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The burden of being a watchmaker

by Jordan Ficklin

This afternoon I read the following line in Malcom Gladwell’s book What the Dog Saw: And Other Adventures

When Bulova wanted a name for their new quartz watch, Tinker suggested Accutron.

It’s a fascinating book. I’m loving it, but I need to set the record straight: The Bulova Accutron is not a quartz watch, it is an electric tuning fork watch.

In automobile commercials, or at the end of 60 minutes, you hear the ticking of a watch, but most youngsters these days don’t know why that sound is associated with the passage of time. Most clocks and watches today (quartz) tick once a second and it is a hideous ker-clunk, not a nice tic-a-tic-a-tic.

I recently watched the movie Hugo based on the book, The Invention of Hugo Cabret and I enjoyed it, but in order to do so I had to suspend my understanding of reality. The cinematography is incredible, the directing fantastic, the story amazing, but the physics are impossible! Throughout the movie Hugo runs around through the train station dodging spinning wheels and pendulums. The clocks move like electric clocks where motors spin fast and each successive gear turns slower, not like mechanical clocks where the barrel turns slow and each successive gear turns faster. An electric clock’s fastest gear will turn 60 times per second and it’s slowest will turn once a minute. In a mechanical clock with a pendulum the fastest gears will turn once a minute and the slowest gears will turn once every several hours. Also, a pendulums rate of oscillation is directly proportional to its length. A pendulum 10 feet long or more (as shown in the movie) will swing back and forth about every 4 seconds. So, how do I know they are mechanical clocks? Because Hugo’s job is to keep them wound! Since the period of these large clocks in the movie is about every 4 seconds no gear in the clock should be rotating faster than one tooth every 4 seconds, unless every time he runs through the mechanism he is traversing a chiming mechanism or something similar which turns freely, held back by a governor of such device, but I find that highly unlikely on a scale through which a small boy can pass through the center of a gear.

On another note that automaton is amazing and the mechanics for it are quite realistic. How can I find the time, energy, and money to create something like that?

So what is my burden? Knowledge of how certain things in the world around me work. I can live with it, but at times I find it a little bit annoying.

13 Comments

  1. Posted January 18, 2012 at 3:33 pm | Permalink

    I suppose you’ve seen the introduction of the Syler character in the TV series Heroes… The character is a watchmaker so we see him in a shop working on a watch. To highlight what he is doing, there is a close-up of his work. He lays the ratchet wheel down on a fully assembled watch and the balance wheel springs to life!

    I don’t really mind this, except for one thing. The shot is clearly done in CG. As long as they were using CG, they could have just as easily shown something “correct” without changing the impact or meaning of the shot in anyway. They just didn’t ask a watchmaker.

  2. William Thompson
    Posted January 18, 2012 at 4:07 pm | Permalink

    Mis-info about watches and watchmaking is all around us.. We are a dying breed..My son wanted no part of it and became a Civil Engineer..I was not able to retire from it..I had to get another job later in life..

  3. Mike B. CW21
    Posted January 18, 2012 at 4:33 pm | Permalink

    Hmmm… yes, in a world where information is endless, it’s amazing how much mis-information surrounds us. What I truly find astonishing is the amount of customers who come in and say, “I certainly won’t pay THAT much for the repair. I’ll do it myself (or take it to the “watchmaker” down the road) because it’s not THAT complicated!” Watchmaking is not a career where one will make a fortune (ask any of those watchmakers/clockmakers who are 70+ and still working out of their house charging pennies for “repairs”), but it’s a career that one from which an individual can get a lot of satisfaction.

  4. Posted January 18, 2012 at 5:44 pm | Permalink

    The “mechanical” watch face on Apple’s new iPod Nano is another good example of this suspended reality.

