On my left wrist is a technological wonder and an economic oddity. It is spectacular proof that you can have very rapid development while enormously reducing the number of materials you need for it. It has ended seven centuries of searching for an instrument that could measure time accurately. I bought it brand new. It cost R99. I bought it from a little jewellers’ shop on Fish Hoek Main Road. It is a no-name digital watch, using a quartz crystal and an electronic chip.

One of the great fallacies about economic growth is that it is bad for the environment. The corollary is that the rich are worse for the environment than the poor. Both are the opposite of the truth. As Western countries developed, as their economies grew and their technologies advanced, they became cleaner and safer. Poor people chop down trees for firewood; rich people use electricity, which is always cleaner, especially if it comes from nuclear power. Economic growth seldom leads to an increase in the use of raw materials and their becoming more expensive; usually it does the opposite. The case of the clock is perhaps the most dramatic proof of these effects.

The first attempts at timekeeping began over three thousand years ago with water clocks. They had many limitations, including their accuracy and the fact that it was hard to move them. I’ve never understood how Julius Caesar could have conducted his military campaigns over vast territories without any good measurement of time. The first mechanical clocks were invented in Germany in about 1300 AD. They first used a horizontal circular oscillation movement and then pendulums moving in the vertical plane. They were powered either by weights or springs. By the 16th Century, clocks were accurate enough for just about every purpose – but not for navigation.

When you are out at sea beyond any sight of land, it is quite easy to work out how far you are north or south (latitude) but not east or west (longitude). For latitude you just measure the angle between the Sun at her zenith and the horizon and look it up in tables. You cannot do that for longitude. The fact that you could not led to thousands of shipwrecks and tens of thousands of lives lost, and to restrictions on world trade. It particularly affected England, a maritime trading nation.

There are one or two strange people who seem to be able to navigate by instinct, without instruments, anywhere in the world. Christopher Columbus was one. In all his voyages to the Americas, to parts never before visited by Europeans, he could always find his way home with uncanny accuracy. He did not even know how to use the quadrant, a simple device, and relied on something he could not explain. He seemed to see patterns in the clouds and the winds – or something. Birds see or sense something that we can’t, to fly thousands of kilometres and find exactly the tree they want. Most people cannot do anything like this, and a multitude of sailors died because they could not. (I know about this sort of thing since I probably have the world’s worst sense of direction.)

There were several suggested methods of finding longitude. One was the lunar method, measuring the angle between the Moon and fixed stars. But the most popular one was by time. If you could build a clock to tell time accurately enough, you would crack longitude. Isaac Newton said that that was impossible. When the 18th Century dawned, no such clock was even close. In 1714, the British Government passed the Longitude Act, which offered cash prizes for anyone who could find longitude by accurate clock (chronometer). One of the prizes was for £20,000. John Harrison, a young carpenter from Yorkshire, took up the challenge. In 1759, he succeeded, with the most famous important clock ever made: the H4.

Harrison had a host of problems to solve. Metals expand or contract with changes of temperature. On my wall is a pendulum and spring clock that has been in the family for about 100 years. In summer the pendulum lengthens and the clock runs slowly; you have to shorten the pendulum with a screw at the bottom to speed it up. In winter the reverse happens. Harrison used bimetal pendulums, where the different metals expand at different weights, so causing the pendulum to curve in such a way that its effective length stayed the same. He also had to contend with the ship rolling and pitching at sea, and the terrible corrosion of salt water. He ploughed on with one clever little idea after another, with astonishing ingenuity and heroic persistence. I’ve seen the results at the Royal Observatory at Greenwich; they are wonderful. His first clock was the H1, a large, complicated, awesome thing. (I cannot describe it simply, but you can see it on the web.) It was tried at sea in 1736. It worked very well, and corrected a dangerous error its navigator had made using the existing chronometer; the captain was most impressed. But the Commissioners of Longitude would not give Harrison the full prize. He ploughed on.

His H2 and H3 clocks were just developments of the HI. Then he tried a radical new approach. He had noticed to his surprise that watches, the small, round, portable timepieces, could be made to tell time very accurately. His H4 clock, his masterpiece, looked like a very large pocket watch. It surpassed all the requirements of the Board of Longitude. It was far more accurate than they had specified. In a trial at sea, it lost only five seconds in an 81-day journey. Longitude had been cracked, and now the sea was a much safer place. World trade and thus world economic growth were greatly encouraged. But still the commissioners would not give him the £20,000. One of their objections was that the H4 was exceedingly complicated and expensive, and required highly skilled craftsmen to make. There was also a lot of secrecy about its design. Only later were such chronometers made in large numbers and with dropping prices. Eventually, though, Harrison got the full prize.

