The smart detective who inspired today’s smartwatch

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A child calls a buddy on his Dick Tracy Two-Way Wrist Radio in this 1960s commercial.
A child calls a buddy on his Dick Tracy Two-Way Wrist Radio in this 1960s commercial.

I have no plans to buy a smartwatch at the moment, but when I do, I already know the first command to give it.

I’m going to make my jaw as square as possible, activate the phone for my first call (probably to my wife), and say: “Calling all cars! Calling all cars!”

With Android Wear already here and Apple Watch on the way, we must salute detective Dick Tracy and his his two-way wrist radio.

Comic strip creator Chester Gould first strapped a wrist radio on Dick Tracy in 1946. He upgraded it to a wrist television in the 1960s. Tracy never complained about dropped calls or bandwidth problems.

While the wrist radio instantly became an iconic feature of the strip, the public began to imagine a world with such technology.

News stories in the late 1940s reported on evolving transistor technology, the foundation of modern electronics, and couldn’t help but reference Dick Tracy’s watch.

Sylvania showed off a wrist radio prototype in Popular Science magazine in 1954 to demonstrate how transistors can amplify signals.

And in the 1960s, American Toys produced a Dick Tracy Two-Way Radio, featured in the commercial below, that allowed “the fellows” to transmit and receive messages from house to house or bike to bike.

The cuff was certainly portable enough, but wearers also had to carry a bulky receiver with a telescoping antenna.

The receiver box could be attached to your belt, but Jony Ive definitely would not have approved of that jutting antenna.

“The powerful, fully transistorized Dick Tracy Two-Way Wrist Radio is a real electronic instrument,” says the child actor in the ad, excitedly trying to sell us on the possibilities.

Detective Dick Tracy calling the chief on his wrist radio in a panel from Chester Ghould's comic strip.
Dick Tracy calls the chief on his wrist radio in a panel from Chester Gould’s comic strip.
Sylvania showed off a wrist radio in this Popular Science article in 1954.
Sylvania showed off a wrist radio in this 1954 Popular Science article.