In the Business of Time for a Long Time

Part of the thrill of living in the last century was watching onerous processes turn digital at the speed of light. The torture rack of long division succumbed to the 4 function calculator. Flat screen displays gave us more office space, and eventually our homes bigger screens using less space. And at last, wrist watches could be deadly accurate, with no resetting for long periods of time. It was this last area that followed the 4 function and programmable calculators as perhaps the most stunning change in the 70s, after calculators, and before personal computers. Everything was overlapping like mad.

In my time with Texas Instruments, I had helped with the introduction of calculators, first with four function calculators, and then scientific calculators, and then programmable scientific calculators. Nevertheless, though these were innovative and terribly useful devices, they were not disruptive. When Texas Instruments went into the business of time, they became truly disruptive. It was discovered that counting oscillations of a crystal could produce incredibly accurate time. In addition, a wrist display could read out the exact time in numbers and even counting seconds. Of course exact date and time were just a matter of counting those hours and minutes and seconds and then switching the day, just as a computer does.

Several centuries before, an international prize was given to a shipboard clock that could keep reasonably accurate time, since that was so necessary to navigation. In centuries before that — with painstaking daily maintenance — pendulum clocks, and hour glasses and even sundials displayed the time that was so necessary to planning and executing a myriad of human activities. All of these were a somewhat precise measurement of time based on natural rhythms or predictable phenomena. And obviously calendars and star charts had helped farmers plant and grow the abundance that elevated the human race. This was all about to be disrupted, with confusion and no little consequence.

I rode a motorcycle to Texas Instruments in those days. Being an employee with less than 5 years seniority, my car-parking place was about 20 minutes out from the front door, in an employee lot that had usurped about a mile of Texas prairie in Richardson, Texas. But I could ride my motorcycle seven miles on the freeway and park right at the front door. It was worth it when you were fresh in the morning and did not want to be demotivated by a 20 minute trudge that accentuated how low you were on their totem pole. Probably the fact that I faced death on the freeway several times before work made me just a little sharper on the job (, though I have seen no studies on this).

The motorcycle is worth mentioning, because the first digital watches in the early 1970’s, from TI and other companies, required the push of a button to illuminate the numbers on the face. Because I was with the sales training group which “explained” the digital watch to the public (, my first “explaining” being the calculators in the previous years), I was given one of the first digital watches. For those of you who have ridden motorcycles, you realize that one hand is on the clutch side (usually left) and the other on the accelerator. This meant that one hand had to reach over to the other wrist – at 60 mph – and press a button for a quick look by the driver away from a bevy of large trucks and road kill on the highway ahead. Time had taken a step backward with this disruption. When I brought it up to management, my answer was that there were much more common ways to die riding a motorcycle.

However, the Japanese company Seiko, then saved my life. They came with a digital watch that gave an analog readout, the good old see-it-at-a-glance no-push-button watch, but with digital accuracy, and that started outselling all of our new fandangled digital-displayed watches. Beaten again by the Japanese?

But why? Our lunch table discussions frothed with reasons we were being left behind. Was it the button? Could LCDs allow us to do away with the button? I argued no, it was more archetypal than that. I the English major then had to explain to the engineers what human archetypes were. After laying out what I thought was a brilliant diatribe on how most humans don’t want an exact statement of time, but want to see how to choreograph their next hour, or the two hours until lunch, or the seven hours until they went home. They want to see it quickly on a visual scale that rolls out into the future. That’s why the Japanese were beating us in the consumer market.

However, the engineers loved the digital numeric readout, and worked very hard to put an LCD display in that remained on the screen. They felt people would “learn” to like the precise numerical display. This kind of resistance was hard for me to stomach, so I made the case that in the old days before watches, the pendulum clock in the city square bonged out the number of hours, or perhaps the one in the hallway bonged out every 15 minutes, to give people in meetings the idea of the remaining time without their craning to see a watch or wall clock. I noted that in every meeting, everyone knows when you look at the clock on the wall, or sneak a peek at your watch. That says something, that you want to move on from these people and this meeting, clearly a slight on your part that is revealed. In the 1960 three-way  Presidential debate between George Bush (the father), Bill Clinton, and Ross Perot, George Bush, the clear favorite after winning the Gulf War, glanced down at his watch during a question by one of the debate attendees. This seemed to signal that he was above such discussion with underlings — and may have cost him the Presidency.

These breeches of etiquette did not happen with the old pendulum clock that bonged every 15 minutes: you could seem intent and interested in the discussion at hand and still be planning your conclusion and swift exit. I even suggested that the watch have a little oblong wheel that “tickled” the users’ wrists at preset time intervals, giving them a vital piece of information that others could not have without being obvious, and thus giving them a distinct tactical – if not strategic – advantage in discussions and , of course, negotiations.

My little tickler seems to have caught on after 40 years, as I have seen that as a feature recently. The main battle I fought with the TI engineers was about the nature of time. Conventional watch businesses like Bulova and Longeins were saying “What is an electronics company like Texas Instruments doing in the watch business?” I was a lowly sales trainer at the time, but I knew the question was out there, and I knew the salesperson at the retail counter would be hard-pressed to answer it. At the time the TI marketers were doing all they could to make the electronic watches look like the old Swiss varieties. They even hired Swiss designers and manufacturers to create expensive watches with bezels and stainless steel or gold plated finishes, along with the push button and the LED numerals. Some of them cost well over $200 dollars.

