In the introduction of the book “A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” Douglas Adams writes that the earth is “an utterly insignificant little blue green planet whose ape-descended life forms are so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea.” By making this jibe at the human race, he pokes fun at our exceeding fascination with simple things, and how we over complicate what was perfectly good in the first place by redundantly reinventing it. He has a point. But unfortunately for me, I must be at the tail end of the human advancement curve because not only do I think digital watches are a “pretty neat idea,” but I believe mechanical, analog ones are as well.
My exploration of horology, or the science of measuring time, began in the fifth grade when my father gifted me a Casio G-Shock watch on my birthday. It received radio waves from towers overnight so as to never be inaccurate, could sync to 31 time zones, had an alarm, a stopwatch, a back-light for night visibility, and never needed its battery changed because it was solar powered. Wearing something so deliberately functional and purposefully designed made a younger, smaller me feel more mature and confident. Unlike Douglas Adams’s unromantic perspective, my Casio G-Shock made me believe digital watches represent humans pushing the limit of how accurate timekeeping can be.
From my first digital watch, I began to further research the history of horology. Soon I was introduced to the world of mechanical timepieces. While electronics have made precise timekeeping relatively simple and allow wristwatches to have multiple functions, a fully mechanical movement is infinitely more complex. It is a great feat to mechanically create more than one function. But however inefficient, to me there was always something inexplicably alluring about hundreds of gears and parts coming together solely to achieve the simple task of keeping time.
And despite the difficulty of creating mechanical timepieces, watchmakers have been able to make their accuracy flirt with perfection, and there is a longstanding tradition of innovation to make them better and better. This increasing accuracy is insignificant for daily use, and even unnecessary to accomplish through mechanical means because electronic pieces have already achieved it. But no matter! Watchmakers still preserve the horological tradition because watchmaking is about far more than function or fashion. For some, it is an obsession.
This obsession is an inexplicable human trait that gives us the drive to achieve feats for the sake of achieving feats. To shave off the milliseconds of inaccuracy where it has never been done before. To constantly innovate. These levels of complexity, precision, and commitment are what make art forms out of the mundane. And without art, there is nothing to admire.
I believe that this type of passion is what makes our species unique. So yeah, that’s why I still think watches are a pretty neat idea.
Essayist Nathan Smith is a sophomore at Penn State majoring in pre-medicine.