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Is This Nerdy?, Pt. 2 – Calculator Watches

In 1973 the legendary R&B/Soul/Funk group Tower of Power asked the question, “What Is Hip?” It’s a song that is ultimately about not worrying about what “hip” means, because that definition changes regularly.

That’s a truth that also applies to the word “nerdy.” You don’t have to look too far back into pop culture history to find a time when Nerd was a pejorative, whereas it clearly isn’t today. But in a Tower of Power-like quest, we’re asking, “Just what, exactly, is nerdy? In part 1, we looked at Jon Sudano and his growing list of YouTube cover songs. (Update: they’re still hilarious to me)


Today let’s look at what is, apart from pocket protectors and thick-rimmed glasses with tape on them, the quintessential nerd accessory from the golden age of 80s jocks-are-good-nerds-are-bad pop culture: the calculator watch.

I’ve been listening to the wonderful Judge John Hodgman podcast a lot lately, so let’s do this as “Evidence For” and “Evidence Against” its nerdiness…


Evidence For

I think you would have to be seriously committed to having quick access to a basic calculator to justify needing one on your wrist. Especially in the age of smart phones, where we all have massively powerful scientific calculators as built-ins on our smartphones. Honestly, think about that – what hobby or profession could you possibly have in 2017 that would require the ability to add, subtract, multiply, and divide, but with a speed requirement that would rule out pulling out your smartphone or opening a drawer on your desk?

Also, there’s this…

The prosecution rests…


Evidence Against:

No one has ever accused Sting of being nerdy. Weird, perhaps, but never nerdy. This photo is from the single for Wrapped Around Your Finger from The Police’s album Synchronicity. I only point this out to show that this is someone who was basically universally considered to be “cool” in the 80s (the heyday of the calculator watch) actually wearing one non-ironically. And more than that, even, wearing one in an official band photo that would be seen the world over…



Also, Marty McFly wore one, and he was the cool kid in the nerdy family. Everything about Marty McFly was geared towards breaking the cycle of nerdiness that his family had labored under for 30 years. We may think calculator watches are nerdy now, but clearly they weren’t reserved for the nerdy set when they were in their prime.


The defense rests…


The Verdict

Watching Saturday morning television in the early 90s, I often ran across Saved By the Bell, which frequently portrayed the school’s nerds wearing bright and mismatched patterns, suspenders, thick glasses with tape on them, pocket protectors, and (at least in my head) calculator watches. This is, admittedly, my primary frame of reference for how nerds have historically been portrayed in pop culture. However, it seems clear to me from my brief research that calculator watches have not always been inextricably linked to nerddom. And furthermore, that they have historically been associated with some of the coolest people in pop culture.

Add to that the fact that calculator watches have been rendered completely irrelevant by the advent of smartphones with scientific calculators built in, and I simply can’t see them as anything other than an ironic accessory for hipsters these days. And that is not nerdy.

What are your thoughts?

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