A Brief History of Time

A long, somewhat pointless, but amusing read about the search for the perfect alarm clock.  First published around 2003.


“What time is it?” 

“Do you have the time?” 

“I have no time.” 

“We’re out of time.” 

“How much time will it take?” 

“What do you charge per hour?”

“Where did the time go?”

“It’s Showtime!”

Perhaps nothing defines modern existence, or at least my existence, as does the clock. The computer I’m writing this essay on has one tucked inside somewhere. So do the other five computers we own. My cell phone has one as does my PDA. I have one on my wrist and four or five more like it in my closet. There are another four in the kitchen including the ones blinking away on the oven and the microwave. 

The VCR and DVD both have clocks. The television probably does as well. Each of our three portable telephones has a clock built in. Scattered about the walls of our house are another three or four more. I know there’s another in the master bathroom. At least four of our lamps are connected to timers. The cars each have a clock and I’m sure if I looked I’d probably find one out in the garage somewhere. 

As you would expect, there are also alarm clocks in the bedrooms. There are two in my daughter’s room, one of which more accurately qualifies as a “sound and time convergence device.” The other is in a small television set. My son has a conventional clock radio, a dismal assemblage of plastic bits that lights the night with outsized red numerals and greets the dawn with either a startling blahting sound or a noise that closely resembles the sound of music being played through a coffee can filled with rocks.

And then there is the Nakamichi SoundSpace 3 that has served as clock and entertainment device in our bedroom the past couple of years. It was a proud day when we brought this marvel of sound and technology home from the local electronics store. As Nakamichi’s own website proclaims . . .

Designed with user-friendliness in mind, the SoundSpace 3 is just as much a joy to use as it is to listen to! For example, the top lid, which must be frequently used to change compact discs, is motor-driven for sophisticated operation with a high-precision "feel". 

The high-performance quartz synthesis tuner assures precise and stable drift-free radio broadcast reception. 20 FM and 10 AM radio station presets with tuning options such as seek and preset scan make for efficient and convenient radio operation.

A supplied IR-type micro-remote control enables the operation of all SoundSpace 3's important features and functions from a substantial distance. 

A large, legible fluorescent clock display automatically adjusts for contrasting brightness depending on the rooms ambient lighting conditions. Even the companion unit display can be completely defeated, for total blackout! 

The events leading up to the arrival of this quartz-synthesized, remote controlled wonder at our house were somewhat less than auspicious. Some years before we had purchased a Nakamichi home entertainment system, wowed as we were by its designer good looks and fine sound (at least in the store). Fortunately we had also purchased the extended warranty—you know, the one that all the consumer magazines say is a rip-off. I say fortunately because the motorized apparatus that ingested CDs became possessed one day and alternately refused to play music, disgorge CDs, or do any of the multiplicity of things it was designed to do.

So we took it back. 

And because the electronics super store couldn’t fix the not-so-old dear, and because it didn’t have another one just like it to give us, by the terms of the warranty we were entitled to apply the full price to the purchase of some new gizmo. Thus the SoundSpace 3.

Like almost nothing else that I own, I have come to loath this motorized monstrosity that has occupied a place by our bed, just level with my head and over about two feet for the last couple of years. Maybe it’s me, or maybe it’s our house, or maybe it’s Nakamichi, but like its doomed progenitor, the SoundSpace 3 soon became possessed.  

The “. . . top lid, which must be frequently used to change compact discs, is motor-driven for sophisticated operation with a high-precision ‘feel’” turned into a demon beast that would open and close at the oddest times, often accompanied by the playing of whatever CD had been placed beneath its "precision feeling lid." At other times when you had to open the lid—a design decision I came to abhor— to set the alarm, load a CD, or do pretty much anything other than look at the time, you’d likely as not get your fingers caught as the infernal, yet high-precision feeling lid, snapped back in place in mid adjustment.

And then there was the “large, legible fluorescent clock display [that] automatically adjusts for contrasting brightness.” If I had to guess, I’d say that the person who calibrated the adjustments must have been blind or nearly so. Truly, you could read the fine print on the back of a toothpaste tube by the light of the “large, legible fluorescent clock display.” We hadn’t had our SoundSpace 3 home for longer than a week before we had to resort to placing books, CD covers, or articles of clothing over the display so as not to be under the incessant impression that we were in the flight path of commercial jets landing.

