Look at your watch dial. Does it say “Quartz” on it? Maybe not, but it’s still probably run by a quartz crystal driven by battery power. Think of it as the Campbell’s® soup can in your kitchen. It delivers dependable flavor time after time and yet as a commodity is iconic in its commonality.
But did you know that when you wear one, you are part of a technological revolution that irrevocably changed the watch industry? The first battery-driven watch in production appeared in 1957. It was made by the American company, Hamilton and called the Hamilton 500.
Over the next decade or so, many Swiss companies with their centuries old tradition of manufacturing highly prized mechanical watches fell far behind the Japanese and Hong Kong manufacturers in embracing quartz technology. The technology is one of the major disruptive innovations in the 20th Century. Switzerland’s export of its mechanical watches dropped from 40 million in 1973 to only 3 million a decade later. Not surprisingly, the Swiss watch industry’s labor force took a similar hit going from about 90,000 workers in 1970 to 47,000 ten years later.
I’m more poet than practitioner, but here is my technical take on what happens with a quartz watch. Inside the watch casing is a small crystal of quartz. It can be natural or synthetic rock crystal and is usually supported inside a metal holder and sealed in a vacuum. It has a certain size and shape and has been accurately cut along certain axes so it can be vibrated at a known, stable frequency when an alternating current is supplied to it. The current comes from a battery through an integrated circuit. The converted electronic impulse drives the time keeping.
The lyrics for “Good Vibrations,” the 1966 #1 song by the Beach Boys nicely sum up the synergy between the quartz crystal and the battery:
I’m picking up good good vibrations
(Good good good good vibrations)
She’s giving me the excitations
Followed by several repetitive two line chorus lines:
Gotta keep those lovin’ good
Vibrations a happenin’ with you
So when you hear this Beach Boy’s golden oldie, look at your quartz dial and smile—your part of the legacy of time a hand!
And if you have a photo ( right-free or willing to give permission in exchange for courtesy attribution to publish) of a Hamilton 500 or a Bulova Accutron which followed the Hamilton into the market in 1960, send it along to me in a comment and I’ll post it as an update to this summary.