Tag Archives: analogue

Please continue to hold while I sort this thing out

Remember how mechanical clocks are prone to lose time? It’s because they’re made out of physical machinery—pendulums or mainsprings and gears. We replaced those mechanical parts with a quartz crystal, zapped it with electricity to make it vibrate and got digital clocks. Digital clocks are more reliable, but they still lose 15 seconds every month.

To make the even-more-reliable atomic clock, we replaced the quartz crystal with atoms. Atoms vibrate on their own. We’re building a clock that’s as free of physical, mechanical parts as we can manage in this bad old fallen world.

Here’s what I’m getting from my exhaustive research so far: somehow cesium atoms are funneled down a tube. How do they get the atoms out of the cesium? I don’t know. The atoms are exposed to radiation—radio microwaves like the kind you use to heat up your old cold French fries—which makes them switch back and forth between energy states. The idea is to tune the radio waves to sync up with the atom’s own vibrations at 9,192,631,770 times every second. It’s not easy to get this exactly right—like tuning in a jazz station from 2 counties over on an old radio with dials. There’s a detector at the end of the tube. When the radio waves are at the exact right frequency (the same frequency as the atoms’ vibrations), the atoms change energy states and bounce off the detector—which means one second has passed. Then what? I dunno. How does the detector know when the atoms change from State B back to State A ? I dunno.

Back to my research. Thanks for your patience. Please continue to hold.

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The liquid crystal display explained!

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?

A digital wristwatch made by the Japanese company Casio.

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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Circuit boards

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.

This will look better when I paint it. For one thing, the board will be a lovely green. The bigger, more complicated circuit boards look like city maps.

If you’ve ever wired something—like a lamp—you’ll remember getting out the needle-nose pliers and wire-cutters, maybe a razor blade to strip the insulation off the wire ends; you wrap the exposed copper wire around the appropriate screws then tighten ‘em up so the wire stays put…I’m trying to imagine how you would wire something as minuscule as the insides of a watch. Wires would need to go from the battery to the quartz crystal, back to the battery with a detour to power the hour, minute & second hands after counting how many oscillations the crystal made.

The circuit board is a flat card made of plastic or resin. Instead of wires, circuitry is printed right onto the card in metal ink. A circuit board can get a complicated electric network crammed onto a very small area. A small circuit board in a watch can direct electric power from a battery to the quartz crystal and anything else inside the watch .

You can see the circuit board at 27:20 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SFiq8WDx5Is

The History of Circuit Boards

Those old discarded mass-produced watches and circuit boards can become playthings for someone with electrical knowledge—http://www.angelfire.com/ut/horology/quartz.html

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Quartz crystal

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.

Quartz is a common mineral that does this weird thing: it generates a tiny bit of electricity if it’s squeezed, and vibrates when you send an electric charge through it. Watchmakers cut quartz into a shape that looks like a tuning fork, so it vibrates like a tuning fork.

So if we just squeeze the quartz—I’m not sure if this is really the way it happens…

…wow! It works! (photo credit: KTUL.com)

Amazing!! (photo credit: Google Earth)

Okay, okay, that was just a gag. You knew that, right? Just a teeny tiny electrical charge passes through the quartz crystal to regulate the watch.

“Inside a quartz clock or watch, the battery sends electricity to the quartz crystal through an electronic circuit. The quartz crystal oscillates (vibrates back and forth) at a precise frequency: exactly 32,768 times each second. The circuit counts the number of vibrations and uses them to generate regular electric pulses, one per second. These pulses can either power an LCD display (showing the time numerically) or they can drive a small electric motor (a tiny stepping motor, in fact), turning gear wheels that spin the clock’s second, minute, and hour hands.” https://www.explainthatstuff.com/quartzclockwatch.html


A Short History of Digital Clocks and Watches


A Brief History of the Wristwatch – Part 1

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The Hamilton wristwatch

It’s the hairspring that made watches—which are just little clocks—possible. You wind up the hairspring and as it uncoils it releases energy to power the watch. Since the hairspring is small, watchmakers could miniaturize the balance wheel and gears, too.

But if you really want precise timekeeping, a watch’s design must have as few moving parts as possible. Watches were mechanical. Mechanical or analogue machines (a clock or steam engine or internal combustion engine) need constantly to be fussed with: you have to oil the gears; or correct for changes in temperature or humidity; friction slows down the machinery; you have to wind it or feed it fuel…if you could just get rid of those moving parts, you’d have a more reliable watch.

A small electric battery

The switch away from analogue didn’t happen all at once. When batteries became small enough, the first electrically-powered watch showed up in 1957. It was battery-operated, but still had mechanical moving parts, like gears and a balance wheel. It was made by the Hamilton Watch Company of Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

Inside the Hamilton wristwatch


The wristwatch’s battery is really small

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Keep on trying

With John Harrison’s innovations, his clocks were more precise than any clock had ever been. The bad news was: his clocks still weren’t precise enough to win the Longitude Prize. “The amount awarded under the Act was commensurate with the accuracy of the invention in determining longitude: 10,000 pounds for 1 degree, £15,000 for 2/3 of a degree, and £20,000 for 1/2 of a degree.”

Rather than give up, Harrison tried something different. Instead of designing a precision clock, he turned to designing a precision watch. A watch is an analogue or mechanical (not digital) timekeeping device small enough to carry around with you. You can hold one in your hand. People attached an end of a chain to their watch, attached the other end to a belt loop or button-hole and kept the watch in a pocket.

Random side-note: A pocket-watch and chain play a part in the O. Henry short story, The Gift Of The Magi. https://www.enotes.com/topics/gift-magi Spoiler alert! DON’T unlock the summary until you’ve had the pleasure of reading the story itself.

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