While researching wearable devices for an upcoming book chapter I’m writing, I came across the story of the first wearable computer: a tool that helped its wearers  predict the outcome in a game of roulette.


The first wearable computer by MIT's Thorp and Shannon in 1961

The first wearable computer by MIT’s Thorp and Shannon in 1961

Edward Thorp and Claude Shannon, two MIT mathematics professors, designed and constructed the world’s first wearable computer.  Their successful and revolutionary pocket-size endeavor, however, took place in the early 1960s – back when computers were the size of rooms.

Thorp’s and Shannon’s invention consisted of a pair of devices: one concealed in a shoe and another placed inside a cigarette pack.  This duo of devices aided the mathematicians in successfully predicting the outcome of a game of roulette.

At set intervals, such as the time the roulette ball was released, the individual operating the shoe-fitted device would tap his foot and as such would input several data points.  In turn, the device in the cigarette pack would analyze the data using a predetermined algorithm and send out a wireless signal to a concealed earpiece worn by the second individual: the person placing the bet.  The wireless signal, in the form of specific musical tones unique to each number on the roulette wheel, would indicate the winning number to bet on.  This whole process took place faster than the time it took for the roulette ball to land on a number (Thorp, 1998).

The wearable computer was successful at predicting the outcome of a game of roulette. The team of mathematicians, however, retired this device after only one trip to Las Vegas and donated it to the MIT museum collections.


Considering the era this device was developed, it can truly be considered an innovation way beyond its time.  Since then, technology has revolutionized how, why, when, where, and what we interact with as we interact with individuals and with elements in our environment.  As computing devices have been progressively becoming smaller and smaller over the last few decades, they have deeply rooted themselves in our day-to-day lives.  Food for thought: fact Robert Johnson, an engineer at Intel, believes that “as we pass, 2020, the size of meaningful computational power approaches zero” (Hachman, 2013, para. 5).


Hachman, M. (2013, September 11). Intel dabbled in science fiction. Read Write. Retrieved from http://www.readwrite.com

Thorp, E. O., (1998, October). The invention of the first wearable computer. Paper presented at the Second International Symposium on Wearable Computers, Pittsburg, Pennsylvania, USA, 4-8. Retrieved from http://www.informatik.uni-trier.de/~ley/db/conf/iswc/iswc1998.html

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