October 28, 2005

Retrocomputing and mechanical watches

I’m now on my second month of wearing this watch

and in the process I’ve had some (to me) interesting thoughts on why, in this day and age, anyone would wear a mechanical watch.The answers are both complicated and amusing.

A bit of background on quartz and mechanical timekeeping

The oldest clocks post-sundial were, of course, mechanical. In the 1970s, the rise of quartz watches ended the reign of gears and pinions. (HowStuffWorks has a nice entry on quartz watches.) Briefly, quartz watches are cheaper, more reliable, more robust and more accurate.

Much more accurate. The most expensive (e.g. Rolex) mechanical watches are often labeled as Swiss certified chronometers” or similar. This means they’ve passed a battery of tests at COSC, certifying them to -4 to +6 seconds per day.

Meanwhile, a cheap quartz is often accurate to 0.5 seconds per day. Better quartz manages 0.1 seconds/day, and really accurate ones manage 3 seconds per year.

A bit of math shows that quartz is up to 400 times as accurate as mechanical. Amazing, isn’t it? Dan’s data puts it very well: **

All of these things are very much obsolete technology these days, after all - remember, a mechanical Jaeger-LeCoultre that appears to have been made by elves and costs as much as a car still won’t keep time nearly as well as a $10 quartz watch.

Geeks and watches

Nerds (or, more accurately, geeks) such as myself usually choose a watch on functionality and cost. Ask a random geek why they chose their watch, and the answer usually revolves around functionality - features such as timers, physical robustness or price. Pragmatism tends to rule. Casio G-Shock and Timex predominate.

(There are exceptions, which mainly are about advertising your geekiness and alpha-nerd status.)

A digression into other fields

If you’re in a job where appearances are more important, watches play a very different role. There, they are part of your ensemble and are used to establish pecking order and such. (Though, ironically, the watches recommended there are disdained by watch geeks.)

William Buckley wrote an entertaining article about watches, and ended up with an Omega. He doesn’t say which Omega, though. For amusement, I contacted Omega and asked them which model Buckley was referring to. They replied only to tell me that this model was no longer in production.’ Gee, thanks.

Job interviews are another place for fancy watches.


I spent quite a bit of time trying to reconcile my enjoyment of the mechanicals with the rest of my geek lifestyle, and finally found a reasonable explanation:

Retrocomputing. (Wikipedia link)

For a variety of reasons, nerds of all stripes often venerate obsolete technology. Not just old software, it also includes quill pens, bicycles, cameras, trebuchets, WW2 crypto hardware, old warplanes, etc, etc. Mechanical watches fit right in here. Quite a bit more practical than, say, a home pipe organ.

The other factor is more personal. Perhaps because I grew up with them, I can read an analog watch much faster than digital. (I’m not alone in this. Even Douglas Adams thought so.) I’m also a big fan of combined analog/digital, which can give you the best of both worlds.

Yeah, but why yellow?

Perhaps because its obnoxious. Perhaps because I found it more readable than black, orange or white.

OK, I actually found the white after I bought the yellow. In retrospect, maybe I’d get the white. Or not. The yellow color is actually extremely legible in almost all conditions; quite functional.

What’s so cool about mechanical?

You can find good information in the mechanical watch FAQ, but the Seiko I have, model SKXA35, has a 7S26 movement:

Read this review

7s26 movement7s26 movement

Read the complete review of the 7S26 and then come back. No really, go read it.

There’s an awesome amount of coolness there. Mechanical design, while disdained by EE/CS/CE geeks, is every bit as difficult and nifty, and watch movements require a lot of ingenuity. Even a budget movement like the 7S26 is an amazing bit of engineering, art and optimization.

(True, quartz is cool too, but moving electrons are less visible and most chips lack visual appeal. (At least the chip casings. Chips themselves are often beautiful, and many contain hidden artwork.))

Seiko in particular has an excellent reputation in this area, where the 7S26 and relatives are considered nearly as good’ as the marquee brands, and a great deal cheaper. (If you want to spend the money, Seiko of course makes watches as good or better than the Swiss, priced accordingly.)

Anyway, I highly recommend a read-up on mechanicals. I’ll have more details on my Seiko, and others, as time permits.

Other reasons to think about

As a grown-up male no longer dating, American society is very limiting on personal adornment. I gave up the earrings and such, so if I want to have any sort of style there aren’t many choices. You can pick clothing from a different chain, but what you can wear is still pretty circumscribed. Ditto hairstyle. Watches are one area where we can still have style. You might also find that the geek coolness of having a self-winding compact machine compelling. As one TimeZone poster put it, mechanical watches depend on the wearer in a way that quartz doesn’t. It’s like a mini-pet for the pathetic, a Tamagotchi for the techie.

Another reason that sounds silly is the motion of the second hand. Quartz watches move once per second, but mechanicals move 5-8 times per second, in much smaller increments. The resulting smooth sweep is mesmerizing, though perhaps I shouldn’t admit to it. (As an aside, it’s also a quick way to tell if the Rolex is a bad fake with a quartz movement.)

Does accuracy matter? How much?

Many people want an accurate watch, for what use is a timepiece tha’s wrong? Part of the reason I started thinking about this at all was my acquisition of what may be the ultimate quartz watch. Perfectly accurate (radio set), solar powered, tough as nails, analog/digital, and blue LED backlighting to boot. Geek nirvana.

However, once I had it, I started to realize how little perfect accuracy matters in my day-to-day life. It’s nice, but not all that helpful. This train of thought led me to wonder about the old Elgin watch from my better-halfs’ grandfather, and off I went.

This Seiko is typical, gaining 8-10 seconds per day. Every now and then I set it back a minute, and that seems to be good enough for me.

Auto divers

This Seiko is what’s called an auto-diver, or automatic diver’s watch. This is a very popular variety of mechanical watch. An auto diver is an automatic (self-winding) watch designed for SCUBA or other divers. In the old days of diving, you had a depth gauge, wristwatch and some tables, designed to tell you how long you could stay on the bottom, time at each decompression stop, and so forth. Errors tended to be fatal, so the dive watches were optimized for durability, legibility and good timing. The one-way ratcheting bezel is an artifact of this; it ensures that the time will always be at least as much as indicated.

Of course, now computers do this much, much better. Dive computers do all the calculations, measure the depth, calculate times and generally rock. Really careful persons who dive might have the old-school gear as backup, but in general an auto-diver is a tribute to a need that no longer exists.

Who cares, though. The attributes prized by divers (extremely readable face, durability, strong nighttime luminosity) also make for a supremely functional watch. The obsolescence of the auto-diver is a nice complement to the obsolescence of the mechanical watch in general.

Updated: 12/9/05 Corrected image sizes, text edits, added more retro links. Updated: 2/25/06, added SKXA link and a bit of grammar and formatting.

Updated: 9/26/07: Formatting, a few grammar edits.

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