  5. J.Peter
    Posted January 18, 2012 at 6:26 pm | Permalink

    J. Edwards, tell me more. I haven’t seen it. What does it do?

  6. Posted January 19, 2012 at 8:23 am | Permalink

    @J.Peter One of the big features Apple touted about the iPod Nano update they released this past autumn was that it now features 18 different watch faces. One of those faces has a digital cutaway at 12:00, revealing 4 “gears”, none of which is shown meshing with any pinion. None of them move at a rate that is in any way grounded in reality either.

    The “mechanical” watch face can be seen in motion, 20s in, in the following video on Youtube:

    http://bit.ly/A7U15R

  7. Posted January 19, 2012 at 8:26 am | Permalink

    Nice post. As an aside, I think my Atmos has a VERY slow beat. If I remember correctly, the balance sweeps in one direction for 30s, then back the other way for 30s.

  8. samj
    Posted January 19, 2012 at 9:15 am | Permalink

    I’m still trying to figure out what side of the fence I’m on when it comes to Malcolm Gladwell. I thought “What the dog saw” was actually his worst book, which shows how exceptional he is as a writer and story teller. As a ‘researcher’ though, he might be a bit too wreckless for me.

  9. Mike B. CW21
    Posted January 19, 2012 at 9:16 am | Permalink

    @J.Edwards In a world of technology and CG, nothing has to function realistically, it only needs to look good and entertain.

  10. J.Peter
    Posted January 19, 2012 at 10:04 am | Permalink

    @samj This is his first book I’ve read and it is really entertaining. I’ll have to read his others if this is his worst.

  11. jeremiah
    Posted January 19, 2012 at 12:21 pm | Permalink

    Just wait until you gain some understanding of computers. Everything (everything) computer related on television or in the movies is incorrect. Not just incorrect, not annoying, but insulting.

  12. J.Peter
    Posted January 19, 2012 at 12:37 pm | Permalink

    @jeremiah, I have a degree in Computer Science, I do have an understanding of computers and bear that burden as well. It just isn’t what this blog was about. The burden is for anyone who understands the world around them. I expect Doctors hate ER and CSIs hate CSI. They could consult someone who knows but it is all about the glitz and glamour.

    A prime example is a PR video from Richemont about the fine service you receive at their repair center which shows a watchmaker holding a clean movement in their bare hands. I watched it in a room full of watchmakers and there was an audible gasp. The representative from Richemont explained that of course, they would never do that in their repair center but that finger cots, tweezers, movement holders, etc. appear awkward to the unknowing so they do what is supposed to look good for the consumer. Rather than educate the public they pander to their naivete.

  13. Posted January 19, 2012 at 8:54 pm | Permalink

    I agree with Samj, What the Dog Saw is my least favourite of Gladwell’s work. Still an interesting read, though; minus the odd incorrect fact as you’ve already pointed out, J.Peter.

    My favourite of his works is The Tipping Point. Partially because it was the first of his pieces that I read, but mostly because it is, to me, the most actionable and, therefore, the most applicable in daily life. Outliers is a very close second. I find the anecdotes in Outliers more intriguing than those in his other books. From backstories on titans like the Beatles, Steve Jobs, and Bill Gates, down to watchmakers and tailors in New York during the Great Depression, and as intimate as delving into the author’s own history towards the end of the book.

    Blink was also insightful, but not quite what I was expecting going into it. I definitely could have done without the graphic, slow motion details he included about police officers firing their weapons. The bits about thin-slicing artwork, relationships, or liars were the parts I found most interesting (Pamela Myer’s Lie Spotting is a much better primer on the latter). Since reading it, I’ve found it interesting to analyze the psychology behind my own ability to thin-slice, say, that someone is wearing a Rolex from across the room or to decipher a fake at arms’ length.

    I also found it intriguing to reflect on his 10,000 hour rule from Outliers and parallel its convincing significance to the lives of master watchmakers like George Daniels or F.P. Journe who were exposed to the craft at a young age – Daniels especially.

    If you decide to pick up another one, I’d highly recommend reading Outliers or The Tipping Point before taking in Blink.

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