Horological Concept Video of the Day

By Sean Carroll | December 2, 2011 9:39 am

Mechanical watches have a complicated history. The first pocketwatch appeared in the early 1500’s, and they became popular fashion accessories long before they were very good at telling time. The idea of putting a watch on a strap and wrapping it around your wrist was very slow to catch on, and it wasn’t until the idea became popular among pilots and military personnel (for whom functionality trumped fashion preference) that wristwatches really took off. The course of the 20th century witnessed the rise of finely crafted mechanical wristwatches (especially Swiss) as both indicators of status and genuine works of technological art.

This all came crashing down with the quartz crisis of the 1970’s, when Seiko and other companies started to produce electronic timepieces that were both much cheaper and more reliable than mechanicals. For the kids today, of course, with their smartphones and iThings, wristwatches are seemingly going the way of the cassette tape. The Swiss watchmaking industry nearly collapsed, before the surviving companies were able to re-position themselves by appealing to horological connoisseurs and elitist yuppies who would like to think they are.

As someone who thinks about time as a full-time occupation (as well as a bit of an elitist yuppie myself), it was inevitable that I would become fascinated by watches. I don’t have nearly the financial wherewithal to splurge on the latest masterpieces out of Geneva, and my watch-snob credentials are ruined by the fact that I don’t mind wearing a well-designed quartz. But there’s a fascinating little sub-culture there, which you can experience at the WatchUSeek or TimeZone watch forums.

A reasonable argument could be made that we the Golden Age of mechanical watches is right now. As a luxury niche market, watchmakers at the high end have some freedom to experiment and innovate. There are some hits and some misses, of course. At some point I may find the time and energy to post something substantive about watchmaking, but right now I’ll just offer up this cool video for the Urwerk UR-110. (If you can find one for under $80,000, consider it a bargain.) It features a clever design in which a series of rotating barrels display the hour, and move by a dial on the side to indicate the minutes. There’s no attempt to explain what’s going on — this is pure glitz. Still — pretty compelling glitz.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Technology, Top Posts
  • Sean Matthews

    Tastes differ, I am afraid. To me, this is laughable little boy kitsch.

  • max

    I guess we all have to dork out on something other than physics sometimes, but I’d hope that for 80 grand I’d get something that allows me to do more than tell the time “discreetly and elegantly without the need to pull back a cuff.” To each their own.

    It does look pretty nifty though.

  • z

    An ugly timepiece for the 1% crowd. They can have it. This is purely a status symbol, since a $10 casio would probably keep time and withstand accelerations/torques/shocks better.

    What’s shameful here is that so much human effort and energy is wasted on such useless and unproductive creations (complete with a fancy video of high production values), when those same minds could be working on advancing science, or solving energy and other societal problems — or simply contributing to the economy in a manner not catering to technological dodos for the ultrarich and stupid (no one normal under the age of 30 I know has worn a wristwatch in the past 5 years). Capitalism at work?

  • Chris

    I tend to be an oddball in that I still wear a wrist watch. I don’t carry my phone with me everywhere and if I do need to check the time, I don’t feel like fiddling with the phone. I’ll always be happy with my $15 Casio watch which lasted me over 10 years, from high school till my time as a postdoc. When it finally went to the watchmaker in the sky, I went to see if they still made it and sure enough there it was and I had to laugh at the description “Sporting retro-inspired looks…” Yes, it was so old it was now considered retro!

  • http://www.flisser.com Bob F.

    Wow, their watches are taken from Borg cube ships? No wonder they’re expensive.

    And I agree with Z (above): it’s an expensive toy for the 1%. Watches are uncomfortable, anyway.

  • Henry Daehnke

    The Economist recently ran an obituary on George Daniels (http://www.economist.com/node/21540211). He managed to build a mechanical watch that kept time better than a quartz based one. He also invented a replacement for the lever escapement (introduced by Thomas Mudge in 1754) in 1976 called the co-axial escapement. This escapement doesn’t need lubrication, so the watch doesn’t loose time as the oil degrades. Oh yeah, and for some reason (at least according to the obit in the Economist) the Swiss mechanical watch makers refused or decided they could not make watches with Mr. Daniels co-axial escapement.

    It sounds like the Swiss watchmakers are in a technical business, but refuse to incorporate new technology.

  • nota bene

    see also this video from Autechre c. 2002

  • Another Puritan

    What’s shameful here is that so much human effort and energy is wasted on such useless and unproductive activities as sex (complete with a fancy video of high production values), when those same minds could be working on advancing science, or solving energy and other societal problems — or simply contributing to the economy in a manner not catering to technological dildos for the ultrarich and stupid (no one normal under the age of 30 I know has had sex in the past 5 years). Capitalism at work?

