Three inventions moved clocks and watches away from being mechanical/analogue so they could become digital: The quartz crystal, the circuit board and the liquid crystal display.
Okay, I sort of explained how a battery works. I kind of explained how a quartz crystal works. The circuit board was easy—even a shmo like me can explain printed metallic ink on a plastic card. But—liquid crystal display? I started this post about 17 times and kept getting lost in the weeds with carrot juice and double melting points and twisted nematics and polarization…
Let’s start here: analogue clocks and watches were inaccurate because they have physical, mechanical moving parts. So we replaced the wound-up mainspring with a battery. We replaced the balance wheel with a vibrating quartz crystal. Now we need to replace the moving mechanical gears, hour-hand and minute-hand with a digital (just the numbers) display of the correct time. How do we do that?
Instead of mechanical gears and hands, we’re going to use electricity and light.
We want a watch-face that will light up and show us what time it is. We want most of the face to light up except the numbers, which should be black so we can read ‘em easily. We’ll block the light in the shape of each number so it shows up black. The numbers will change every minute, so we need a way to change the blocked areas every minute.
In order to block the light, we need a filter. The filter lets us control which rays of light pass through and which rays get blocked. A filter could be a wall of liquid filled with crystals that all face the same direction. The lined-up crystals let the light pass through. We’ll sandwich this wall between 2 plates of glass. The crystals still let light pass through—until we zap them with a little electricity. The electricity upsets the crystals so they don’t line up anymore and light can’t pass through.
We’re only going to zap in certain areas. We want those certain areas to be shaped like numbers. For instance, when we zap the glass in the shape of a ‘3,’ those crystals in the 3-shape get upset and don’t line up with the rest of the crystals in the wall. Light can’t pass through the 3-shape, so we see a black ‘3’ on a lighted watch-face.
Just like on a circuit board, we’ll print the numbers onto the glass in ink. This ink is transparent—and it conducts electricity. Each number is designed as a 7-segment figure, so we can zap only the segments that form a ‘3,’ or whichever number we want. Each segment is wired to the battery.
This is the principle behind LCDs. It’s a simplification. I left out a lot of stuff. But you get the idea, right?
Many thanks to a couple of the Western Civ Irregulars, Diana (Ms Physics) and engineering-wiz Don M—both pals of mine since childhood. They pointed me in the right direction when I couldn’t find a way to explain this one.
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