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Passage of Time with Watches

Passage of Time with Watches
by Pawan Fangaria on 03-29-2015 at 7:00 am

During my childhood in my native place in India, although there were good watches around from Seiko, Citizen and some of the Indian companies, I used to see some old men and women never using any watch but still being fairly accurate in perceiving time by just watching the position of sun, or moon, or the shadow formed by a certain object. Well, if we delve into what we call ‘sundials’ which were used by Egyptians, Greeks, Chinese, and others back in 1500 B.C. or before, they worked on the principles of movement of celestial bodies. They were used not only to observe time in a day, but also to record days, weeks, months, years and so on, and to determine arrival and departure of different seasons. The credit of invention of sundials goes to Egyptians.


Here, I would like to recollect my memoir and illustrate an Indian sundial which I had personally seen in Delhi. Back then, I had just passed out of my 10[SUP]th[/SUP] class and had visited Delhi as a tourist. Above is a picture of ‘Samrat Yantra’, popularly known as ‘Jantar Mantar’ in Delhi; there are some more structures attached to it. Although I couldn’t understand the complex geometry used in calculation of time out of the shadows on these structures, I was told that the accuracy of time was in terms of seconds. They could find out the shortest and longest days of the year. No wonder, today also we have the concept of ‘day light saving’ to adjust our watches to alarm us at the right time. We have evolved to a large extent in terms of watches, but the guiding principles to determine time are the same, based on the movement of Earth, Sun, Moon and perhaps other celestial bodies!

The evolution of watch industry has been very long, if not the longest. And interestingly, many of the older generation watches are still being used. The first spring-driven mechanical clock came in 15[SUP]th[/SUP] century which was used as a stationary time piece. Then the pocket-able watches, table watches, and stationary pendulum clocks, still driven on springs came between 15[SUP]th[/SUP] and 17[SUP]th[/SUP] centuries. The ‘Nuremberg Egg’ shown in the picture was made in 1510 by Peter Henlein who is considered as the inventor of watch. With every new generation of the watches, they improved in the accuracy of time. In 1761, the British government rewarded John Harrison with 20,000 pounds for improving the accuracy of clocks after “Scilly naval disaster of 1707” which was due to inaccuracy in calculation of positions of the warships.

Well, if we see early evolution of watches, it appears to have taken centuries for small incremental updates. The first wristwatch appeared in 18[SUP]th[/SUP] century from the houses of Breguetand Patek Philippe. And then Rolextook another century to make waterproof watches. It goes on and on with improvements such as automatic, self-winding machine, battery driven, quartz driven, with additional functions such date, time, calendar, and so on. We could also see some intelligent functions done through watches, as we see them in old James Bond movies! However, the basic mechanism was mechanical and main function was time keeping in all those watches. It seems to be monotonous with so many centuries spent on a particular type of machine dealing with time as its only function, doesn’t it? So, naturally, the style and jewellery became the quotients embedded in high-end watches. We see so many high-end brands of watches today also being carried from 17[SUP]th[/SUP] and 18[SUP]th[/SUP] centuries. Added to them are many new brands too. Their primary function is to tell time, but they are worn conspicuously to reflect upon the personalities of their owners.

A shift in the watch technology came in 1970s and 1980s when electronic digital watches appeared with LCD and LED displays. The first digital watch, Pulsar was introduced by Hamiltonin 1970 and then other companies such as Casio, Seiko, Intel, and Texas Instruments jumped into the fray. Run on quartz, they brought a revolution in watch industry sending the old mechanical watches out of business. However, indication of time remained as the prime function of watches, although a few built-in databases, dictionaries etc. were added. Display of time on LCD and LED screens with a variety of digital watches became so ubiquitous that it reflected on everything, your pen, key ring, car dashboard, office desk, computer screens, and so on; time was displayed on most of the noticeable objects. That trend has remained till date. The electronic LCD watches started becoming boring and their business was soon out of favour.

By 1990s, perhaps the need was felt that more functions needed to be added on watches to keep them functionally relevant. With the arrival of mobile technology, most obvious appeared to be the phone communication and some amount of computing done through the watches. Multiple technology companies including IBM, AT&Tand Samsungstarted R&D in this area with AT&T patenting a wristwatch with phone in 1993. In 1998, it was Prof. Steve Mann, Electrical and Computer Engineering at University of Toronto who invented and designed the world’s first Linux wristwatch. For this work, Prof. Steve received the honour of “The Father of Wearable Computing” from IEEE ISSCC2000 in Feb 2000.

Soon after this invention, in 1999, Samsung launched the world’s first commercial watch phone, SPH-WP10. This watch phone had integrated speaker and microphone and had about 90 minutes of talk time. It had a monochrome LCD screen. Then IBM developed a wristwatch with Linux 2.2, Bluetooth, 8MB memory, accelerometer, and fingerprint sensor. In the following years several other watch phones were launched by different companies, e.g. Fossil’sWrist PDA, Microsoft’sSPOT, Samsung’s next watch phone S9110, Sony Ericsson’s NBW series, and so on. However, the technology appeared to be too clumsy for watch phones and took a backseat.

What was happening in parallel was the advent of mobile phones. The mobile phones with bigger screen sizes than watches were perceived to be better platforms for integration of other functions including time, computing, music, video, phone, conferences, and so on. The mobile phones surreptitiously came into the market, re-invented themselves into smartphones and stole the show. They snatched the market, not only from the budding watch phones but also from PCs and notebooks. The watch phones were again left in the lurch.

However, the time doesn’t stand still; watches were yet to see their time. The mobile phone industry with several functions integrated into them gave a significant push to miniaturization in semiconductor ICs and SoCs and also a vast mobile network for data exchange. This ecosystem built by mobile phones again offered a ripe platform for watches to re-invent themselves in the modern context and see their luck!

The actual journey of watches into the realm of what we call ‘smartwatch’ began in 2012 when Pebblewas unveiled. This smartwatch is compatible with iOS (the operating system used in iPhone) and Android (the Google driven OS used in other smartphones) based devices. It’s laden with features such as call alerts, SMS, iMessage, calendar, activity tracking, gaming, and so on. Interestingly, Pebble generated its initial funds for starting this project through crowd-funding. Today, we have more advanced smartwatches with Apple smartwatch to the fore. There are many others in the fray. And I believe the time for smartwatches has arrived now.

If we look at the overall journey of watches through the passage of time, not even from sundial, but from an spring-driven watch in 15[SUP]th[/SUP] century to an smartwatch in 21[SUP]st[/SUP] century, what we have covered in last three decades is many times more than what we would have covered in previous five centuries! World is moving much faster now!!


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