Monday, December 05, 2011

Technology Becoming Culture: Self-Winding Watches Return (Sort Of)

The other day I went into a watch store in an outlet mall. After finding what I wanted (a gift), I was standing near the cash register and noticed sitting on the counter a couple of cubical leather-covered boxes, about five inches on a side. There was an oval dingus on the front of each and some chrome-plated knobs or controls too.

After the saleslady rang up my purchase, I asked her what the boxes were. “They’re self-winding watch winders. You put the watch on it and it winds it for you.” If this were a work of fiction, I could make up a lot of humorous dialogue at this point, but the only other thing I actually found out from her about the watch-winders was that self-winding mechanical watches are now back in style, at least in certain circles of young people who I suppose have enough money to spend on themselves for things like that. And I went out of the store realizing that I had found yet again another example of Technologies Becoming Culture.

Here is the pattern, as exemplified by the self-winding mechanical watch. Before there were wristwatches, there were pocket watches. And before there were pocket watches, there were pendulum clocks. And we can go all the way back to Egyptian water clocks if you want. The point of this romp into the past is to show that the line from water clock, to pendulum clock, to pocket and then wristwatch, and on from there to the electronic (quartz) wristwatch, is a connected progression in the same technical direction: from large, bulky, inconvenient, and inaccurate (relatively) to smaller, lighter, easier to use and maintain (less winding, etc.), and more accurate. After all, the main point of a watch is (or used to be) to know what time it is. Mechanical watches were accurate enough for all usual purposes as far back as 1900, assuming you set them and wound them once a day. Then the self-winding watch was introduced, which has a weight that is slung back and forth by the movement of the wrist of a reasonably lively human being, and obviates any need for winding. But then you have to remember to set it whenever it gets a little fast or slow, which could be anywhere from daily to weekly or so. And when digital electronic watches came along, the quartz element was so much more accurate than the mechanical balance wheel that you could go literally months without having to set your watch at all, unless you wanted it to be accurate to the second all the time. So from a technical point of view that takes the simple, straightforward position that the virtues of a watch are accuracy, low need for maintenance, and reliability, the quartz watch wins hands down (so to speak).

That’s technology. Now for the culture.

By culture, I mean things such as social attitudes, beliefs, self-images, traditions, memories, fashions, and so on. Everything besides technology, in other words. When the digital watch came in, the mechanical watch people were down but not out. For a while they moved into Breitling territory—super-expensive craftsman-made watches for the rich and famous. But there’s only so many rich people in the world, and sooner or later a marketing team got together with an advertising team and decided to make old-fashioned self-winding watches cool again for lots of people.

They used to be cool for purely technical reasons: you didn’t have to wind them like the non-self-winding kind. But that was back when the only point of comparison was mechanical watches that didn’t wind themselves. Now the self-winding mechanical watch is cool because it harks back to an earlier era when people actually had to move around a lot during the course of a day, instead of sitting for eight or ten hours in front of one piece of electronics or another, not moving your wrist farther than it takes to type or wiggle a video-game control stick. But what if you’re one of these young people who bought a cool self-winding watch, only you don’t move around enough to keep it wound?

We have just the thing for you: a self-winding watch winder, which can plug in a power outlet or (wait for it) runs on batteries! So you can have a self-winding mechanical watch that’s really a battery-powered electric watch, if you trace the energy back far enough. The battery feature, I guess, is for those Caribbean-island excursions where you run your solar-powered computer to keep in touch with the office by satellite.

Anyway, for as long as the fad lasts, the self-winding mechanical watch, formerly thought to be dead and buried by technological progress, has been resurrected by the culture mavens and now enjoys a second life, together with its accessories. I tell this story in an engineering ethics blog not because there’s anything wrong with buying a watch for purely cultural rather than practical reasons, nor anything specifically wrong with buying a self-winding watch winder, though I detect a faint smell of corruption around it somewhere. But the main lesson here is that people buy things for all sorts of reasons, not just technical ones, and if some clever marketers put old-fashioned technology in a new light, you’d be amazed at what they can revive and sell more of.

Sources: While the exact location of my purchase is classified (my wife may read this blog, after all), those incredulous souls who think I must have made this all up out of lack of material are directed to the website, where you can peruse dozens of different makes of watch winders costing anywhere from $45 up to more than I would pay for a watch. But then, I’m a notorious tightwad.

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