Watches and Time

Time is something children don’t think too much about. They’re unburdened in that way. I was fortunate in my youth that there was always someone around to tell me what to do and when. My time was not wholly my own and was tied to the people around me, namely my parents and grandparents. I learned to tell time in 2nd or 3rd grade. The primary format of time-keeping in those days was still the mechanical clock, with its hour, minute and second hands each working their way around the dial of the clock’s face over the course of a day.

               I remember being a bit intimidated by the clock face with its numbers divided into sections—one minute sections marked by small hash marks, 5 minute sections sometimes marked by medium sized-hash marks and then, the large blocky hash marks marking every quarter hour. It took me a while to grasp what a quarter of an hour was until I could understand the concept of dividing something into fourths. I was a visual learner and learned to divide the hour before I learned to divide the dollar because I could see the four separate quarters of the clock dial, each quarter with its own fifteen minute quadrant of the circle. We had to learn that the long hand defined the minute while the short hand marked the hour. I’m not sure children still learn to read time on such a clock at that young an age anymore. Glancing at a digital clock display tells you the time without much thought. As convenient as that may be, thought is something we need more of in the world.

I am as much to blame as anyone for this current lack of thought. My own daughters didn’t learn to tell time on a clock dial until middle school. I’m ashamed to say that, for the longest time, it never crossed my mind to teach them. Telling time is one of those things we take for granted when we reach a certain age. While I’m sure those of us who came of age prior to the ubiquitous digital clock had to work a little harder at telling time, it happened so long ago, it just seems to be something we picked up along the way.

Soon after one learns to tell time, it is only natural that one should want a watch of one’s own to put this new skill to use. My first watch was the ever-faithful Timex. It was almost invisible in its simplicity. A white face, black numbers and hands, and a black band. The flashiest thing about that watch was it’s red second hand. That Timex took a licking and kept on ticking but at some point, I could no longer read the dial for the cracked crystal. It cracked simply because I was a boy who played outside and boys who play outside tend to break things. Somewhere along the way I had a Superman watch and of course, the ubiquitous Mickey Mouse watch. The kind with Mickey straddling the watch dial, his disjointed arms rotating with pointed finger as the hours passed.

The Mickey Mouse watch turned out to be one of Walt Disney’s most unexpected marketing successes. In 1932, Disney, who was not in the best financial shape at the time, hired Herman “Kay” Kamer as his licensing agent. Kamer worked out a deal with the Waterbury Clock Company (later Ingersoll-Waterbury) to produce Mickey Mouse watches. Walt told Kamer, “It’ll never sell. Within 2 years after the watches hit the market in 1933, over 2.5 million were sold at $2.98 a piece. Disney went on to become the mega corporation it is today, while Ingersoll-Waterbury became Timex.

Sometime in the late 1970’s I was lured to the dark side and got my first digital watch. It was a Star Wars watch with a rectangular resin case and LED display. The display was bordered by images of Darth Vader and X-Wing Fighters. Its thin red numbers appeared on the black screen in a primitive glow. If I could find it today, it would likely be worth more than any other watch I have owned.

Of all the watches I had growing up, my favorite was a digital Georgia Bulldog watch commemorating the 1980 National Championship, which has since been commemorated ad-nauseum. The watch was a hand me down from my father after it stopped working. Though it stared back at me with a blank digital readout, I wore it out of an early-learned loyalty to my state institution, or more specifically, to its football team. The fact that it didn’t keep time was irrelevant.

Each of these watches were lost over the course of childhood. They were all inexpensive and none were worn with any regularity, much like my favorite T-shirt. Even in High School I never wore a watch routinely. I was too preoccupied with things I considered more important than time. How little we know at that age.

In college, out of necessity, I started wearing a watch on a daily basis. My choice—the Timex Ironman. For the next 20 years, I wore a short succession of two or three digital Ironman watches. They were rugged, water-resistant up to 100 meters, reliable (as long as the battery was changed), and had Indiglo night-light technology, which activated at the touch of a button, illuminating the entire watch face. There was nothing trite about an Ironman. Heck, even the President wore one at the time. The Ironman is still a good watch. It had alarms, a stopwatch, that whole Indiglo thing, lots of bells and whistles. But something about it kept nagging at me. When the Apple watch was introduced I realized what that nagging feeling was.

I have always appreciated old things and as I myself have grown older, I appreciate them all the more. This appreciation grows alongside an increasing disdain for the way technology has hijacked too many areas of our lives. Some things are better left to simplicity. I don’t need a computer on my wrist. Out of this recognition, about 6 or 7 years ago, I rebelled against 21st century technology in one small area of my life in which I felt I could afford to do so.  I moved away from digital watches and got a completely mechanical watch. It has no digital display, it doesn’t have email or text or a web browser, it has no alarm or circuitry, and it doesn’t even use batteries. Nothing flashy, just a simply marked mechanical face powered by nothing but my own ability to wind it each morning by hand, setting its mechanical parts in motion.

Mechanical watches are incredibly efficient clocks engineered to near perfection at microscopic sizes and tolerances. Most produce accuracy within 2-3 seconds per day. They are composed of the crown, the mainspring, escapement assembly, rotating gears, wheel train, jewel bearings, motion works, escapement, and balance wheel, all elegantly assembled in an amazing feat of mechanical engineering.

