Before There Was ThinkPad

The Heuer Microsplit meets my ThinkPad T400s

Nearly 20 years before Richard Sapper created the simple black box that would become ThinkPad, he had already made design magic with a very similar idea. It too was a simple black box, but for a totally different company and product category. The design was created for Jack Heuer back in 1974 for their classic Microsplit digital stopwatch. The Heuer company felt that the time had come for them to enter the digital age. Digital clocks and watches were just starting to emerge, but nobody thought to produce a digital stopwatch. Most early digital wrist watches were more of a technology novelty than a stunning revolution in design. Heuer wisely avoided sticking a glowing red digital display in the center of a traditional round watch case and calling it a day. Instead he selected Sapper to create a design concept because he wanted something special. It was an amazing corporate decision, design and market success. No longer in production, the best place to see one today is at the MoMA.

In 1972 Pulsar introduced the first digital LED watch 

Here is a excerpt from a great  interview conducted by Stephan Ott, that was published by the Goethe-Institut, where Richard talks about his Heuer design experience: "I designed the first digital stopwatches for Heuer years ago. Of course they were a revolution back then. Heuer liked the model that I presented to him personally. When he then showed it to the sales managers, about 25 of whom were present, he suggested that each of them should comment on it as they passed it around. The first one said immediately, “I can’t sell this!”. He explained this by saying that the stopwatch was completely different from the usual devices. All the others at the table agreed with him – I already thought that I had been working in vain for half a year. When the stopwatch finally came back to Jack Heuer, he said “Your comments were all very interesting. We’ll sell this stopwatch nevertheless. YOU will be selling them!” End of discussion. Six months later, by the way, Heuer was making a third of his turnover with this stopwatch. That means that Heuer and I were right, his sales bosses were wrong. But I don’t blame the marketing people at all, they’re just not trained for something like this. A designer works in and for the future. An entrepreneur, too, can be expected to have an eye for the future. But marketing and sales people have to concentrate on what they have on the table, they are guided by what they have already sold. Marketing has no basis at all for a new, revolutionary project, there you can’t make a well-founded sales prognosis. You have to rely on pure instinct." Richard Sapper 

The design similarity with ThinkPad is astonishing when closed, and in the open state 

What does the stop button remind you of?

For well over a decade, I personally have been on the hunt to purchase one of these wonderful stopwatches. Of course I wanted one because of the striking design, but I also wanted one because of the aesthetic connection to ThinkPad. I love the simplicity of form that reveals a more richly detailed and lively interior when you choose to open and use it. This is a hallmark of much of the work Sapper creates. I've scoured junk shops in the US and Europe, flea markets, the Internet, and of course eBay looking for the elusive prize. The hunt has finally ended. I located one on eBay a few weeks ago and was determined to buy it no matter what. I found myself in a bidding war just minutes before the auction ended, but when the smoke cleared, it was mine. It would be interesting to know who I was bidding against? Another ThinkPad fan perhaps? It arrived last night in a rather anonymous cardboard box neatly wrapped in pink bubble wrap. Certainly not the trappings worthy of  such a design classic. I was thrilled to find the Microsplit to be in perfect condition. There was not even the slightest scratch in the beautifully finished matte black case. The Swiss craftsmanship was so evident. I gently slid the power switch to the on position and immediately discovered it was fully functional. I hadn't even bothered to ask the seller if it worked. Honestly, it would not have mattered to me, working was just a bonus. The only thing amiss on my newly acquired design treasure was the the lack of the original neck lanyard. I'm not too worried, however, I can easily fashion one myself. I excitedly called Richard on his cell this morning to inform him of my find. He was more than delighted to learn that I had rescued it from an uncertain home. He also generously volunteered to send me a photo of the lanyard from one in his personal archive to ensure I got it right. He's a great friend, as well as designer.  I hope you enjoyed the comparison of this Heuer design classic to our own iconic ThinkPad. I just can't seem to stop looking at mine. If you admire design like I do, it's possible that you now have a new quest. In case you're curious, mine is not for sale. 

David Hill