diamond geezer

 Tuesday, April 08, 2003

Time on my hands

Douglas Adams pretty much summed up late 1970s timekeeping when, in the prologue to the Hitch Hiker's Guide To the Galaxy, he wrote: "Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun. Orbiting this at a distance of roughly ninety-eight million miles is an utterly insignificant little blue-green planet whose ape-descended life forms are so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea."

Back in 1978 I thought digital watches were a pretty neat idea. They were new, they were at the cutting edge of technology, they were affordable and, best of all, they told the exact time. None of these old-fashioned second hands going round once a minute that had only a 59-to-1 chance of being in the correct place. What was the point of having a super-expensive analogue watch that was accurate to within half a second every twenty years, if that half a second was probably wrong? No, I wanted to know the real time, checked daily against the daily 8am BBC Radio pips. I wanted to know exactly when double History was going to end. I wanted to make sure I never missed the beginning of Nationwide because I knew if I switched the TV on with exactly 35 seconds to go the tube would always warm up just in time for that familiar jingle. And if I ever had the special treat of staying up until midnight, I wanted to know exactly when midnight arrived.

In 1978, old fashioned analogue watches suddenly seemed very uncool because they had two hands. However, it turned out that digital watches needed two hands as well - one to wear them on and one to press the button to find out what the time was. One type of watch needed winding up, the other wound you up. Red LED digital watches were just no use at all while you were carrying both your briefcase and sports bag around school, neither could you sneak a look at the display at the end of double History without being noticed. I was therefore particularly pleased when liquid crystal watches came along soon afterwards, and bought one as soon as the price came down far enough. Their display was ever-present. At last, accuracy with functionality.

However, the heyday of the digital watch was brief. The Swiss watchmaking industry, rattled by the flood of cheap Far Eastern timepieces onto the world market, soon hit back with the disposable Swatch. The Swiss had cleverly realised that a watch isn't for telling the time at all, but is instead a fashion statement. The majority of the population really don't care whether it's exactly twenty to three or not, they just want a trendy bracelet on their wrist. As for telling the time accurately, merely knowing that the big hand is somewhere inbetween the two widely-spaced coloured blobs on your watch face is usually quite good enough for most people.

It's possible to chart the decline in popularity of the digital watch using the Argos Index. Twenty years ago, about 60% of the watch section in the Argos catalogue would have been filled with hip and happening digitals. Nowadays less than 20% of their watch section is digital, and many of those that remain are ugly, chunky and impractical. Sports watches, apparently, although you'd not get far trying to run with that weight hanging off your wrist.

Me, I still wear my digital watch every day. I don't care if I get funny looks from people who wonder why my watch looks like it cost less than a tenner fifteen years ago (they'd be right, as it happens). I don't want a chunk of fake Rolex on my arm. I still like to know exactly what the time is. I can walk into the cinema or the train station at exactly the right moment without missing anything. I can turn up bang on time for a meeting, without going in early because I'm not quite sure whether the minute hand's gone past a mark on my watch face that isn't there. I can stand in a crowd on New Year's Eve knowing that everyone else is celebrating prematurely because Big Ben's one second early. I like to know my place in four-dimensional space. I may be sad, but at least I'm precisely sad.

Douglas Adams was wrong about digital watches. They are a pretty neat idea. And you can read all about them on h2g2, his excellent legacy of a website about Life, The Universe and Everything. Digital, it's the future apparently.

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