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Last updated
10 Jan 1998

The Black Watch

Sinclair's career was not, by any means, an uninterrupted climb to the top (namely the Spectrum) followed by an ignominious fall caused by botched products (the QL and C5). Almost exactly a decade before the C5 fiasco, Sinclair was nearly ruined by another disastrous product - the Black Watch, launched in September 1975 at 17.95 in kit form and 24.95 ready-built.

It was a unconventional-looking digital watch, moulded in black plastic with a five-digit LED display. Its most unusual feature was its lack of buttons - instead, it had two panels which turned on the display and allowed you to see hours and minutes or minutes and seconds, depending on which you pressed. The adverts rather obscurely described it as having "a touch and see case" with "no unprofessional buttons".

The Black Watch was a disaster from the start. The list of problems is long and depressing:

  • The chip could be ruined by static from your nylon shirt, nylon carpets or air-conditioned office. This problem also affected the production facility, leading to a large number of failures before the watches even left the factory. The result was that the display would freeze on one very bright digit, causing the batteries to overload (and occasionally explode).
  • The accuracy of the quartz timing crystal was highly temperature-sensitive: the watch ran at different speeds in winter and summer.
  • The batteries had a life of just ten days; this meant that customers often received a Black Watch with dead batteries inside. The design of the circuitry and case made them very difficult to replace.
  • The control panels frequently malfunctioned, making it impossible to turn the display on or, alternatively, impossible to turn it off - which again led to exploding batteries.
  • The kit was almost impossible for hobbyists to construct (and barely any easier for Sinclair's hard-pressed workforce). Practical Wireless advised readers to use two wooden clothes pegs, two drawing pins and a piece of insulated wire to work the batteries into position. You then had to spend another four days adjusting the trimmer to ensure that the watch was running at the right speed.
  • The casing was impossible to keep in one piece. It was made from a plastic which turned out to be unglueable, so the parts were designed to clip together. The clips didn't work either and the problem was turned over to a subcontractor. Sinclair later (much later) received a small box on which was written, "We've solved the problem of the Black Watch!". Inside was a Black Watch with a half-inch bolt driven though it.

A very high percentage of Black Watches were returned, leading to the legend that Sinclair actually had more returned than had been manufactured. The company had to go through the business of sending out tens of thousands of replacements, with no financial benefit whatsoever. Matters were made far worse by the perennial lack of a customer services department - only 20 people were available to repair and return all the faulty watches. The backlog eventually reached such monstrous proportions that it still hadn't been cleared two years later.

The Black Watch fiasco had a devastating effect on Sinclair's finances: the company made a loss of 355,000 for 1975-6 on a turnover of 5.6m. The company would have gone bankrupt had the Government, in the shape of the National Economic Board, not stepped in to prop it up with subsidies. It was somewhat ironic that the Thatcher government - of which Sinclair was an ardent supporter and from whom he gained his knighthood - abolished the NEB and the safety net it provided. The next time his company tottered, Sinclair had no option but to sell it to an arch-rival.

The Black Watch
(From The Sinclair Story, by Rodney Dale)

It was Saturday lunchtime at The Plough, Fen Ditton. 'Look at this', said Sinclair, prestidigitating a little case out of his pocket. There inside was something which looked like a black plastic watch without any face or hands. He pressed a button: it was 12.37. 'What do you call that?' we asked. 'Oh . . . The Black Watch, of course' he said. Everyone fell about.

And, indeed, Sinclair Radionics might have survived the losses accruing from the dying calculator market had it not been for that trendy-looking quartz digital chronometer which was wont to behave as though telling the time were not its prime purpose.

The company had high hopes that the profit on The Black Watch would outweigh the losses accruing from the calculator price-war . . . but announced in November 1975 with a major advertising campaign, The Black Watch seemed doomed from the start.

Certainly the original design was sound, and the market was there. The Black Watch was for those days - an unconventional looking timepiece, moulded in black plastic with a five-digit LED display. Inside it was a chip, a quartz crystal, a tantalum capacitor and a ceramic trimmer on a flexible printed circuit board - and the batteries. It had three buttons: one at the back for setting which, pressed in combination wit one of the two buttons at the front, advanced the hours or the minutes. Used alone, the buttons on the front would display hours and minutes or minutes and seconds; the sleek, black appearance of the watch when its four LEDs were not draining its battery was a virtuous necessity.

Nothing like it had ever been seen before: Sinclair was even invited by the Swiss Horological Society to exhibit at the Royal Watch Fair - a first for any company outside Switzerland.

The watch went on the market for 25. There was also a kit version at under 15. But Sinclair was let down partly by problems of moulding the case and partly by the company who were supposed to be producing the chips. At first, it was Mullard, but they aborted the project without giving any reason for doing so from that day to this, although Sinclair thinks it was 'a direction from above'. The next supplier was ITT Semiconductors who tried very hard, setting up a line dedicated to making the chips, but when they hit a series of production snags they forgot to tell Sinclair. If you know something is going wrong you can take steps to overcome it; if nobody tells you, you tend to assume that all is well.

When the chips finally started to come through, Sinclair had lost two years, and his place as potential world leader - there were now similar watches on the market at a similar price. For once he was not ahead of the competition - and there were still problems with the product. Nevertheless, Sinclair Radionics announced that they still expected to win 30 per cent of the UK digital watch market in 1976.

