Living Columns & Blogs

Something as simple as quartz revolutionized timekeeping

A version of the Seiko Astron is still made today by the company.
A version of the Seiko Astron is still made today by the company. Seiko

Q: Who invented the quartz watch, which is so common now? And why have cheaper models not diminished the sales of such premium watches as Rolex and Omega, which are no more accurate and harder to maintain.

Jed Langston, of Caseyville

A: Time began marching on way back in 1880, when Pierre Curie (yes, the future husband of Madame Marie Curie) and his older brother, Jacques, made a discovery that would revolutionize clock and watchmaking decades later: Quartz, one of the most common minerals on Earth, is piezoelectric.

Now don’t let that high-falutin’-sounding word scare you off. In simple terms, it basically means that if you “squeeze” a quartz crystal, it will generate an electric current. Conversely, if you pass electricity through it, it will vibrate at a very precise frequency — i.e., it will “shake” an exact number of times each second.

It’s that latter property that ushered in a new era in timekeeping. You see, pendulums and mainsprings did an acceptable job for centuries, but look at their disadvantages. My dad loved old pendulum clocks, but I still remember him spending a half-hour every Sunday walking through the house to wind each one carefully or else they’d simply run down and stop. (Yes, kids, you actually had to wind old wristwatches like the Bulova Caravelle I received as my eighth grade graduation gift.)

But even worse, pendulums depend on gravity, which can vary depending where you are, so a grandfather’s clock on top of Mount Everest will keep different time than one in Death Valley. And that’s not all: Pendulums change length slightly in different temperatures, so you may notice different accuracies depending on the temperature of a room.

The quartz watch eliminates these anomalies almost entirely. Instead, a battery sends an electric current causes the quartz crystal to oscillate (vibrate) 32,768 times a second. A microchip circuit reads these vibrations and sends out an electrical pulse every second. These pulses eventually drive either the analog mechanism of gears and hands or the digital readout. Only changes in temperature and other slight imperfections still may cause tiny inaccuracies.

It’s this reliability that started to excite scientists early in the 20th century. In 1921, Dr. Walter Cady, a noted American physicist, built the first quartz oscillator, which led six years later to the world’s first quartz clock developed by Warren Marrison and J.W. Horton at Bell Telephone Laboratories. The trouble was it was a very bulky device with large vacuum tubes, something you certainly could not wear on your wrist. So for the next 30 years, they were pretty much limited to scientific labs. Still, in 1932, it was a quartz clock that detected tiny variations in Earth’s rotation rate over a period of just a few weeks.

Finally, in 1967, the Bulova Accutron, which had grabbed headlines in 1960 when it debuted with its battery-powered tuning fork, began to join eight-track tapes and Betamaxes on the technological scrap pile. It was that year that the first two prototype analog quartz wristwatches were unveiled: the Beta 1 by Centre Electronique Horloger in Neuchätel, Switzerland, and another by Seiko in Japan, a company that had been working on quartz clocks since 1958.

Two years later, Seiko began marketing its Astron, just before a conglomerate of 16 Swiss manufacturers was able to put its Beta 21 on store shelves. Used by Rolex and Omega in their electroquartz models, the Beta 21 had an accuracy to within five seconds per month, yet it was soon overshadowed by even more economical and accurate watches. This initially caused what has come to be known as the “quartz crisis” in Switzerland. Failing to innovate quickly enough, Switzerland, which reportedly controlled 90 percent of the world’s watchmaking during World War II, saw its cherished industry plummet from 1,600 watchmakers to 600 until the Swatch came along in 1983. Since then, quartz digitals, with no moving gears and hands, have become more accurate, reliable — and popular — than ever. (The tuning-fork Accutron died in 1977.)

As for why people would shell out thousands for a Rolex rather than the $15 I happily paid for my Casio World Time Illuminator with its 10-year battery, I can think of two reasons.

First, the expensive watches are better in some respects. For example, they may be programmed to take temperature and other variables into account to provide an accuracy of plus or minus five seconds a year. Some also may be built to withstand extreme conditions. I don’t think I’d wear mine on a scuba dive.

But perhaps the most important reason is simply the name. I’m not terribly impressed by Gucci or Louis Vuitton, but some wouldn’t be seen in public without the latest Coach handbag. I would argue the same is true with watches. After all, Rolex is the official timepiece of Wimbledon and the PGA Tour while Omega has been the official watch of the Olympics since 1932, not to mention a favorite of later James Bonds and Buzz Aldrin on the moon. So who wouldn’t want to show off that legacy on their arms — even though in this case time truly is money.

Today’s trivia

How far back can we date wristwatches?

Answer to Wednesday’s trivia: Before he went on to write columns in the New York Morning Telegraph for the final 20 years of his life, gunfighter-lawman Bat Masterson published the Vox Populi in Dodge City, Kan., in 1884. Its first issue received a favorable review from another Dodge City paper, but Masterson folded his publication before another issue was printed.

Roger Schlueter: 618-239-2465, @RogerAnswer