Ubiquitous Atomic Time

closePlease note: This post was published over a year ago, so please be aware that its content may not be quite so accurate anymore. Also, the format of the site has changed since it was published, so please excuse any formatting issues.

Why don’t all clocks and watches automatically set their time based on the atomic clock?

Besides our iPhones and computers, Morah and I have only a single clock in the house that automatically sets itself to the atomic clock. We like it so much (it really is our favorite clock) that we’ve decided not to buy any more clocks that don’t set themselves.

Watches are a bit stickier of a wicket, not only because so few seem to have the feature, but also because those that do may not be in the style for which you’re looking. Luckily, I have been seeing more “atomic” watches lately, so perhaps the trend is catching on.

So if the technology is small enough to fit in a watch and isn’t very expensive (the cheapest “atomic” watch I could find by doing a quick Google search was about $28), why isn’t this a more popular feature? If all clocks and watches were set to the atomic clock, people wouldn’t really be able to make any excuses about their clocks or watches being slow. Plus, since we seem to be stuck with Daylight Saving Time (long time readers know my thoughts about DST), clocks that adjust themselves make the transition much easier (although I still say the spring forward should happen at 4 P.M. on a business day).

The biggest drawback to having all timekeeping devices take their cues from the atomic clock is that, if all the clocks set themselves automatically, you couldn’t set it 10 minutes fast (as some people like to do). The problem could easily be solved with a small amount of extra electronics. When the clock finishes setting itself, you could set the clock forward or backward to your liking. Once you’re done, the clock would note how many hours and minutes different you set the clock and store those offset values as positive or negative numbers (with the default offsets being zero, of course). Then, whenever the clock sets itself, it would check the offset values that you have selected and apply them to the time. I’m not sure what the best method for resetting the clock would be, but a reset button seems like it would do that trick.

What do you guys think? Does this seem like a good idea? Would you buy clocks/watches with these features?

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  1. My Fossil watch doesn’t set itself to atomic time, BUT it has a DST toggle on it. Very handy.

    Also it is set to UTC*, so if you travel, you just tell it your current time zone. It also has a second clock that can be set to any other timezone. Changing one doesn’t change the other.

    (Everything should be set to UTC with a second setting for location. Microsoft Windows doesn’t do this, and it’s stupid.)

    Best $60 watch I’ve ever purchased. Too bad Precision Time in the mall broke the sound and the watchband when they changed the batteries. 🙁

    Fossil Blue (not “Blue Dial”), and they don’t make them anymore. Nothing even like it.

  2. This reminds me of a comment I meant to make last year. Day Light Savings ends in the fall so if they did away with it. It doesn’t solve your problem of not having enough day light in the evening. I’ve decided who ever implemented daylight savings clearly lives closer to the equator where the extra hours in the spring and summer actually makes a big difference. Up here in the north nature takes care of that one her own.

  3. @Phoenix – Fossil might repair it anyway. It might be worth looking into.

  4. Phil Peltonen

    We have 3 clocks, 2 appliances (and 2 wristwatches) that don’t reset automatically. One clock is a “decorative” style that is in the living room and you have to take the back off to reset the time. The other is an old alarm clock that we use on the bathroom counter (the toilet clock). The oven and the microwave have to be reset manually. I have an atomic clock in the bedroom that shines the time up on the ceiling and I never have to touch that. The cable boxes and the computer are hassle free. In short, I would tend to buy any appliance, watch, or clock that resets itself. I forgot the car. I have to reset that manually and I never remember how from PDT to PST so I have to drag out the manual and look it up. I would buy a car with an atomic clock.

  5. Found my watch! LINK! Such an awesome watch…

    My SCALE in my bathroom doesn’t have a DST toggle. It’s the only think I haven’t changed yet.

    I have a VCR (somewhere…) that used to set itself automatically (time is broadcast on the PBS channel), but I doubt that works anymore. :-/

  6. While I think atomic clocks are great, I don’t know that I’ve ever put this much thought into my timekeeping devices. 😀

    Thanks though for considering those of us who set our clocks forward ten minutes!

  7. My dad bought an analog atomic watch — he lives in WA travels WA, ID, MT, and WY — so thought this would be a great way stay on local time (no need to calculate, or reset it manually).

    On his first trip with the new watch he was a week in Wyoming. During that week the second hand on the watch moved slightly faster trying to catch-up with the local time being an hour earlier. After a week it had only made up 45 minutes of difference, so was still 15 minutes slow to WY time. When he returned home to WA the second hand slowed to try and sync; but after two weeks still had failed to align with WA time. A two day trip to southern ID was then the final straw.

    The watch has now been sitting on his dresser (in WA) for over a year; and remains +/-5 minutes from being 30 minutes off — between Pacific and Mountain times.


    All that said though, my watch and the oven are the only clocks in my house that don’t auto-correct themselves. I agree, why don’t all devices made today sync automatically (::cough::and correctly::cough::)?

  8. @Johnny – That just sounds like a poorly designed watch to me. I’ve seen (battery-operated) analogue wall clocks where the second hand speeds up like crazy in order to set the time correctly. I think the literature for the clock said it would take no more than 5 minutes to find a signal and set itself correctly.

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