Be healthier! Be less distracted! Be more efficient! The wearable tech market is gripped by the idea of quantifying positive change. Fitbits and Apple Watches are shilled as objects that will make us the best versions of ourselves.
But the original wearable devices weren’t so cloaked in sanctimony about the quantified life: they were created in flagrant, gleeful pursuit of snaking cash from casinos like an impossibly nerdy Ocean’s 11. The early history of wearable tech is a tale of wearing clandestine computers on money-mad Vegas capers.
The first gambling-obsessed wearable inventor, Edward O. Thorp, is a long-time maths professor and blackjack strategist who made the world’s first wearable computer back in 1961, when most computers were hulking, room-sized mammoths.
Thorp got his idea to build a device to screw with casinos while he was still in undergrad, in 1955. After testing his theories on how to beat the house in blackjack in Lake Tahoe, Reno, and Vegas, he partnered with another maths professor named Claude Shannon to make a wearable computer that helped predict how a roulette game would turn out, upping the odds for players.
Shannon and Thorp created a device the size of a pack of cigarettes, with 12 transistors, hooked up to tiny switches hidden in their shoes. Using their big toes, they could manipulate the switches to tell the computer when the roulette ball started moving. The computer would estimate where the ball would stop based on where it started, and they used a small ear speaker to received coded musical feedback from the computer. The last tone played would tell Thorp when to place his bet and bewilder whatever roulette table he was terrorising. It worked.
Thorp’s roulette device is now part of a museum exhibit on early computers
Although he tested the device at casinos, Thorp wasn’t greedy. He wanted to prove it could be done, not profit from it. That wasn’t the case for everyone making these first gambling wearables, though.
David vs. Goliath
Keith Taft was a Sunday school teacher and engineer who took his children to nursing homes to sing hymns for the elderly. A devout country-raised Baptist family man. A Bible-thumper, a teetotaller. Yet Taft invented a string of early wearable computers in the 1970s in bald, explicit pursuit of vice. The wholesome choirmaster invented them for a reason that defied his public persona: he wanted to make money, lots of it.
Taft experimented with blackjack as a lark on a family trip to Reno, pushing aside his reservations about its morality after receiving a voucher. It quickly turned into a fixation that overpowered his qualms. Taft was determined to win big at the casino. So he did what any probably-blighted-by-a-burgeoning-gambling-addiction engineer with a DIY streak would do: He spent two years building a wildly original seven-kilo, 16-bit computer to count cards for him, naming it “George”.
Taft and “George” on the left, “David” on the right
Taft would strap “George” to his waist with bandages like some kind of gambling reverse-suicide bomber, hiding the heavy copper-coated machine by wearing an oversized pea coat at the betting table so he could smoke the house. “I saw the gambling computer as my bridge to the independent life,” he told Sports Illustrated in 1979, after explaining how “George” transmitted instructions to him through LED lights installed on the inside of his glasses:
Working with the precision of a watchmaker, he inserted a row of seven tiny light-emitting diodes into the frame of his black horn rim eyeglasses just above the right lens. The diodes were connected to the computer by a fine wire that was combed into his hair and ran down the back of his collar. When all the diodes flashed on—stand. When they all flashed off—hit.
“George” worked and improved his odds, but it was cumbersome, and Taft was kind of bad at gambling anyways. As Sports Illustrated noted, one time it burned Taft when its battery acid spilled on his torso.
When a novice gambler makes bank and walks around with a giant bulge in his mid-section and nonchalantly gets scalded by battery acid, other players don’t miss it. Ken Uston, a blackjack veteran, heard about Taft’s invention and asked him to partner up. Taft needed expertise, so he agreed to a 10 per cent cut to supply Uston with his equipment. Taft developed a new model he called “David” that, like Thorp, was controlled through custom-built orthotics. He showed the rudimentary wearable to Sports Illustrated in the same profile:
David, as in David vs. the casino Goliaths, is what Taft calls the space-age microcomputer and battery pack, each about the size of a deck of cards, that were hidden in pockets sewn into the high-waisted athletic supporter that he was wearing. All along, by using his big toes to manipulate a pair of switches that were connected to the computer by copper wires running down the insides of his pants legs, he had been “inputting” the value of each card as it was dealt. In turn, the computer, whirling through 100,000 calculations a second, “told” Taft the best possible play by means of a tapping device built into the instep of his left shoe.
Taft rigged his “David” devices so that the computer’s recommendation would get tapped into the shoe in Morse code. Uston and Taft tag-teamed Vegas using the “David,” eventually getting a gaggle of Taft’s adult children involved, much to the disapproval of his nervous, anti-gambling wife. As the Captain von Trapp of high-tech borderline-legal casino operatives, Taft started hot, doubling his team’s winnings in a week. The luck didn’t last: casino officials busted one of Taft’s sons with one of his machines and sending the computer to the FBI.
But the FBI cleared the device. No one was arraigned, charges were dropped. Uston and Taft parted ways, but the former choirmaster still wanted in, enlisting more con artists and high rollers to help. Emboldened, Taft started working on more computers for his growing circle of blackjack schemers, devices called “Thor” and “Narnia”. He kept tinkering, and developed a way to relay which cards were on the table with an elaborate custom-made dental imprint; he hid the wires that ran from the mouthguard to the computer in his moustache and beard. He created one of the first computer networking systems so his team could communicate as they played in tandem.
Embittered by hostility and sneaky tactics from casinos, Taft got bolder about breaking rules, spending the early '80s wreaking havoc on Atlantic City and other gambling hotspots. He invented an early digital camera by putting a camera inside a belt buckle, attaching a homemade shutter, along with a DIY one-inch hidden monitor inside his shirt so he could see the images. He called it the “Belly Telly,” which is a fantastic name and I applaud him for it.
Taft, his friends, and his gang of offspring set up a satellite receiver on a truck so they could see what was going on in the camera images and communicate it back to him. It was a straight-up hustle.
That truck ended up screwing Taft and his team over: At a Lake Tahoe casino, security guards raided it after a bomb threat on the building. When they discovered the elaborate computerised gambling scheme, they called the police and arrested members of Taft’s team for using an illegal gambling device.
Taft eventually gave up gambling in the mid-80s, worn down by the new shuffling strategies casinos developed to make it harder to gain an edge, the death of one of his sons in a rafting accident, and the arrests of his friends. He never really made a fortune with his devices. The man who was a pioneer of wearable tech drifted back into his old life, retiring and becoming a Baptist worship leader. He died in 2006.
Taft’s legacy is apparent in the gambling world: Devices that help you count and analyse what’s going on at the table are almost universally illegal. But his absurdly prescient achievements aren’t talked about nearly as much as they should be. The guy was building and using wearable computers before anyone else besides Thorp. The closest thing to it was Pulsar’s calculator watch, which came out in 1975. He could’ve been blowing minds at Intel or HP, he was so far ahead.
Yet the gentle punk was too focused on the casino hustle to think about sharing his almost comically forward-thinking tech innovations with mainstream companies. He was an iconoclastic fool in the best possible way, and when the priggish vibes of today’s buzzword-soaked and improvement-obsessed wearables get me down, I’ll always think of bumbling, inventive Taft and how he broke bad and invented an entire category of gadgets just because he loved to gamble.
Image via IMEF