Editorial: The time of our lives

Seventies-style digital watches have had a bit of a comeback recently, thanks to time-travelling cops on TV and a nostalgia for the decade that taste forgot. Once you couldn't give them away but you'd be amazed how much early models now fetch on eBay.

There was a time in the late 1970s when it looked like the traditional analogue watch was doomed. The digital watch was chrome and black, it made good beeping noises and even played tunes. There were models with world times, stopwatches and even 'databanks'.

It looked like the digital watch would become the Dick Tracy watch, communicator and all round great gadget. But the mobile phone sneaked in and took that role.

Mobiles will do everything for you from playing you music to giving you directions. I see no reason why watches couldn't do those things. They have the space in there because while most consumer gadgets have shrunk dramatically, fashion has made watches absolutely enormous. All that bulk just to tell the time - or is it?

In our consumer electronics section on p32, Guy Clapperton looks at how the watch manufacturers are fighting back against mobiles with more multifunctional watches. What they are adding to their watches is interesting and Guy was quite impressed with some of them but I am not convinced. Put the functionality of a mobile phone in a watch and most people - at least everyone over the age of about nine - would consider it naff.

That's because watches are about a lot more than telling the time. Our management editor Nick Smith interviews Stephen Urqurhart, president of Omega, on p76 about his company's involvement in timing in the Olympics. "People will buy a watch for many different reasons - it could be spontaneous, it could be to show off." To tell the time doesn't comes into it, but image certainly does. "If you ask the consumer, they'll tell you that it doesn't, but it does." And that's why James Bond and Cindy Crawford wear Omega watches.

Don't even suggest that timepieces are a mere fashion item to the horologists in the Palace of Westminster. These are the people entrusted with looking after the Great Clock, known widely as Big Ben, although surely everyone in England knows that's just the name of the hour bell. The clock first gave Londoners the time 150 years ago in June. The bell first rang a little later in July. You can read about the surprising history of both on p22.

Go also to our new issue links page at http://kn.theiet.org/magazine/issues/0909/weblinks.cfm for links to find out more about the clock's revolutionary double three-legged gravity escapement, as well as links for further reading on many other subjects covered in this issue.

Philip Schewe traces the story of time and its measurement on p19, with concepts of time like indeterminate time and Planck time to make your head hurt. And in our specialist pages, we look at how timing is crucial in engineering. In communications, mobile operators need to synchronise their base station networks (p66). Timing is important in data centre server virtualisation (p59) and manufacturers use takt time (p62) to synchronise production to demand. Also in manufacturing, Anne Harris visits Citizen Watches to see how they make the parts that are getting finer than ever (p60).

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