Radio Stars: Two Radio-Controlled Watches from Seiko
Video killed the radio star, but radio controlled watches are still going strong
When did you last listen to the radio? Not the five seconds of drive-time banter between two inane radio DJs, I mean real radio. The one your Dad used to listen to the football scores on whilst attempting to light the barbeque? Unless you're a sailor listening out for the shipping forecast, I would wager that it's been a long time. Podcasts might be killing commercial radio, but those undulating waves still have a purpose as across the world there are radio stations broadcasting only one message, the time.
The first radio broadcast was transmitted in 1895 when Italian inventor Guglielmo Marconi broadcast a signal to a receiver 2 kilometers away. The signal was weak but the possibility of wireless communication over great distances was powerful and in 1898, Sir Howard Grubb first thought of the idea of a radio controlled timepiece.
Grubb could only conceive of a pocket watch controlled by radio waves as it would be another 15 years until men would wear wristwatches. Yet his statement about portable timepiece controlled by radio signals would accurate in a matter of years as the first radio-controlled clock was invented by Frank Hope-Jones in 1913. The technology has gotten smaller and cheaper in a century, but the principle has remained the same.
Inside the timepiece is an antenna and a specialized circuit attached to the movement. The antenna receives the radio signals from a designated frequency and the circuit then 'translates' these signals and calculates the correct time. The circuit then uses motors to adjust the time displayed on the dial.
Each country has its own frequency and 'time' radio station but everyone agrees at what the 'correct' time is. All 'time stations' broadcast Coordinated Universal Time (UTC), commonly known as GMT, which is kept by hundreds of atomic clocks stationed around the world. Atomic clocks provide greater accuracy than using the traditional method of defining time by the movement of the planets and sun. In 1967 the definition of a second changed to the "duration of 9, 192,631,770 periods of the radiation corresponding to the transition between the two hyperfine levels of the ground state of the cesium-133 atom".
The first serially produced radio controlled wristwatch was the Mega 1 from Junghans released in 1990. Three years later they were the first to combine radio control with solar power, allowing for increased accuracy. Junghans now focuses more on mechanical watches but other companies like Seiko have continued to advance radio-controlled technology. To die-hard watch geeks, the idea of a solar powered, radio-controlled watch is antithetical to the joy of seeing a mechanical movement breathe in front of you. Yet, its worth remembering that for the majority of people, convenience and accuracy will trump romanticized obsolescence every time.
To celebrate Seiko partnering with the Patriots Jet Team, the largest civilian-owned aerobatic jet team in the Western Hemisphere, they released the Seiko Prospex Radio Sync Solar World Time Chronograph. The California based jet team is made up of ex-pilots from the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds, U.S. Navy Blue Angels and the Royal Canadian Air Force Snowbirds.
The radio-controlled watch is powered by the Seiko Caliber 8B92 which has world time and chronograph functions. The 3 o'clock register displays 24 hour time, the 6 o'clock register is the chronograph minute hand and the 9 o'clock register acts as both the chronograph second hand and the radio wave reception level indicator.
The pusher at 10 o'clock activates a reception check for the antenna with the chronograph second hand pointing either to Y or N depending on the signal quality. The watch will attempt three time checks a day without input from the user, and during this chronograph second hand will point either to H or L depending on the strength of the signal. If conditions allow this check to be completed, the watch will remain accurate to within one second every 100,000 years. The Caliber 8B92 can listen to more than one frequency and has better coverage in Europe, China, USA and Japan.
The Prospex limited edition had small design changes so that it would be more useful for pilots to make relevant calculations. I'm not sure whether the average person needs to calculate distance, fuel load, weight and speed but with this watch you can. The buttons on either side of the case have different textures as a reminder that they control different functions. Those on the left hand side control the radio sync and world time functions and have a flat finish, those on the right control the chronograph and have a chequered pattern.
The same caliber is also seen in the Seiko Coutura Ref. SSG010, a two-tone dress/casual watch. It doesn't have the rotating flight bezel but still has all the world time and chronograph functions. Whether you like the style of the Courtura (I don't) is kind of irrelevant personal taste is entirely subjective. What should be admired regardless of the aesthetics is that fact that Seiko is putting cool (and it is cool) radio and solar technology into lots of different watches.
To die-hard watch geeks, the idea of a solar powered, radio-controlled watch is the antithesis of the joy felt when seeing a mechanical movement live in front of you. Yet, it's worth remembering that for the majority of people, convenience and accuracy will trump romanticized obsolescence every time.