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean

    Henry, the reason why Daniels’ co-axial escapement is not widely used is because Omega purchased the exclusive rights to it, and has been working on a way of incorporating it into their watches. They’ve finally done so, and many new Omega models feature it prominently. Google “Omega 8500.”

  • Alex

    I am not sure where to begin. Firstly, Daniels was a great technician, designer and watchmaker. I was fortunate to have met him in London on more than one occasion. However, having spoken to some pocket watch experts and owners of his watches they had a reputation for being inaccurate. His development of the co-axial escapement has since been modified not only by Omega, but also by his protege Roger W Smith, another great English watchmaker.
    Henry, your comment about Swiss watchmakers not incorporating new technology is slightly misleading, just take a look at Patek Philippe and Ulysse Nardin for example, experimenting with the use of diamond and silicon in watch escapements, a material that can also aid in improved timekeeping as it eliminates the requirement to lubricate the beating heart of the watch. Timekeeping competitions have also been re-introduced and have compelled watch companies to invest in R&D as they vie for chronometric perfection.
    As for the heavy criticism, in my opinion this stems from a profound ignorance of the watch industry. The mechanical watch industry suffered immeasurably from the development, introduction and mass manufacturing of quartz watches in the 1970s. They are invariably more accurate than mechanical watches. Period. The industry was saved and revived by the likes of the late Nicolas Hayek (founder of the Swatch Group) and Jean-Claude Biver (saviour of brands like Blancpain and more recently Hublot). Nearly every watch collector I have ever spoken to accepts that they purchase watches because of an innate attraction to them – telling the time is also useful. They are pieces of jewellery, sometimes works of art and on this occasion great feats of micro engineering.
    What exactly gives Z the right to tell us that all this wasted energy could be better spent somewhere else? Based on what? Felix Baumgartner and Martin Frei (the founders of Urwerk) want to design and build watches, they want to give jobs to people who respect them and want to work for them. Hundreds of brands employ thousands of people in an industry that’s booming only a couple years after enormous global economic tumult. These people work hard and contribute taxes to their economy. It is nothing but a bizarre, uneducated and pathetic argument. If we were to follow this argument to its logical conclusion, then we should essentially do away with the luxury market, in fact pretty much do away with whole industries because they are not geared towards altruism and saving the planet. Sensible.
    Embedded in this particular view point is what I consider to be an negation of art and in some ways forms of micro culture. Just because it seems on the face of it to be the case that this is only a watch, just for telling time and does therefore not deserve to be worth more than $15, it doesn’t necessary follow that creators can not create. Art in of itself has no function. It does however allow us to feel a part of human ingenuity, creativeness and progress. There is a market for everything, individuals choose, they form opinions and they live with their decisions. This is a great watch and I have been fortunate enough to have met those who created it. I will probably never be able to afford it, but I don’t care because I probably won’t ever have a ferrari, a private jet, a yacht, a mansion, a $2,000 pen and many other things. But they exist and sometimes they even make the 99% smile.
    And by the way, I am normal and under 30 and watches are perfectly normal things to wear.

  • Julio Jaramillo

    Very attractive and unique watch, but there is not such thing as mass-produced machine-made art; the cost of manufacturing this watch is probably a tiny fraction of its price. I only hope the engineers and designers behind this watch are receiving a good share of its earnings ; rather than an investor who just happened to have enough money.

  • Chris

    The official management term for this is


    See also Iron Man.

  • Rob

    I’ve always enjoyed watches until I became addicted to my blackberry. For years now my watches have had to exist in a dusty corner in my closet. However, with my own personal discovery of sidereal time, I have new hope that my Timex Expedition will rise again (it’s sure is simple to keep on sidereal time when all you have to do is turn the mechanical clock forward 4 minutes every evening, 3 minutes every 15 days). Maybe that’s the specialty market that watchmakers should cater toward…

  • Jess Tauber

    New here- having wandered in from other Discover blogs. I’ve been interested in antique watches and watchmaking for a couple of years now- trying to figure out ways to use magnets, air, graphene, and other things in movements for high-end mechanicals. Apparently air is already out there. Oh, well…. But I bet nobody has flowing metal yet (remember the hatch/door with snakes in the Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets movie??). A controlled liquifaction/solidification process, and ability to move the mass where you want it, and shape it as you like. Sure, there is always the possibility of Terminators coming to your door, but every technology has risks :-)

    Sure this caters to the 1%, so I also try to come up with things that benefit the rest of humanity- such as ultralight lenses and mirrors so you don’t break your back with your astro-optics, and a new periodic table based on the actual mathematical motivations of the periodic system (which get their marching orders from Pascal’s Triangle, surprisingly)- the best mapping is a tetrahedron of close-packed spheres, each representing one element, organized as stacks of skew rhombi (which contain square numbers of spheres, covering two same-length periods in symmetrical manner).


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Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] cosmicvariance.com .


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