that the display can’t be left on permanently, otherwise the tubes would empty too quickly, telling the time with a Nixie watch requires no mental effort. Reading the time from a watch with hands isn’t always easy, especially at night. With the Nixie watch, all you need do is tilt your wrist.

My Nixie is simplicity in all its splendour.
Steve Wozniak
The Apple Watch before Apple?

It may look like a gadget, but let’s not forget that a watch such as this can often spark ideas for new products. One thing I’ve learned in life is never to make fun of the Gyro Gearlooses out there. The world is full of people who are putting together the most amazing things in their garages. They’re doing it out of passion, for themselves rather than for financial gain. Until the day the object in question starts attracting interest! Another characteristic of my Nixie is that it’s watertight. As my wife likes to say, I can wear it in the bath. I usually wear it for a week, then go back to a slimmer, more stylish watch, something more conventional. Having said that, of any watch I’ve ever owned, this is the one for me. Why? Because I don’t need to make an effort to tell the time. So it’s really an anti-stress watch. On my right wrist I wear an Apple Watch, which I love. Especially for listening to music. But my Nixie is simplicity in all its splendour. No applications. No updates. Nothing but the essential, the primary function of a watch which is to give the time, and only the time.

A giant watch on a plane? All those flashing numbers? Who wouldn't be nervous!
Steve Wozniak
The ultimate ice-breaker

I also like my Nixie because it’s a great conversation starter. People are curious to know what I’m wearing on my wrist. They’re intrigued, especially when I get on a plane and have to change time zone. This means unscrewing the crystal and the bezel so I can operate the buttons that set the numerals. Most of the time, the person sitting next to me isn’t too reassured. They wonder what I’m playing at. A giant watch on a plane? All those flashing numbers? Who wouldn’t be nervous! (laughs)

Computers, smartphones, connected watches all need constant updates. It really bugs me!
Steve Wozniak
The problem with updates…

Computers, smartphones, connected watches, they all need constant updates. Let me tell you, it bugs me too! I don’t have broadband where I live in Silicon Valley, so you can imagine it’s a real pain whenever I have to update one of my iPhones. With the lousy connexion I have, it can take up to 24 hours. Worst of all is when an update pops up when you’re on the road. You’re driving along using the sat nav on your phone when suddenly it tells you an update is ready to install. Here’s something funny: I was travelling in Guatemala and Columbia recently, and I can tell you that the Internet is faster there than at my home in Silicon Valley! The most annoying thing about these updates is that two days later, you have to start all over again!

Find out more about the Nixie watch at:
http://www.cathodecorner.com/nixiewatch/order.html

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