Swans Commentary » swans.com November 30, 2009  



My Atomic Talking Watch


by Art Shay





(Swans - November 30, 2009)   On exactly half the wrists being used to write this article I now wear a Talking Atomic Watch. The first of two buttons I have figured out on its thickish sides so far is the 2 o'clock high button that announces (in clear English, untainted by the watch's Chinese provenance) the title of the incoming moment ago: "the time is six fourteen."

This is not the usual estimate given by say one of your sort of accurate mute Rolexes, Audemars, or other $4,000 lifetime watches that, every pre-Christmas, promise you temporary custody while your son's wrist thickens into adulthood and beyond to senescence, past which this kid, who has waited 60 years for his watch, will be 93 when he passes it on to his own New Yorker ad kid, an appreciative stripling of seventy winters.

No siree! Rolex and their Swiss cohorts may be accurate to a second or so -- but my TAW -- at a mere $69.95 plus an outrageous $13 for U.S. mailage -- checks in at, give or take a nano, a BILLIONTH of a second. It replaces the $40 Timexes Bill Clinton and I wore that shone a discreet green light on the time in a dark room -- a theater say, or unlit Oval Office. Where was this watch when I navigated Europe and the Pacific using a GI-issue Hamilton chronometer that was accurate within three seconds between bursts of flak or fighter cannon? This means that my position over, say, the Pacific, which I navigated after the war, taking the wounded home for their artificial limbs and family abuse at VA centers, could be off by as much as 30 million sidereal miles, star time. You know -- the fast moving Antares, Dubhe, Merak, Altair, Orion... Luckily, I also knew the formula I had learned in PS 77 in the Bronx -- rate times time equals distance. Unless I got it wrong, being a mere 11 at the time. Close enough. With this near-accurate GI time I made it back from both my European combat tours, and from my goodwill flights to islands like Hawaii, Johnson, Eniwetok, Tarawa, Canton, New Guinea, Australia, Guam, and the Philippines, ending up in Japan the week after the war ended. One flight that historic early August had me ferrying 55 of MacArthur's occupying staff into Atsugi Field, Tokyo. When I announced we'd be crossing the International Dateline in three minutes all these colonels, generals, and lobbyists took out their Arguses and pointed them to that big Dateline on the green waves below.

Segue to my new watch and the four o'clock button, which announces the date, month and year. Imagine how useful that would have been crossing the dateline! How much more precise.

My TAW, I learn, has a resonator focused on the national atomic clock in Colorado and uses the frequency of resonant atoms, which it picks up from the atomic radio signal (also available to all missiles and bombers intent on homing in accurately on all flying devices, foreign and domestic.)

The tiny receiver built into my TAW synchronizes and makes easy work of daylight savings time, datelines, and the like. I'm hoping the atom powers it too because the instructions don't mention a battery.

I think buttons eight and ten have to do with an alarm system, or with setting off remote explosive devices, but I haven't dared to explore these options until I've checked with Time Central's grandfather of all clocks ticking away atomically inside a Colorado mountain redoubt or readout, whatever they yclept it. Used ingeniously by the allied military or even al Qaeda, I imagine this is a watch to die for. I'm afraid to push the 10 o'clock button.

I first realized we were entering the age of Talking Devices when about 30 years ago a Japanese camera company sent me via Sports Illustrated their first talking camera to evaluate. It was merely an alpha model -- the category of pre-intro devices that Steve or Bill send out to computer nerds to check for flaws.

The main feature of my small Japanese camera -- the voice -- was the first anomaly I spotted. I had taken it along while I was covering the Arkansas-Texas football game at Fayetteville, Arkansas.

The night before the big game, the streets of roiling, girl and boy-sterous Fayetteville were alive with the sounds of Musak, drunkards, bottles flying downwards from hotel windows, women of all degrees of persuasion hawking their pulchritude and drink-readiness pointedly with their jouncingly braless school sweaters. One picture I made with the talking camera of a Texas beauty queen with her dander then her sweater up, showed an artful tattoo in which the extremities of a lucky longhorn's horns were bejeweled with two outstanding red nipples in Arkansas's carmine color, as one partisan pointed out triumphantly before a bottle smashed into his convertible and he and the longhorn-titted lady ran for cover.

But what was my talking camera saying while I was shooting away for Sporty Illustrations? In a Japanese brogue or whatever etymologists call it, the poor alpha voice was saying, "too dock. Open one stop point two for clear peetchur"...I reset the aperture, but got another admonishment: "Too little ISO. Make bigger."

When I got back I gently told the camera company to hire an English speaker with a minor in grammar. In a week (this was before e-mail) I got a reasonably humorous reply from a Tokyo camera engineer who assured me he had lived in New York "a large quantify of years." He then invited me to make whatever suggestions came to my professional Sports Illustrated mind. "We will pay you for what we find necessary." I wrote:

Dear Tatsuo,

Somehow the camera should tell the pro to focus the telephoto on the quarterback for a pass play, but pull back for a line play or goal-line stand. Like "Goal-line stand coming up. Seek low angle and shoot up but remember to factor in the bright sky and expose for dirty linemen, especially on bad-weather day." Stuff like that.

Also, "Close-up Alert! Cheerleader with big boobs about to get thrown in air and come down with big bounce.1/500th shutter speed to stop movement."

The company sent me a $10 check, which I showed around until it mouldered. Although they never incorporated the alpha model into a sales product, I often wonder which of my suggestions was worth ten bucks and a free camera to them.

But as the technology and precision of these devices advances, I hope I find a way to still my wife's ongoing criticism of the stupid voice in her GPS.

"Whaddya mean 'recalculating,' you schmuck," I've heard her yell. "You ran me up a one way street and you're six blocks out of the way!"

It's a new age all right. Your watch may be on the money twice every 24 hours, but not as much on the money as my billionth-of-a-second baby. It is now precisely 7.27,000,000,000. Do you know where your watch is?


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About the Author

Art Shay is the author-photographer of more than fifty books, the former staff Washington correspondent for Time-Life and Life Bureau Chief in San Francisco. Shay has had 25,000 published pictures including 1,050 covers of magazines, books, and annual reports for such clients as Ford, 3M, National Can, Motorola and ABC-TV. His pictures hang in the National Portrait Gallery (Heffner, Durocher, Robert Crumb) in the Chicago Art Institute. His work is currently exhibited at the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art (through June 29, 2008) following an exhibition at the Gallerie Albert Loeb in Paris, France. The April 2008 issue of North Shore magazine (Chicago) says that "his pictures have the psychology of Dostoevsky, the realism of Hemingway, and the metaphor of Melville... He's in the Pantheon of great photographers such as Cartier-Bresson, Brassai, Strand, and Stieglitz." The Daily Herald (Chicago suburban) of May 5, 2008, called him "the pre-eminent photojournalist of the 20th century..."



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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
URL for this work: http://www.swans.com/library/art15/ashay17.html
Published November 30, 2009