The Modern Evolution Of Clocks

Included within is a tiny bit of home automation that doesn’t sacrifice any personal privacy.

I’m a fan of clocks. I use clocks to keep time, set appointments, record how I spend my time and to decide when to go to sleep and when to rise. I use clocks to estimate the time required to get a task done. I have always been fascinated by clocks because to me, they offer a physical and visceral representation of time. Clocks remind me that time is passing.

When I was a boy, I was fascinated by the clock. I’d often look at the clock in school. I knew when recess would come. When lunch would come. When school let out for the day. I like to be prompt, even as a boy. I like to leave early, arrive early, and be prepared for class. I have always considered the clocks in my life to be my friends.

I started with alarm clocks. As a young lad, I often saw my parent’s flip clock when I was made to sit in the corner. Somehow, I got a clock for my bedroom and I used that to keep time. I got watches but managed to lose every one of them. I just didn’t like wearing watches.

As a young man, I had a job that required me to wear a beeper. You might remember those things. A little box with a belt-clip on it that had an LCD, like a pocket calculator. The early beepers would just beep at you, telling you that someone was trying to call you. You were supposed to know the number to call. Later on, they displayed the time most of the time, but when someone called my beeper, their phone number would display and I’d call back. I used that beeper to keep time.

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Then along came the cell phone. They were simple devices at first. They displayed the time. Thye displayed the number of the last caller, too. They received voicemail. They received calls. I could call back instantly. They didn’t function a few floors below the surface like a beeper could, but they worked fine otherwise. I began to use the phone as my timepiece, eschewing watches and even clocks.

I made a career change into IT. I’ve been working in that space since 1999 and I’ve been enjoying myself there ever since. As I worked with PCs, I began to notice that they had a clock in the taskbar. I also noticed that they didn’t keep time very well in the beginning. To remedy this, I found that I could install software on Windows that would synchronize Windows Time with an atomic clock at the US Naval Observatory in Denver, Colorado.

Eventually, that timekeeping function was built into Windows. Windows developers included a Network Time Protocol client in every copy of Windows that would automatically get the time from a public time server. Note that Microsoft figured this out long after Unix and Linux developers had added NTP service to their operating systems. All connected devices now do this. They all rely on the internet to get the time.

So I used the clock on my PCs to keep time. On every PC, Windows, Mac, Linux, UNIX, and other, there is a time client. And the time is usually displayed in the task or menu bar of the desktop. They are usually accurate to within a second or two, and they never need manual setting once the time zone and Daylight Savings Time is set.

A few years ago, I happened upon an alarm clock that claimed that it was an atomic clock. Actually it relied upon an atomic clock, but it used a radio signal to receive the time. That radio signal came from the same US Naval Observatory I mentioned earlier. Up until then, I had no idea that a radio signal was available for keeping time. So I bought the clock and have used it in one way or another, ever since.

And since that time, I’ve wanted a wall clock that would do the same, but they were much more expensive than ordinary clocks. At least until now. A few days ago, I purchased just such a clock online and I love it. The production run for that model had ended and it was on sale, cheap. It has space for 3 batteries and with that, it will last 3 years without changing any batteries, keeping accurate time for the life of the batteries.

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All mine, baby.

I didn’t even have to set the time. I did have to set the time zone and the DST options, but that was it. When I first turned it on, the hands on the clock swept around from 12:00 to 12:00 again. Then in a little while after that, it picked up the time signal over the air and set the clock properly.

I will never need to set the time on this clock. If it runs out of batteries, I replace the batteries, hang it up again, and it will set the correct time. There is no compromise here, either. It’s a tiny bit of home automation that requires no network connection, no cable, no wifi. It just needs to able to receive that signal from the atomic clock in Denver.

All clocks are known to drift. The atomic wall clock that I got might drift, but it will always adjust itself. it’s never slow or fast. It’s just right on time. It depends on the cesium atomic clock in Denver, which is accurate to one second in a million years. And my wall clock big enough for me to see across the room. It’s big enough for my girls to see the passing of time when they watch TV. It’s just right for teaching my girls how to tell time, too.

That clock is fully automatic and doesn’t send any personal information to the internet. It is ready to receive, and it displays what it receives. It does what I need it to do and that’s enough for me. It’s about time.

Write on.

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