The Evergreen Nostalgia of the Calculator Watch

Casio Databank calculator watch on a wrist
Image credit: jonrawlinson / CC BY 2.0

Since becoming a card-carrying Watch Guy — which, in short, essentially means surrendering all of your free time and mental energy to coveting more timepieces than any one person could ever wear or afford — I have mostly been wearing the kinds of things Watch Guys get excited about. Seikos, G-SHOCKs, niche military field watches, that kind of thing. It has meant that the handful of miscellaneous watches I accumulated in the years preceding my current obsession don’t get much wrist rotation these days. With one expectation, that is.

Lately, I’ve been reaching more and more for the first watch I ever bought. It’s a Casio Calculator watch — a Databank, also known as a CA-53W, to be specific. I got it back when I was about 15 years old. Not only was it the first watch I ever bought, it was also my first-ever online purchase, made on my family’s home computer soon after we finally got an internet connection. It involved begging my mom to use her credit card, nervously entering all the details under her supervision, and then waiting weeks for my newly procured timepiece to make its way across unknown distances to reach my rural South African town. Back then, if memory serves, it set me back something like 120 ZAR, which on any given day is about a fiver in Sterling, and would likely have been even less at the time. For all of my teens and early twenties, this inexpensive digital oddity was my pride and joy.

Wearing a calculator watch at any age is a pretty big swing style-wise. It is an undeniably affected and attention-grabbing choice. For me, it was a way of telegraphing a degree of adolescent eccentricity I’m not sure I could really deliver on. Mostly, like any teen, I was hoping to fit in and this watch choice, just like everything else I tried back then, seemed as good a way as any to try doing that. 

All told, it was a pretty good summation of my teenage personality: part extraverted attention-seeker, part bookish teacher’s pet. Oddly, this same bifurcated archetype has repeatedly been bourne out in the pop-cultural representations of the watch in question. On the one hand, you have the nerdy types you might expect: Brian in The Breakfast Club, Raj Koothrappali in The Big Bang Theory, Dwight Schrute in The Office, Walter White in Breaking Bad. But then, on the other side of the spectrum, you have the kind of characters that come to define cool for an entire generation: Marty McFly in Back to the Future, Mike Wheeler in Stranger Things, Sting circa 1983, or Serena Williams winning Wimbledon in 2012.

As an avid fan of calculator watches, I eagerly documented these and many other examples. My first of many unrealised million-dollar ideas from back then was to compile an online database of such examples and sit back as the cash rolled in. In the meantime, though, I was busy enjoying the real-life attention garnered by my beloved timepiece. It always caused a stir during math tests and my Biology teacher even mistook it for a cell phone one time. Otherwise, I could always guarantee a bit of excitement by spelling out playground obscenities using the numbers on the dial or eliciting delighted gasps from my friends when I quickly calculated the meagre tips we would split on trips to coffee shops and fast food joints.

Vintage calculator watch
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

Calculator watches have been inspiring moments like these from as far back as 1980 when Casio introduced its first calculator watch, the C-80. Four years later came the Databank Telememo CD-40, with countless variations boasting increasingly hi-tech features following suit. As per James Stacey writing for Hodinkee, ‘These watches helped put Casio on the map and sold some six million units within the first five years of its release.’

As to the appeal, Stacey goes on to say the following:

‘The Databank represents the primordial movements of the smartwatch. While Casio designers were not alone in cramming additional features into then-cutting-edge digital watches, they brought this futurism to the masses. Today, we take an Apple Watch, a Garmin, or even a Fitbit for granted as a modern expression of a watch. The Databank did it first, expanding our perceptions not only of what a watch could do — but also of what a watch could be.’

Today this appeal endures via a kind of retro-futurist vibe that I have spoken about enjoying before in Casio’s offerings. As a teen, I couldn’t get enough of the things. Before I bought my original Databank, the first calculator watch I got my hands on was an old, nameless model I found in the lost-and-found box and my school which the administrator generously let me have with the assurance that it had gone unclaimed for a decade or more. For a time, it almost never left my wrist (In fact, I still have it in a box in storage somewhere). Then came the aforementioned Databank, at which point friends and family began to clock my youthful obsession and started giving me various versions as gifts. I couldn’t have been happier.

At a certain age, however, wearing a calculator watch day after day can begin to look a little suspect. I can confidently say that I wore mine well beyond that point. In time, perhaps inevitably, the ardour of my love began to fade. It gave way to an interest in more ‘grown-up’ watches such that when I got my first real job I soon upgraded to a non-digital watch and then that was that. Until now.

Over the last few months, many years after the heyday of my obsession with calculator watches, these gloriously goofy timepieces have again been popping up seemingly everywhere I looked. It started with the inclusion of my identical Databank in a string of photos Derek Guy posted alongside a viral piece he wrote about people dressing like bookstore patrons. From there I noticed them popping up occasionally on my social media feeds and even spotted a few doing the rounds in real life. And then, while burning through the latest season of Stranger Things on a long train ride to London, there it was again right on the wrist of young Mike Wheeler, played by Finn Wolfhard.

Man wearing a Casio CA-53W Databank calculator watch
Image is my own / All rights reserved

Gradually, I started wearing my trusty Databank again. For nearly a decade, it was my everyday beater until I threw it in a drawer to gather dust in the name of dressing more respectably. Now, as an older and marginally wiser man who nevertheless feels drawn to wearing a childhood watch, in true Bookcore fashion I tend to wear it with things like tweed jackets, corduroy pants, and scratchy sweaters. I also find it works in the right contexts with old GORPy stuff and really broken-in workwear (like in the pictures shared in Guy’s article sourced via Hodinkee). The key for me seems to be a certain lived-in quality. Maybe it’s because — unlike when I first wore this watch — I don’t want it to come across as conspicuous or eccentric anymore. Instead, I want it to read more as what it really is: long-lived, hard-won, and well-travelled. A part of me, in other words.

It’s for this reason that I was thrilled to rediscover the joys of my old Databank. It has felt like rekindling an old friendship. Because even in those years when I didn’t wear it anymore, I secretly loved it all along and, unlike so many other early watch purchases, I’ve never wanted to part with it. Now, even if I do end up sticking it in a drawer again for a while, I know I never will.