At some point we became hopeful that Nakamichi might have seen the error of its ways and discontinued manufacturing this devil’s seed. So once again we gathered up the various components, wires, and other bits and twiddles that comprise the SoundSpace 3 and headed back to the electronics super store. The very good news is that we were still under the protection of the most blessed extended warranty. The bad news is that there were boxes and boxes of the cursed contraptions awaiting unsuspecting customers. So the nice man at the service counter unpacked a brand new unit with all the trimmings, handed it over, and home we went, throwing salt over our shoulders the entire way 

The new SoundSpace 3 barely missed a beat. The display still did a creditable imitation of Times Square at midnight. And yes, not long after the return home, the lid started in with its raising and lowering and general surliness. And so we soldiered on, listening to the one CD we had successfully gotten through the jaws of death before the lid snapped closed and waking faithfully every morning, every morning, at 6:00 AM because that was the time that was set on the alarm, and there was no way to trick the lid into staying open long enough to change it. 

We were trapped, or so it seemed. We had tried everything but counseling, seduced by the fact that we had spent many hundreds of dollars for the pleasure of being able to tell time, awaken, play CDs, and listen to the radio all from the comfort of our bed, all courtesy of one remote controlled device. If the SoundSpace 3 hadn’t been so expensive we would have given up on it long ago. Just chucked it in the dust bin and bought something else. 

But I for one just couldn’t get past the money spent (we are now no longer covered by the extended warranty), never mind that on a cost-per-use basis we were down into nickels and dimes territory, and on the “mean time to next aggravation” basis we were daily setting new records. Finally, my ever sensible wife suggested that we just bag the confounded thing up, sell it to some unsuspecting soul at a garage sale, and meanwhile, just go get a proper clock. Now why hadn’t I thought of that?

The Search Begins

Would that it was as simple as going to the store to just buy a new bedside clock. Two problems immediately presented themselves. The first was the fact that you can’t just go down to the corner store and buy a new alarm clock. Part of the problem is that there is no such thing as a corner store any more. No more Woolworth’s or local Five and Dime where you can ante up a couple of dollars and slide on home with a brand new Westclock Big Ben like your grandparents had. That sort of place just doesn’t exist.

What does exist are the big box stores that sell everything including the kitchen sink, but which don’t seem to offer much in the way of straight up clock radios. We know because we went from one to the next to the next. 

Oh there are plenty of a “sound and time convergence devices”. There are boom boxes that tell time (way too big). There are evil looking contraptions with motorized doors that play music, but we already know what lies in store there. There are devices that soothe the soul with 21 different sounds of nature. There are fabulous units by companies like Bose that offer concert hall quality sound at a price that rivals the cost of a concert hall. 

Every once in a while we would find a clock radio which brings us to the second problem: Most, no make that all, clock radios are hideous. I know because I spend more nights than I care to think about in hotel rooms on four continents and I’ve seen pretty much everything that GE, Philips, Emerson, Panasonic, Zenith, Sony, and others I can’t remember have to offer. Without exception, they are cheap plastic contraptions with unintelligible multi-function controls. You can never tell if you have the alarm set properly, and assuming you do, whether you’ll be awakened by the sound of sheep retching or some lunatic “on air personality” yammering on about who won, who lost, and who has a special on water beds. 

After three weekends of trying, I had nearly given up finding a decent clock, decent being defined as something that was . . . 

  1. Unlikely to become possessed by devils or wandering spirits.

  2. Readable by my middle-aged eyes at night.

  3. Not lit like the Great White Way.

  4. Capable of keeping time even if the power failed

  5. Equipped to wake me at the time of my choosing

  6. Not controlled by multi-function buttons or otherwise unintelligible controls.

  7. Analog.

At this point, I had completely given up on the idea of a multi-function device. I just wanted something that told time and had an alarm. And oh yes, it needed to at least give the illusion of solidity, and perhaps even quality. As I continuously complained to my wife, “Does nobody make anything of metal anymore?”

Why our search didn’t lead us to a thrift shop or second hand store, a likely place to find the throwback device I so keenly desired, I’ll never know. But it didn’t. So we continued to search. Actually, mankind has been searching for the perfect clock for far longer than my search went on, and I doubt our intrepid predecessors found it nearly as frustrating as I did. 