So I answered the question. I had the narrator in a sales training videotape say (in a deep but friendly voice) “TI has been in the business of time for a long time.” Up the ranks that message roiled, itself traveling almost the speed of light.

Marketing puffery,” said one group of integrated circuit engineers.

“Blatant lying,” said another group in manufacturing.

So this philosophical argument seemed to pit Space against Time. These groups were busy making watches and like most engineers, cared very little what the customer thought. The marketing folks were the only ones to give me the time of day (so to speak). After all I had a sales training video that showed common salespersons how to explain the counting and sorting of natural rhythms like the guy in the mail room sorts incoming mail. It was already useful. But now the supposed ethics of science were aligning against it. Or were they? In my sales training, I had used the scanning electron microscope footage, to show viewers how TIs “chips” controlled the electrons (much slowed down) traveling at the speed of light through the paths of an integrated circuit.

“That’s Space,” sneered the designers, when I showed them the scanning electron microscope footage.

“Yes and you create space and distance in the circuit so that it hits a gate precisely when it is open, or stops if the gate is closed.” It was a layman struggling against the Gods of Hi-Tech.

“Correct.” They were getting a little impatient.

“So TI has been in the business of space?” One of the marketing guys said. “Why put in all that space?”

And it hit me. “So electricity can hit the right gates at the right time!” I blurted out excitedly.

“Well,” concluded the engineers, who were busy and had to get back to making more of the product we could never sell. “Well that’s timing, not time.”

“Timing, time. What’s the difference?” said the Marketing manager, who had been listening quietly. He had a gleam in his eye. His next call that day was to Tracy-Locke, the Dallas ad agency which handled Frito-Lay potato chips. They had been struggling mightily for a hook, and they came over to the plant the next day. They saw my sales training tape and started taking notes furiously. And then they left, and I never heard from them again.

Well, actually I did hear from them again, along with about 100 million other people. The ad for the release of the TI watch played on the Super Bowl in early 1976. It started with a shot from a helicopter circling over the obelisk in Rome, and the voice-over narrator began describing the natural rhythms which man used to segment time. And about 15 seconds in to the 30 second ad, the music came up under the narrator, and then the various timekeeping methods such as the pendulum clock dissolved to the scanning electron microscope as he began to speak again:

“Texas Instruments has been in the business of time for a long time.”

Oh yes, I thought. And jumped up and down and missed who won the Super Bowl entirely. Later in the year Advertising Age magazine gave Tracy-Locke and TI its coveted Clio award for the best broadcast TV advertisement. God only knows where that old footage is, but to this day I still refer to that ad as “my Clio.” Can you blame me?

I did get to be in on more marketing discussions. When the $200 Swiss-looking watch did not sell, TI decided to come out with lesser quality watches at under $100. The Sales manager was in a sweat about how to get rid of 10,000 of the original Swiss-looking watches at cost. You couldn’t really have a rock bottom sale when another product was in the offing. It was then I remembered the Dakotas, the South American cartels that flew 707s full of consumer electronics into Asunción, Paraguay. They profited immensely by avoiding 300% tariffs in most South American countries. This was done by smuggling all manner of product on mules from Paraguay over “back door” mule trails to provision the “Mercado negro” (black market).

This was the South American version of a discount store. I told the Sales manager to go to Miami, and check on large shipments going non-stop to Paraguay. Apparently he did so, because a month later I saw him at coffee in the hallway, beaming. “I’m not at liberty to give you any details,” he said, “But that South American bunch saved my ass.” He handed me a free cup of coffee before I could put my change in the machine. Such are the rewards in big business.

The next year, 1976, TI made a breakthrough which took them way out ahead in watches. They discovered how to make an artificial oscillating crystal for the watch for about three dollars. This meant they could put attractive plastic watches on the market for less than $30. They were still digital readouts, but the price was so low that it undercut the Japanese by half. It would be released at the Consumer Electronics show in Chicago in February. The promotional guy, Mike, had created great 12 foot back lighted transparent posters, and planned the public release to the last poster. Then he got sick. We had no one who knew the watch and could set up the massive displays using union crews. Mike croaked out of his swollen adenoids that perhaps I could do it. What that meant was that it landed in my lap, two days before the show. The CES was at the Stevens Hilton Hotel that year, with the Chicago Convention Center under renovation. The Stevens was a grand old Chicago hotel, with enough massive ballrooms to accommodate the Consumer Electronics Show (which was somewhat smaller then than the behemoth the CES has become these days).

As usual there were carpets to be laid over wires going to the displays, and there were heavy curtains framing the massive transparent photos. Press people had picked up on the inexpensive watch and were preparing stories for opening day of the CES. They were so persistent with the TI salesperson who would be taking orders there for Fall and Christmas, that the salespeople began to panic. There were very few spaces to meet and write orders. They needed to be out of the mainstream flow of traffic, which was a fortuitous thought because when the CES opened the crowd gravitated to the new, cheaper watches, like the place had been tilted on its side. Luckily we could create little cubbyhole offices behind the curtains, and the salespersons huddled there over small tables writing very large orders.

And somewhere on a VCR in the last area of the very large TI section, someone had learned about looping video. The 30 second Tracy-Locke ad was playing in an endless loop, and I could hear it again and again all day. “TI has been in the business of time for a long time…” over and over, throughout the days of the CES show. It was like creating a monster you could not kill.

Copyright 2018 David Hon – All rights reserved

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