Was Dick Tracy The Character Who Invented The Smart Watch?

By Marion Wijnberg

Portrait of Dick Tracy Creator Chester Gould (Getty Images)

Apple came out with their invention of the Apple Watch as the first Smart Watch on April 24, 2015, wowing wrists everywhere. However, the idea of wearing a tech gadget on your wrist was really seen worn first by a comic strip character named Dick Tracy.

Dick Tracy was his name and fighting crime was his game, depicting the battles between law enforcement and the violence of Chicago-style gangsters. He was a ruggedly handsome square-jawed detective who fought against the worst and most dangerous criminals.

The daily comic strip made its first appearance in print for the public to read on October 14, 1931 in The Detroit Mirror and was distributed by the Chicago Tribune New York News Syndicate. It quickly gained in popularity and spread to newspapers nationally. The Dick Tracy Sunday comic strip had traditionally been a full-page episode containing 12 panels but during the 1970s was reduced in size to only a half-page print format.

It wasn’t until January 13th, 1946 that the character, Dick Tracy was seen wearing the iconic 2-way technologically advanced and futuristic gadget on his wrist - the Wrist Radio. This wrist radio that the crime-fighting, Dick Tracy wore as well as those on the police force, was used to communicate with each other to help in the eventual capture of the criminals. The evil and ugly faces of the crooks that Dick Tracy fought were drawn that way specifically to emphasize the ugliness of the crime-ridden 1930s, according to the creator, Chester Gould. Dick Tracy also began airing on the radio from 1934 with Bob Burlen as the first radio voice of Tracy in 1934 and others heard in the role during the 1930s and 1940s were Barry Thomson, Ned Wever and Matt Crowley. The shows ran 15-minute episodes weekdays on NBC's New England stations to the ABC network in 1948.

My only thought is to keep my strip faithfully realistic and powerful enough so that it will stand out from the usual run of wishy-washy everyday stuff. – Chester Gould 1930s

Chester Gould was the creator of the character, Dick Tracy and wrote and drew the comic until his retirement from comics in 1977. He was an American cartoonist, born November 20, 1900 and lived until his death on May 11, 1985. He won the Reuben Award for the strip in 1959 and 1977, the year he retired. He lived and grew up in Woodstock, Illinois and was employed by The Chicago Tribune newspaper. Gould’s idea of Tracy wearing something like this on his wrist in the comic strip was actually turned down by his employer because it was thought to be too much of a cheat, so-to-speak, an easy way out for the detective who had been written into a scene where he was held captive with no possible way of escaping from the criminals. 

It was then that Gould decided to call an inventor he had met, Al Gross. Al Gross was a man way ahead of his time with inventions such as the walkie-talkie. When Gross was just 16 years old, he already had an amateur radio operator's license and had built a ham radio going on to invent the first telephone pager in 1949.

When Gould stopped by, Al Gross had just recently invented a two-way radio that people could wear on their wrists, just like a watch. Gould asked Gross if he could use his idea and that’s where Dick Tracy’s wrist watch radio came into being. Gould was so appreciative that as a Thank You, he gave Gross the first four panels of the cartoon where Tracy is seen wearing and using the soon-to-be infamous gadget. The device proved to be the exact answer for Dick Tracy to rescue himself from the seemingly impossible situation.  

Just like any futuristic movies or television shows, like James Bond or Get Smart, there is some character whose job it is to always come up with new inventions aiding in the hero’s escape. Gould used a character he named Brilliant, a young inventor to come up with introducing this new tool, adding to Tracy’s already growing arsenal of gadgets. It was a way to communicate quickly with the police force as to where the criminals were.

More recently, the comic strip character of the ‘30s, Dick Tracy lives on. In 1990, Warren Beatty directed and played the famous crime fighter, Dick Tracy. Playing with an amazing all-star cast such as, Madonna, Al Pacino, Dustin Hoffman, Charles Durning, Dick Van Dyke, James Caan and Kathy Bates. The movie cost $100 million to make, although according to the Hollywood Reporter, the movie was considered to be a failure despite the fact that its opening came in at the number three spot, among the highest grossing films that year worldwide, with $162.7 million.

Tim Cook, Apple’s CEO, described that as a little boy he had always hoped to see this come true one day. The day the fanciful and prophetic idea of the past that is now called The SmartWatch – has come.

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Marion Wijnberg


Marion lives in Ohio and has two grown children and one grandson. As well as loving the time she gets to spend with them, she also enjoys rescuing animals. Marion currently has 2 cats and a dog. She also loves to travel, read, play tennis and go horseback riding."