I Miss the Sony Watchman

By Andrew Liszewski on at

A lifelong obsession with technology has left me with drawers full of gadgets, many of which I don’t even remember buying. But the very first? That memory remains crystal clear. It was a Sony, one of the company’s first truly pocket-friendly portable TVs, and it remains one of my favourite gadgets of all time.

The company’s Watchman brand isn’t as well known or ubiquitous as Sony’s Walkman was. Like calling any facial tissue a Kleenex, almost any portable music player in the ‘80s was referred to as a Walkman, and the popular devices were the first consumer gadgets to be both portable and personal. You can even trace part of the smartphone’s origin story all the way back to the Walkman, but we’re talking about portable TVs right now, and it’s not hard to see why Sony’s marketing team cribbed the immensely successful Walkman branding to come up with the Watchman.

The very first Watchman, the FD-210, was released by Sony in Japan in 1982, followed by a wider release in Europe and North America two years later. It wasn’t the first handheld TV available to consumers – companies like Panasonic had released versions in the ‘70s – but the Watchman was the first to be considered truly pocketable thanks to a clever feat of engineering by Sony. Long before sizeable LCD panels were available as an affordable consumer technology, televisions relied on a technology called cathode ray tubes where electrons were fired at screens covered in reactive phosphor dots that glowed in response, creating individual pixels.

Below the Watchman’s angled screen is a tube leading to a miniature electron gun that worked exactly like the giant CRT TVs of yesteryear. (Photo: Andrew Liszewski/Gizmodo)

CRT televisions were always notoriously big and heavy as the electron guns sat perpendicular to and behind a TV’s screen at a specific distance. The larger the screen was, the deeper and beefier the entire TV was. The design limited how small and portable TVs could be made, until Sony’s engineers redesigned the cathode ray tube so that its electron gun sat in front of the screen and the beams it emitted ran almost parallel to it. By giving the screen a slight curve (despite marketing claims they were completely flat) Sony was able to squeeze a CRT into a device that was truly handheld, and passably pocketable, assuming you weren’t trying to squeeze them into a tight pair of jeans. The original Watchmans were nowhere near as thin as modern smartphones are, but the device still feels like a remarkable piece of innovation and miniaturisation: something Sony was especially known for in the ‘80s.

Over 30 years later, my Watchman still works just fine, even if it can only tune in static now. (Photo: Andrew Liszewski/Gizmodo)

The original FD-210 model was followed by the much smaller Watchman FD-10A, released in 1987, which became the most recognisable model of handheld TVs in the ‘80s. At that point I was 10 years old and already obsessed with both electronics and television, so it didn’t take much to find myself fixated on Sony’s latest and greatest Watchman. It was our family’s tradition, at least among the younger set, to save big purchases for summer holidays which more often than not involved a camping trip around America's Great Lakes. I don’t remember the ultimate destination that year, but I can remember my family stopping at a K-Mart outside Detroit for camping supplies, at a time when K-Mart was known as an excellent place to buy electronics.

Instead of making a beeline for the toy department as most 10-year-olds would, I dragged my parents to the electronics kiosk, where, sitting in a glass display case, was the object of my affection. If I remember correctly, even back in the late ‘80s the Sony Watchman cost me around $80 (£64), which had been saved up from Christmas gifts, birthday gifts, and other random holidays the months prior. The purchase completely wiped out what little savings I had, but the investment was completely worth it, because from that day on, long car rides were no longer a chore. Thinking back it was probably my parents who graciously kept my battery-hungry Watchman fed with fresh sets of four AAs (what kid likes to buy batteries?) but for years that Watchman was a loyal companion on family trips, short car rides to the supermarket, and I can clearly remember smuggling it in a suit jacket for at least one funeral.

The Watchman’s basic controls included an analog tuner dial, a volume control, the ability to switch between the UHF and VHF bands, and a power switch that also let you just listen to TV broadcasts with the picture off. (Photo: Andrew Liszewski/Gizmodo)

My Watchman wasn’t perfect. The screen was just a few inches in size, the image was only black and white and always a bit soft, and like most TVs at the time not connected to cable, it was completely dependent on over-the-air broadcasts to keep me entertained. That meant I often spent as much time trying to tune in a station and repositioning its extending antenna as I did actually watching TV. But that didn’t matter because the Watchman was still a TV, and a private TV on which I could always watch exactly what I wanted to without requiring a family vote first.

Where’s the Watchman brand now? Like a lot of technologies from the ‘80s and ‘90s, it was eventually supplanted by newer and better technologies and eventually made obsolete. Between 1982 and 2000 Sony actually produced 65 different Watchman models before the line was discontinued, including a variety of screen sizes, and eventually models featuring full colour LCD screens that made my version feel like an antique. But it didn’t take long for devices like portable DVD players, and laptops with DVD drives, to become the preferred form of distraction for travellers (the Watchman was completely useless on a flight) and with ultra-thin devices in our pockets now that have access to thousands of shows and movies on-demand, there’s not much place for the Watchman today.

That antenna was the only way to get TV on the Watchman, which means that when analog broadcasts ended, the Watchman was officially dead. (Photo: Andrew Liszewski/Gizmodo)

Antiquation wasn’t the biggest blow to the Watchman line, however. They still worked just fine long after Sony stopped making them. The final nail in the coffin came on 12 June 2009, when the major analog TV broadcasts in the United States finally switched over to digital signals. Smaller stations around the country were given extensions to this deadline, but from that day on I was never again able to tune in anything on my Watchman besides static and noise. It still works, technically, but it’s now an unusable relic relegated to my drawer of obsolete gadgets because there’s no way I could ever toss my first true love.

Featured image: Andrew Liszewski/Gizmodo