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Time Signals

I'd guess there are still many places where the fire siren blows to mark noon and 6:00 PM. That's handy for those who don't wear watches, which is more of us than it used to be. It was even handier back in the old days where many people didn't wear watches because they didn't have one.

When I was a kid it was handy even if you did wear a watch. As they all were, mine was mechanical. As many were, it was accurate to about five minutes a day-- which is close enough for any practical purpose, if you stop and think about it. In any case it was inaccurate enough that regular time signals, to allow me to correct it, were convenient.

Of course blowing the horn at noon was a bit obsolete even then because we had electric clocks. Every so often I still hear some guy on an antiques show marveling that the electric clock he got from his grandmother still keeps perfect time. Well, all a classic electric clock does is turn at a rate exactly synchronized to the cycles in line current. (The new analog electric clocks seem to be battery quartz movements hitched to a plug in electric transformer; this is cheaper than a synchronous electric motor, I suppose, and can keep running in a power failure if it has a backup battery. But it's not smooth like the old synchronous motor electric clocks are.) A classic electric clock will keep perfect time, if it runs at all, because the folks at the power company take great care to make sure their current cycles at the exact correct rate. They're talking about not doing that any more, because so few people depend on the classic synchronous-motor electric clocks, and a little bit off on the cycle speed here causes no problems otherwise. But for now the current in your wall outlets is perfectly synchronized, and your grandmother's electric clock works just fine.

People value what they don't have. Nowhere is that more obvious than in the world of watch geekery. Anybody can go down to Wal-Mart and, for well under $20, buy a quartz watch that is so accurate that resetting it twice a year for daylight savings time would keep you on time for all your appointments year round. Do watch geeks love these marvels, these true marvels, of mass market technical brilliance? They do not. They want a Rolex or an even more costly self-winding mechanical watch, a watch that costs hundreds of dollars JUST TO SERVICE, which your'e supposed to do every year, and which exhibits a level of inaccuracy which wouldn't be acceptable in a quartz watch you got free in a box of Cap'n Crunch. But the second hand moves smoothly instead of in one second jerks. Also, unlike the brilliantly accurate quartz watches, not everybody can afford a handmade Swiss automatic watch. (And most of those who could have better sense.)

Of course the first electronic watch I can remember, the Bulova Accurtron, was advertised on TV as "Accurate to a minute a month." They gave close-up views of its second hand moving in one second ticks, touted as evidence of its unparalleled precision and accuracy. Back then not everybody could afford a watch whose second hand moved in one second ticks, so they were rare and desirable and worth the higher price.

Today any bozo can have a hyper-accurate wrist watch, assuming (s)he doesn't just rely on cell phones for time. We can also have a pocket GPS device that shows us where we are on a map, any time we need it, a technology which itself depends on accurate timekeeping. We need never know what it is to miss an appointment because our watch was off or because we didn't know where we were. (We do, but it doesn't need to happen.) It's easy to go about your business casually accepting these marvels of technology, never stopping to think that as recently as the years of my childhood a slow or stopped clock could cause a navigation error that might kill people, or might put trains or planes on collision courses-- and sometimes did.
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( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
Oct. 21st, 2013 05:33 pm (UTC)
I remember my first watch as a kid, a Timex mechanical. I still find it in boxes of curios, occasionally. And it still works, though the winder thingy (crown?) is almost worn smooth.

My fav watch was a sweet Seiko that I had in the '90s before cell phones in ones pocket were ubiquitous. It was marvelous: thin, analog, and it had an alarm, stopwatch, and countdown timer. Unfortunately it was also a POS: I'll never understand making a back out of stainless steel when the rest of the housing is out of base metal. Eventually my sweat ate through the housing and it died. The sad thing is that if I could find a similar watch made entirely of stainless, I'd consider giving Seiko more of my money.

I want an analog clock lock screen for my iPhone, or better yet, one that says: 'Almost 1:15, or 'A little after 2:00'. I object to ultra-precise time measurement for personal scheduling, knowing that it's 11:33 right now doesn't give me any more useful information than knowing 'it's almost 11:35'.
Oct. 21st, 2013 05:57 pm (UTC)
I wear a Seiko which is all stainless. Of course it's also a ridiculously expensive self winding (or, properly, self-charging) quartz dive watch, with ruggedness and intense waterproofing I will never need. (If I ever did get that deep I'd be dead anyway, and the function of my wrist watch would not concern me much.)

At that, it cost less than an entry level mechanical. Seiko does make just about any kind of analog watch you could want. The solar watches make more sense than a "Kinetic" like mine, I think, but probably it makes the most sense to just get one with a ten year battery; the second hand moving in two second clicks will tell you you need a new battery in plenty of time to get it replaced.

I agree with you about analog. The folks who promote digital watches never understood that almost always you don't look at the watch to tell what time it is; you look at it to tell how much time you have left before some event. Glance at a digital watch, note the time, do mental arithmetic to figure out how long you have before you're late for your dentist's appointment. Glance at an analog watch, see that the minute hand has to move from here to there before you'll be late, and you'll know immediately whether you have enough time to make it. The analog is much quicker and more intuitive, if your brain works like mine.
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )