Why Do Watches Lose Time & How Do Watches Keep Time?

Why Do Watches Lose Time & How Do Watches Keep Time?

Chances are, right now, you’re wearing a watch. It’s possibly a prized possession or a gift from a loved one. The wristwatch has gone from status symbol to practical necessity and back to status symbol over its illustrious career. Even as mobile phones challenge the need for a watch, people still love them.
No matter how much you cherish your watch, though, it isn’t perfect. Every hour, every second, your watch is losing time. Mechanical watches may lose several seconds a day.

  • If your quartz watch is losing time it could need cleaning or oiling. If you see the minute hand kicking backward slightly before moving forward it’s an indication the gears may be slipping or worn. For mechanical watches, the same applies. If it hasn’t been cleaned or serviced in years this could be the problem.
  • Older watches also may need to be balanced (shaft pivots, springs, jewels).  A worn battery could also be the cause.

How Does a Mechanical Watch Work?

Mechanical clocks have existed for a thousand years, but it took centuries for inventors to figure out how to miniaturize the process so a clock could fit in your pocket or on your wrist. Though the innards of a wristwatch and a grandfather clock look very different, they are fundamentally the same. The key to timekeeping is oscillation.

Inside a mechanical watch, you will find a few essential components: the mainspring (energy), gears (or wheels), escapement, and oscillator.
Depending on whether the watch is a manual or automatic winding watch, it will either have an external winding stem (manual) or an internal oscillating weight (automatic).
The mainspring is wound by the stem or oscillating weight, which is how energy is generated, which is then transmitted through the gears. These gears serve multiple purposes.
They transmit energy to the other parts of the watch and they also turn the hour, minute, and second hands of the face.
The oscillator and escapement work together to regulate the energy and provide balance to the timekeeping function (the oscillator is also referred to as the balance wheel or balance spring).
The escapement transfers the rotating energy of the gears into back-and-forth energy that allows for efficient and accurate timekeeping. 

How Does a Quartz Watch Work?

Mechanical timekeeping was the only game in town until the 20th century when a Bell Telephone Lab scientist named Warren Marrison developed the first quartz clock in 1927. A quartz clock (or electronic clock) relies on something called crystal oscillation.
Quartz is a naturally occurring mineral that is filled with piezoelectricity, an electric charge. This charge within quartz creates an electric signal that is harnessed for the same sort of oscillation that is created by the oscillator and escapement in a mechanical watch (or a pendulum in a grandfather clock).
By manipulating this intrinsic energy within quartz, an electronic watch can keep accurate time for years.


Why Are Quartz Watches More Accurate?

The key to quartz accuracy is the reason that all watches lose at least some amount of time. No matter how much money you spend on your Rolex, it can’t escape a fundamental principle of the universe: friction.
All of those winding wheels and gears within a mechanical watch are bound by the laws of physics. Energy is lost with each turn, with each bit of contact of the teeth. Furthermore, those internal mechanics are affected by other external factors, like gravity and the weather.
The main way that quartz watches avoid these problems is by eliminating most of the moving parts that can be hampered by physical reality. Additionally, the quartz oscillation occurs without the need for an outside power source, so it doesn’t need to be constantly rewound.
Even some of the best mechanical watches will lose or gain two seconds a day, whereas a cheap quartz watch loses only one second every 30 years.
Quartz watches are still made up of physical parts, though, so even at their most accurate, they are losing time. Modern watches are made with features that can help prevent the effects of temperature and gravity, but the Laws of Thermodynamics are not so easily bypassed.
Some high-end quartz watches do have jeweled movements that reduce friction and make for smoother functioning of the watch, it also causes the watch to lose less time making them more accurate. 


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