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[personal profile] hafoc
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.

January 2015

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