In June 1976 Practical Wireless published an article on assembling the Black Watch kit, which throws light both on the kit and on the sort of people who read PW:

'For the temporary connection of batteries, Sinclair advise the use of a 'Bulldog" clip, but it was very easy to short the batteries accidentally and almost impossible to hold two batteries, a flexible printed circuit and a Bulldog clip in the correct positions, all at the same time! This difficulty was aggravated by a tendency for one digit of the display to light up as soon as the batteries made contact. The instructions said that this might happen and that the remedy was to interrupt the battery supply. Then, of course, the clip, the batteries and the flexible printed circuit tended to part company once more! The problem of accidental short circuits was cured by using insulating tape on one jaw of the clip, but the operation remained very difficult to carry out.'

The idea of using two wooden clothes pegs (of the spring type), two drawing pins and a piece of insulated wire solved the problem. This enabled the batteries to be fitted one at a time and made the procedure comparatively easy. The adjustment of the watch took some four days to accomplish, but was not difficult, rather tedious through having to wait four days before being able to complete the watch.

Clothes pegs aside, although the fundamental design was good the manufacture of the watch presented difficulties. Although the Sinclair Digital Multimeters were undergoing environmental testing, nobody seems to have thought of applying the same developmental rigorousness to The Black Watch. The chips had been tested during the winter, when the atmosphere was damp, but when the watch went into production in the summer it was found (eventually) that the slightest static affected the chip, making it stable rather than unstable. Instead of continually vibrating (as it should to jog the time along) the crystal froze; the display would show just one - extremely bright - digit, while the batteries drained and became hot - until sometimes they exploded. Fortunately, it seems that no Soviet dignitary ever had a Black Watch!

The batteries themselves were a problem. The first batteries were the same as those generally used in hearing-aids; they had a ludicrously short life span of the order of ten days, and it was hardly surprising that by the time customers received their watches the batteries were generally dead. So the watches came flooding back to Sinclair Radionics - often more than once which probably gave rise to the legend that the company received returns far in excess of the number manufactured. It seemed that the only watches not returned were those thrown away in sheer frustration.

Apart from problems with the circuit and the batteries there were hitches in the design of the mechanism to switch from one function to another. Frequently it was impossible to change the function - or even to set the watch to the right time!

The plastic casing also caused difficulties. The original case was made of a plastic which turned out to be unglueable, so the parts were designed to clip together. The glue hadn't worked; the clips didn't work either. The subcontractor who was asked to solve this problem eventually sent Jim Westwood a small box on which was written 'We've solved the problem of The Black Watch!' Inside was a Black Watch with a half-inch coach bolt through it.

Gradually the difficulties were diagnosed and overcome. Silver oxide batteries replaced the previous mercury oxide batteries. Mike Pye and his engineering team devised a foil screen to protect the circuit from static. But Practical Wireless had this to say:

'Trying to fit the watch into the case was where the problems really started. The PCB assembly was too thick for the space available and there were two reasons for this. The impression was that the flexible copper screen had not been part of the original design; the instructions for the fitting of this screen were separate from the main assembly instructions. The two thicknesses of screen obviously reduced the front-to-back clearance between the PCB assembly and case. However, the main reason for the difficulty was that the soldered joints were protruding too far from the PCB. The importance of making very small solder joints had not been emphasised sufficiently in the instructions, which merely called for the use of a fine-tipped soldering iron, and "small wire cutters capable of cropping within 1/2mm of the PCB".

Sinclair have since stated that an improved IC is now being supplied which is free from any effects due to external static. The insulated copper screen is no longer necessary.'

Then another problem arose. It had been decided to manufacture the watch in-house. Hundreds and thousands had to be made to supply new orders and to replace the dud ones already sent out. Hundreds and thousands of returned watches had to be repaired. There were only about twenty people to do all this. Components flooded into St Ives and piled up.

David Park (then sales director) remembers one day delivering 5000 replacement Black Watches to somewhere in Scotland. The following day, another replacement order for 5000 watches had to be delivered in the South. None of these was making the company any money. Staff were working all hours; they just couldn't cope.

By the end of 1976 the watch was working, but by then the public didn't want to know. The Black Watch contributed to a Sinclair reputation that still lingers. Richard Brooks wrote in The Sunday Times: 'Is not Sinclair a company which has great ideas, which is smart, innovative, but is it not a company which fundamentally keeps producing great ideas and then fails to exploit them properly?' It's an observation with a disturbing amount of truth in it.

Eventually the problem of The Black Watch was solved by putting the single chip into a completely different case and marketing it as a slim and elegant car clock which sold very well without doing much for the cash-flow problem at the time.

When I was researching this book I went through a Sinclair archive box with Jim Westwood. We found one of these clocks, pressed the button, and there was the time. It was still working perfectly after nearly ten years!

'Why', you may well ask, 'was The Black Watch released in so imperfect a state?' The problem was that it was a seemingly simple product (compared with the Microvision) on which Sinclair Radionics had pinned their hopes as the calculator market stagnated. One can sense the mounting panic with which orders for Black Watches must have been filled: 'Let's send them out quickly in ease they're working when they arrive; anyway perhaps they won't be sent back . . 'When a man knows he may go broke in a fortnight, his mind scoots off in all directions at once. Cash was flowing like anything, all in the wrong direction. Immense sums had been invested in the Microvision; further immense sums were likely to be needed to push it laboriously up to that corner just round which success always lies. Without further investment, the price of the television could never be brought down. Where was the money to come from?