My perfect watch is the one I wear right now: a Casio G-Shock, an all-black version of the original 1983 design, with no decals that can scratch off, as much of a reason for buying it as its ability to survive a multi-storey drop. I could never wear a Rolex or Patek Philippe watch for fear of breaking it, although if I could actually afford one, I might be more relaxed about it. Even then, my Casio has a distinct advantage over the most expensive of watches: it will always give me the right time, because it does not rely on me to set it.
The question I asked myself is why I would insist on having a radio-controlled watch, and my first answer was itself a question: if you can have one, why would you not? For all the precious metals, delicate mechanisms, or ability to act as a status symbol, a watch that does not tell the right time is not an effective watch. Having to set the time yourself introduces the possibility that the time will always be wrong, no matter how accurately the watch counts each additional second. My watch tries to remove human error from its operation through its daily reading of the radio signal taking place overnight, although it relies on my remembering to put it close to a window – if I forget that, I can ask it to take it again the following morning.
The time signal is as old as radio. In the UK, the Post Office set up a transmitter in Rugby in 1926, initially broadcasting the time only twice a day – it only became an uninterrupted 24-hour operation in 1953, and stopped identifying itself via Morse code in 1988. Today’s signal, run by the National Physical Laboratory and broadcast from Anthorn, Cumbria since 2007, is entirely digital, broadcasting a second marker for the first 100 milliseconds of every second (500 for the first second in the minute, or “second 00”), with further bits transmitted through the minute to indicate how precise the time is to GMT, followed the year, date, hour, minute, and whether we have entered British Summer Time or not.
However, home devices that took this signal arrived relatively late: the first home clocks appeared in 1983, but the German watchmaker Junghans, producers of the first solar-powered radio-controlled clock in 1986, was the first to miniaturise the technology into a watch with 1990’s “Mega 1” model. It looks like it has a bulge on the side to accommodate the aerial, as many early watches like this did, but it is actually contained in the strap. Frog Design, the British company that designed the Apple IIc computer and the 2006 Sky HD box, encased the watch in an attractive and futuristic case for the time, making it appear close to other digital watches, although it would take a decade for the price to match them.
Asking myself again, why do I need to know the exact time? I do regard having access to it as having a level of control – I like being both in time, and on time. However, the exact time is something everyone, and everything, now requires: computers, mobile phones and TVs need the correct time to transfer data to them correctly. Having the ability to alter clocks on these devices, may actually prevent them from working. Choosing to give up that ability on a watch, to achieve the same level of accuracy, is when that process becomes conscious – whether that time means anything to you is another question entirely.
Even with everything I have said, I have to bear in mind that the time received from a time signal is set to Coordinated Universal Time, abbreviated as “UTC”, a worldwide system used to regulate world time – it is not based on Greenwich Mean Time, which is based on the rotation of the Earth, but is within one second of it. The time is not the same, but I think I can live with that, until the price of real atomic clocks come down.