Feature Post

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Quartz watch

(1927, W.A. Marrison and J.W. Horton)

The original quartz clock, the invention of J.W. Horton and Warren A. Marrison, took up the better part of a small room. Today, quartz clocks are built into calculators and PC, and quartz watches are everywhere. They are far and away the most popular timekeepers. Depending on the size, shape, and vibration frequency of its crystal, a quartz timepiece can keep time accurately to about one second every ten years.

Before the innovation of the quartz clock, a second had been defined as 1 86,400 of a twenty four hour period -- that is, of the average duration of one rotation of the Earth. The quartz clock itself did not provide a new definition of the second, but its precision helped scientists identify irregularities in the Earth's rotation that showed our planet was not a reliable baseline for timekeeping. 

The reasons that quartz clocks did not redefine the second is that the oscillations, or vibrations, of quartz crystals begin to drift over a long period. This drifting can be due to temperature changes, impurities in the quartz, or the cumulative effects of the vibrations. The new second would have to wait for the visual aspect of the atomic clock.

Quartz mechanicses are highly precise because a quartz crystal vibrates thousands or millions of times a second when exposed to alternating electric fields. Inside a quartz watch, electric current from the battery causes the quartz crystal to vibrate. A microprocessor divides down the high frequency to a much slower electric pulse that is transmitted to the coil. The current pulsating through the coil activates a tiny magnet, which switches rapidly backward and forward in time with the pulse. As the magnet switches backward and forward, it turns a small pinion that controls the watch's gear train, completing the conversion of the crystal's vibration to mechanical movement.

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