My father was at sea from 1926 to 1950. He was in the Scottish merchant marine, and rose to become captain of a ship. He served in WW2, mostly on the Atlantic, bringing grain from North America to Liverpool, trying to dodge Hitler’s U-boats. In his days, navigation was done by sextant and tables and a chronometer very similar to Harrison’s H4. He told me that on his ship the chronometer was wound every week, on the same day, at the same time, by the same man. So things continued until they were uprooted by two technological revolutions: the quartz clock and satellite navigation.

Up until halfway through the 20th Century, clocks used clockwork. For timing they had a mechanical oscillator such as a pendulum or a ring oscillating against springs. In the 1920s, in Canada and the USA, the quartz oscillator was invented. This exploits the fact that if a small electric current passes through a crystal of quartz, it always oscillates with the same frequency, regardless of temperature or other conditions. One such quartz oscillates at exactly 32,768 times a second. These oscillations can be managed to move the hands on a clock with great accuracy. But it took the invention of the transistor and its development into the chip (integrated circuit) to pave the way for super-accurate, very cheap watches and clocks. The most accurate clockwork/mechanical watch is accurate to about 5 seconds a year, the most accurate quartz one, 1.5 seconds in a thousand years. The first of the mass-produced quartz watches were made by Seiko of Japan in 1969. They have now taken over the world – but actually they haven’t, which is the economic oddity I spoke of above.

The R99 watch on my wrist now looks rather like the famous Casio F-91W, which I also own (R569 from Takealot). The F-91W is as accurate as Harrison’s H4, and I suppose my R99 watch is the same (probably made in the same factory). With strap, it weighs 19 grams (about two-thirds of an ounce). The H4 weighed 1.45 kilograms (1450 grams). I don’t know the cost in today’s money, but I guess millions of Rands. The H4 used a lot of expensive metals; my watch uses a small amount of cheap plastic and silicon, and a tiny amount of metal. It took highly skilled craftsmen to make the H4; watches like mine get churned out by the thousands by unskilled workers. Practically everybody on Earth can afford my watch; only a select few could afford Harrison’s clock.

Here’s the conundrum. Cheap quartz watches are much cheaper than clockwork watches and much more accurate. When they arrived on the scene, many thought that clockwork watches would go the way of the mechanical counting machines when the electronic calculators arrived. They thought the skilled craftsmen making mechanical watches would all lose their jobs. Quite the opposite has happened. Very expensive mechanical watches are in huge demand and manufacturers are desperately short of the skilled craftsmen necessary to make them; if you can make good mechanical watches you get a high paying job anywhere. What’s happened?

The answer lies in the deep psychology of human economic choices. How do you choose a car? Transport is only part of the choice, and for many people a rather small part. There is a profusion of excellent cheap, reliable cars on the market now. But many people shun them; they wouldn’t be seen dead in them. Instead they choose expensive, unreliable cars, such as BMW, Bentley, Porsche, Range Rover and Ferrari. This because they want their cars to give them high status and, if they are male, to help them attract a mate. Julius Malema would cringe with shame if anyone spotted him in a Toyota IQ, probably the most reliable car you can buy. 

(See reliabilityindex.com.)

The motives for buying expensive watches seem the same, and they have the extra appeal of aesthetic value. Many people regard them as jewellery. I must admit that I find most attractive those mechanical watches where you can see all the little moving parts, all the gears and oscillators. Some expensive mechanical watches are quite horrid though, and it seems to me you have to pay an awful lot of money if you want a really hideous one. I looked up the prices of the most renowned makers of mechanical watches such as Rolex, Breitling and Patek Philippe, and discovered that if you want to, you can pay up to R580 million for one new watch (Patek Philippe Grandmaster Chime). It’s very easy to pay over R100,000 for a cheap Breitling. I wonder what Malema’s cost? Over R250,000, I seem to remember. But if you are going to stamp your credentials as a true Communist revolutionary, as a dedicated Marxist-Leninist, you need a watch as least as expensive as that. I’m sure Comrade Kim Jong Un, leader of North Korea, the world’s most progressive communist state, has far more expensive accessories.

While I was at UCT, I popped into the office of a mechanical engineering lecturer, who had just returned from Switzerland. He took out a plastic bag and poured some of the contents into a white bowl. They looked like dust or finely-ground pepper. He asked what I thought of them. I didn’t understand. He gave me a powerful magnifying glass and asked me to look again. There I saw a wonder-world of tiny little gears and springs and bearings. They were parts of mechanical watches. I was astonished. It seemed incredible to me that there could be any machines for making parts so small. These are what go into the most expensive watches.

Modern watches prove that you can make spectacular advances in technology and economic growth while reducing the use of raw materials and lowering prices. They also show that human economic choices are swayed by the quest for status and attractive sexual mates – pretty much the same quest as has been pursued by our fellow animals over the last hundred million years. What’s the difference between a peacock showing off his tail feathers and a man showing off his Porsche or Rolex? Not much.

[Photo: Ivan Shilov on Unsplash]

The views of the writer are not necessarily the views of the Daily Friend or the IRR.

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Andrew Kenny is a writer, an engineer and a classical liberal.