Do You Have the Time: A History of Timekeeping

Do You Have the Time: A History of Timekeeping

Posted by: carey matlin on 09 Aug, 2019

Luxury timepieces are marvels of craftmanship, accurate to within a minute or less per month. But it wasn’t until 1969, with the appearance of quartz watches, that personal timepieces operated with such accuracy. And to be set accurately, there must be a trustworthy standard against which to measure. Timekeeping has a long history stretching back to ancient times. But the watch, as it turns out, had a lot of catching up to do.

Watches made their appearance at the end of the 16th century. Running for less than a day, they were more of a status symbol. And they were far from accurate. Public timekeeping relied on sundials. Sundials were the most accurate device to measure time as their performance is based on the rotation of the Earth. The Earth’s rotation is slowing due to tidal effects from the moon. But this has only amounted to a lengthening of the day by 2.3 milliseconds per century. At night, time was told by the stars and their stellar transits. Again, this measurement relied on the stability of the Earth’s orbit and was, therefore, extremely accurate.

The pendulum clock was invented in 1656. In 1657, the deadbeat escapement was invented, improving the pendulum clock design. The pendulum clock became—and remained—the most accurate timekeeping device up until the invention of the quartz watch. If one could afford a pendulum clock, time in the home was accurate. But the general populace relied on public clocks. And public clocks weren’t too accurate due to the shoddy performance of their verge escapement. Many public tower clocks, in fact, had their verge escapements replaced with pendulums to improve accuracy. And these public clocks, other than astronomical methods, were the standard against which to set watches.

Accurate timekeeping, however, had no need to coordinate the time across multiple locations. So setting your watch to the correct time was fairly easy, as it relied on local time. But with the development of the railroad system came the evolution of time zones. Thanks to the telegraph, multiple locations were able to receive an accurate time signal instantaneously. Soon, the telegraph, telegraph-controlled public clocks, and railway station clocks made precision time widely available. It wasn’t long before the telephone, radio, and television made time reference even more accessible.

In 1926, the Bulova Watch Company was the first to broadcast a radio advertisement with a time signal. Bulova, in 1941, was also the first to broadcast a TV ad with a time signal. These days, the internet carries much of the responsibility of keeping an accurate time standard. The Network Time Protocol synchronizes participating devices to within milliseconds of Coordinated Universal Time (UTC). The UTC is regulated by International Atomic Time, an average of the time kept by over 400 atomic clocks across the globe.

Setting your watch to an accurate time signal is something we take for granted. Imagine relying on the tolling of Big Ben or the operator’s voice on the phone. It wasn’t too long ago this was the case. Yes, watches have become reliable, accurate timekeepers, but only in the last century. Even with today’s luxury watches keeping accurate time within a minute or less per month, watchmakers are still innovating. Omega, Grand Seiko, Citizen, Rolex, and many others continue to strive for more accuracy. Citizen announced in 2019 the most accurate watch ever made in the 500 years of watchmaking, the Citizen Eco-Drive Caliber 0100.

True watch enthusiasts understand the joy of observing the degree to which a timepiece can precisely measure the passage of time. How accurate is your watch? DavidSW has an impressive selection of luxury watches that are quite impressive in their accuracy—atomic-clock accurate. But for a good dose of nostalgia, ring the US Naval Observatory at 202-762-1401. Classic film actor Fred Covington (1928-1993) is still the voice of the USNO time service, and he still recites the time on demand.