Dick Tracy’s Watch: The Most Indestructible Meme in Tech Journalism

The newspaper-comics cop got his smartwatch in 1946. We're still waiting for ours.

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[image] Dick Tracy with 2-way wrist radio

Nick Bilton of the New York Times had a nice little scoop yesterday: Apple is experimenting with smartwatches made out of curved glass. And even if you haven’t read his piece, you might be able to guess its first two words. Wanna give it a try?

O.K., time’s up. They’re “Dick Tracy…”

For decades now, it’s been nearly impossible to write about communications technology you strap to your wrist without invoking the name of Chester Gould’s comic-strip plainclothes cop, who first appeared in 1931 and got his first two-way wrist radio in 1946. (He traded up to a two-way wrist TV in 1964.) The jut-jawed detective’s favorite tool remains a cultural touchstone — or at least a handy reference point for journalists — even though the era when the average American followed Tracy’s adventures in a daily newspaper is long over.

Indeed, the fact that so many writers still feel the need to compare real-life gadgetry to an imaginary policeman’s fictional gizmo is a reminder that none of the many wearable communicators which have hit the market over the years have nailed the concept. We’ll know smartwatches are here to stay when they’re useful-but-unremarkable products which don’t prompt anyone to suggest they’re a fantasy come to life.

Bilton’s article moved me to check out the Dick Tracy meme’s origins and early years — which, thanks to Google Books, is a snap. I could provide several hundred examples, but for the sake of expediency, I’ll stop after a few representative ones.

1947: Boys’ Life is already using the “Dick Tracy watch” reference to explain a tiny portable radio, just a year and a half or so after Tracy got his, which was funded by a Daddy Warbucks-like industrialist named Diet Smith:

1952: The same magazine reports on a miracle technology known as the transistor, which might make Tracy’s amazing watch into everyday reality:

1954: Popular Science shows Sylvania’s prototype wrist radio, created to show off the transistor’s potential:

1963: Billboard covers a Dick Tracy radio watch — or a very rough approximation thereof — which you can actually buy:

1964: In a feature on satellites, LIFE speculates that we real-world humans, like Dick Tracy, may someday be reachable anywhere:

1976: Popular Mechanics‘ reporter is a tad skeptical about two-way wrist radios — he even broaches the possibility that Tracy may (gasp!) retire before they’re real.

Oh, and full disclosure: We at TIME are as likely to bring up Tracy’s watch as our peers. Here’s an example from 1953:

In his tireless comic-strip crusade against criminals with brutal habits and oddly shaped heads, Detective Dick Tracy has had an invaluable mechanical ally: “The two-way wrist radio.” Its secret communicating power, unknown to the bad men, constantly helps bail Tracy and his friends out of trouble. In the current installment, for instance, it may prove very useful to a wealthy gentleman named Uncle Kincaid Plenty. Locked up in a TNT plastic vest with a time-bomb mechanism, Uncle Kincaid is being taken for a ride by a knife-wielding criminal named 3-D Magee. But the sounds coming over Kincaid’s open wrist radio, hidden under his sleeve, have just given Tracy and the boys at headquarters a valuable clue to Kincaid’s whereabouts.

Last week life imitated art again. The U.S. Army Signal Corps announced that it has developed a wrist radio with a receiving range of 40 miles.

If anything, advances in communications and consumer electronics don’t seem to be leading to a reduction in mentions of Tracy’s two-way communicator — the realer this stuff gets, the more opportunity we tech journalists have to bring it up. (Just check Google News for the evidence.) Like Rube Goldberg and his machines, Dick Tracy and his watch are concepts which transcend the era and medium which gave them birth. There must be plenty of people who understand the concept of a “Dick Tracy watch” who aren’t so clear on who Dick Tracy is.

The Times’ Bilton wrote of Tracy in the past tense, but he’s still alive and well and fighting crime in the comics. In fact, he’s doing it more engagingly than he has in eons, thanks to a new creative team, writer Mike Curtis and artist Joe Staton. And he’s still using his two-way wrist communicator, which he appears to prefer to a cell phone. May he continue to wear it for a long time to come — whether or not we flesh-and-blood gadget freaks ever get ones of our own.