The Simple Perfection of the Wristwatch

My current wristwatch.
My current wristwatch.

The battery in my wristwatch died a few weeks ago. In the intervening weeks, the watch has sat, lifeless, on my desk. In normal times, I’d take it to a place near my office where I’d have the battery replaced. Instead, I decided to see how difficult it was to replace the battery myself. I had the idea that the inner workings of a watch were so delicate, that the battery could only be replaced by a trained expert using specially designed tools.

The process of replacing the battery the battery turned out to be far easier than I imagined. The most difficult part in the process was determining what type of battery I needed to buy to replace the dead one. That involved searching the house for a magnifying glass that I normally keep on my desk, but which was nowhere to be found the one time I’ve needed it in the last few years. Instead, I took a photo of the battery using my iPhone camera’s zoom. It was a little difficult to get it focused, but in the end I managed.

The photo proved useless. None of the letters and numbers matched anything I saw in the Battery Center at the grocery store. I did a battery labeled Energizer 377 which looked right. Fortunately, I’d brought the dead battery with me and they seemed to be match. I bought two in order to save a future trip.

When I got back home, I gently popped in the new battery, and the watch started ticking again! I sealed it back up and strapped it on. It felt good to be wearing a watch again!

I am in awe in the perfection of design that is the simple watch face. I wrote about this a few years back. It is, in my mind, quite possibly the only perfect user interface ever conceived and put into practical use. I knew that Christiaan Huygens invented the modern precision clock, but I also knew that the design for the clock’s interface had been around much longer. I was curious about who might have invented the clock face. That, it appears to be, was done by Ibn al-Haytham in the early 11th century.

In the first place, the clock face is a circle with the hours and minutes marked off clearly without much clutter. One hand indicates hours, a smaller hand indicates minutes. Finally, there is the second hand which sweeps around the 360 degrees in 60 seconds. That second hand is what gives the feeling that time passes in relentless forward motion. Unlike any other instrument I can think of with a similar design, it goes on forever, lap after lap. A speedometer’s needle increases, and then decreases. Temperature goes up and comes down. Air pressure does the same. There is always a definite maximum or minimum that our instruments can measure. Except for time. That second hand keeps marching forward, endlessly, never changing direction, never tiring, never stopping.

Unless the battery dies.

When that happens, I feel unmoored. If I look at my watch and see that it is too slow, I can quickly adjust it. But when the battery dies, and the hands stop moving entirely, it feels as though I’ve come loose from the rest of the universe. I think this is why my watch sat dead on my desk for as long as it did. Time means something different when it appears frozen. Replacing the battery, seeing time begin to run again was a relief.

Over the years I have tried out different alternatives to a wrist watch, including 3 or 4 different FitBit devices. I prefer a simple wristwatch (analog, not digital) to all of these. I like the simple elegance of a device that does one thing to perfection. FitBits and Apple Watches do many things, few if any to perfection. Sure, they can simulate an analog watch face, but I know that I am looking at a screen when I see these. I look at enough screens.

My wristwatch tells the time. It doesn’t even tell me the date. (I can look at my Field Notes work station calendar for that). There is no alarm function. It does one thing very well, and it presents the information in as elegant a user interface as I have ever seen.

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