There is something liberating in this graceful design. It is not tracked by satellite, it does not require me to answer it like a telephone. If society collapses, the electrical grid goes down, or the sluggish supply chain and weakening economy crawls to a groaning halt, I will still be able to tell the time of day simply by winding my watch. Though I don’t know why I would at that point. I am sure there would be more pressing concerns. Nevertheless, I feel somewhat more human using such old technology.

Human beings have kept track of time since the ancient Egyptians marked the sun’s movement by the shadows cast against obelisks erected around 3500 B.C. This led to the creation of sundials about 2000 years later. These crude devices broke the day into hours. Around 1800 years ago, Egyptian polymath, Ptolemy, mapped the sky onto a globe and divided each degree of longitude into 60 segments called minutes and each of those he divided further into 60 seconds. Yi Xing, a Chinese monk, along with Chinese scholar Liang Lingzan, developed a system of interlocking rods and levers to mark time as water flowed over a wheel around 1300 years ago. A drumbeat was triggered every quarter hour and a bell rang every full hour.

The Greeks used a water clock called a clepsydra, which alerted them to a specific time of day. Much like the Chinese clock, as the water rose high enough, a mechanical bird was struck creating an alarming whistle. The Chinese also used graduated candles with a measured rate of burn to determine time at night. From the 15th century on, hourglasses were used to tell time at sea, their trickling sands marking the passage of the day.

The first mechanical clock as we would recognize it today, is credited to the man who would become Pope Sylvester II. Originally known as Gerbert of Aurillac, as a shepherd boy, he studied astronomy by night as he watched over his flocks. He was later educated at monasteries in France and Spain. Gerbert invented the first weight-driven mechanical clock in 996, which rang bells at regular intervals to call his fellow monks to prayer at the University of Magdeburg in Germany. Gerbert’s story is an interesting one in itself. His intellectual prowess and mechanical skills led his enemies to slander him with legends of deals with the devil and sorcery with a book of spells they claimed he stole from an Islamic wizard in Spain.

One of the oldest clocks still in use today was built by a 14th Century monk named Peter Lightfoot and is housed in the London Science Museum. The idea of placing a watch in so convenient a location as the wrist was put into practice for the first time by a French mathematician and philosopher named Blaise Pascal. He attached a string to his pocket watch and tied it around his wrist in the 17th Century so that he could easily check the time while he was busy with his many other activities.

Upon taking up my search for a 100% mechanical watch, I had in mind a simple watch that could hold up to everyday outdoor use. The watch that fit the bill for me has turned out to be the military field watch originally designed for soldiers and pilots during World War II. The U.S. military was in need of precision timekeeping under the conditions of battle. So, they contracted with three companies—Bulova, Elgin, and Waltham to produce the A-11 Field Watch, known today as the watch that won the war. One of the watch’s main requirements was the hacking movement of the second hand, which allowed it to come to a complete stop when the crown was pulled out. This made it easy to perfectly synchronize watches on the battlefield. Each company had slight variations on the theme but they all were made to the same pattern—dustproof, waterproof, able to withstand extreme temperatures, a simple canvas strap for a band, chromium-plated brass casing (steel was relegated to other uses during the war), and a black face with bold white numbers for contrast. It doesn’t get much more simple or utilitarian than that.

Today, my watch is second only to my pocket knife in the list of items I need to get through the day. Like Mr. Pascal, over the years I have grown to appreciate having time so close at hand. Glancing down at my wrist is much more convenient than having to pull my cell phone out of my pocket and push a button to activate the screen. Even though I can tell the time with a quick glance, the brain processing involved in reading the watch’s dial is good for the mind. Certainly, even a purely mechanical watch is a form of technology. But, it is more rooted in simple motion set in place and relatively easily manipulated. I feel more in control of this technology than I feel it controls me. This is the simplicity that I crave. I don’t have to plug it in. I don’t have to change the batteries. I don’t have to rely on anything outside myself to keep it running. All it requires of me is that I take the crown between thumb and forefinger and twist. Such watches can last for decades or lifetimes.

All this talk of watches inevitably leads my mind to thoughts of time itself. What it is. Where it goes. What we do with the time that is in our hands. Each of my childhood watches kept irregular time at best. The batteries ran out quickly, they broke, or amid the chaotic fireworks of a youthful mind I would lose them. It didn’t really matter. Time moved slowly enough on its own then.

It was only in adulthood, when I started really keeping up with time, that it became elusive, fleeting. Perhaps that’s why I have reverted back to pre-silicon chip technology. A tool of the past or taken another way, an enduring, still useful tool. An old way. Some would say a slow way. Time is both friend and enemy. Behind and before, even right here and now, it holds the cherished and the painful. Pleasures and horrors and opportunities and experiences beyond measure. Time is the medium within which life takes place. It is the most valuable thing in existence. It is infinite but we are each given only a small piece. Since I can’t stop time or slow it down, I satisfy myself with the illusion that, as I watch those mechanical hands moving around that simple dial or as I wind the watch’s main spring, renewing its storage of mechanical energy, in some small way, I have made time my own.

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