Mike Gold: The Watch’s Comics Roots

Wrist RadioTime for a bit of a comics history lesson… but first, a word from our sponsor.

Monday Apple revealed its latest toy, the Watch. Like most Apple products, it looks pretty cool but seems overpriced, and like most Apple products, once you look at what you’re getting it’s not really overpriced, just expensive. That’s true with the Watch, but I’ll admit it’s doubtful I’ll buy the first generation version.

Apple WatchThis is because for the past many decades my watch choice decisions were limited to “Timex” and “Swatch.” So $350 – or, more likely, $700 for the version I deem best for me – is a lot of money. But there are no shortage of watches with such a price tag: Movado, Breitling, Panerai, Invicta, the $600,000 de Grisogono Meccanico dG S25D… and the most recent and the one with the best name – Shinola.

No shit folks: a Shinola watch runs about $850, give or take a couple hundred depending on the model. Their high-end watch runs $1,500 – maybe more; that’s the best offered at the Shinola shop in Manhattan’s Chelsea district when I was there a couple weeks ago (to buy shoe polish). But I digress.

The first Mickey Mouse watch was manufactured in 1933 by the Ingersoll Company, which probably is not related to our ComicMix columnist of the same name. It was part of America’s first massive, integrated merchandising campaign based upon a cartoon or comics character, and was set up to take advantage of the Century of Progress World’s Fair in Chicago. The whole operation was set up by a man named Kay Kamen – a true legend. According to Tomart’s Disneyana Update, “Kay Kamen invented the whole licensing industry. Not just for Disney, alone; others followed suit.”

Thirteen years later, visionary cartoonist Chester Gould “invented” the two-way wrist radio as a fictional tool for policemen in general and his Dick Tracy in particular. This triggered a merchandising blitz of Mickey Mouse proportions and became the reference standard for cool gizmos. Actually, in Chet’s story the watch was a deus ex machina – Gould had Tracy in one of his classic deathtraps and the detective used his watch to summon help.

His editor rejected the concept. Deploying a deus ex machina usually is a cop out, something the writer pulls out of his ass to resolve the problem. Think of Green Arrow’s quiver. Gould’s defense was that there was an actual two-way wrist radio invented by Al Gross, the guy who created the Walkie-Talkie. Al also developed the garage door opener, the cordless phone, and the cellphone, but he couldn’t acquire financing to put them into production and his patents expired. He, himself, expired in 2000.

Amusingly, Apple offers as one of its many, many “watch faces” the animated visage of Mickey Mouse (above). I strongly suspect that decision had a lot more to do with marketing concerns than historical tribute, but, knowing Apple, I wouldn’t be surprised if the subject came up.

As for Dick Tracy, well, I’m sorry to suggest that his most famous crime-fighting tool is now available to every Tom, Dick, and Henrietta who has between $350 and $17,000 to spare. I assume the high-end version incorporates both transporter and phaser technologies.

That original Mickey Mouse watch cost about $3.50, which would be a bit over $61.00 in 2014 money. Today, Ingersoll offers an “exact” replica of the original model – but with modern mechanics – for a mere $299.00. And it’s just a replica.

Hey, it looks like that Watch isn’t so expensive after all!