There is some thought that the Sumerian’s were the first to put a stick in the ground and call it a sun clock. Certainly the Egyptians were interested in telling time, using Obelisks as early as 3500 BCE to divide up the day into parts. Water clocks date to around 1500 BCE. Needless to say, the Chinese were building really sophisticated time telling devices far sooner and for far longer than we were in the west.

It actually wasn’t until the first half of the 14th century that people gave up on sun dials and large weight-driven mechanical clocks began to appear in the towers of large Italian cities. What they lacked in accuracy they made up for in the noise of the bells. Spring-powered clocks appeared in the west around 1500 and 1510which made possible ever smaller clocks. In 1656, a Dutch fellow named Huygens,made the first pendulum clock, following ten years later with the development of the balance wheel and spring assembly, still found in some of today's high-end wristwatches. At this point, clocks were accurate to within about 10 minutes a day.

In 1721, an Englishman named Graham achieved a level of accuracy previously unimagined: 1 second per day by compensating for changes in the pendulum's length due to temperature variations. Forty years later, a fellow named Harrison built a marine chronometer that kept time on board a rolling ship to about one-fifth of a second a day (think about a pendulum and now think about the problems created by motion of the ship), nearly as well as a pendulum clock could do on land, and 10 times better than what was needed to win the British government's 1714 prize (worth more than $10,000,000 in today's currency).

Mechanical clocks continued to improve in operation and accuracy, finally being eclipsed in dramatic fashion by the introduction of the quart clock in the 1920s, and then atomic clocks in 1949. For those keeping track at home, current atomic clocks are based on the natural frequency of cesium. In 1967, those who needed to agreed that a second should be defined as exactly 9,192,631,770 cycles of the cesium atom's resonant frequency, replacing the old second that was defined in terms of the Earth's motions. As of January, 2002, NIST's cesium clock was capable of keeping time to about 30 billionths of a second per year. Not bad.

I discovered all this while I pursued my now maniacal quest for “just a clock.” You can buy a wrist watch for $10 that keeps nearly perfect time, and a desk clock that synchronizes with the aforementioned cesium clock, but just try and buy something that met my seemingly simple requirements. 

And then we found it, the nearly perfect clock, hiding out in a luggage store of all places. There in the case with all the crummy little “costs fifty cents to make, we sell it for $34.99 travel clocks” was an updated version of “Big Ben,” Westclock’s defining alarm clock from way back when. It was about five inches across, had three hands that went around clockwise like God intended, and was made of metal! Heavenly day. It even had a large protuberance on top for turning off the alarm which could be set by turning a stem on the back that rotated a simple pointer on the face. The hands were covered in that magic luminescence stuff that absorbs light so you can tell time in the dark, at least until about two in the morning when the magic finally wears off.

Heavenly day indeed. I stood there happily twisting little stem things and admiring my find when all of a sudden . . . HOLY COW WHAT WAS THAT?!?!?!?!? Where’s the fire? The noise coming from the vicinity of my hands was deafening, a sound properly heard down at the local fire house, but surely not in my bedroom. All that metal I had been admiring turned out to be God’s own wake up bell, five inches of frying pan being hammered by some evil troll hidden deep inside the formerly benign Big Ben.

This was not what I had in mind. Actually, I’m not sure what I had expected, but I’m certain it wasn’t the hounds of hell baying in my ear every morning. It seemed that once again the search would have to continue. So close, and yet so far. And then my intrepid wife took the clock apart, right there in the store, figured out how the bell worked and determined that we could put some tape or something similar between the strike and the steel to muffle the sound. Problem solved. Sort of.

So we bought the clock. It’s mostly perfect. We might have kept looking, but by then we were out of time and bereft of the energy required to keep looking. Big Ben was close enough, and now sits happily by our bedside, in all its metallic glory, keeping time with a pleasant glow and a proper sweep of its hands. No demon seed lids flapping about unexpectedly. No tiny buttons to push. No glaring numerals. 

And the alarm? It turns out that the portable phone that sits right next to it has a built in alarm clock with selectable tones. It now does double duty as an alarm clock, dutifully waking us with a pleasant little chime. Now about some music . . .

Kevin Hoffberg