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Arts & Culture

How Do We Even Know What Time It Is?

Jeffrey Smith/flickr creative commons

There was a time when almost everyone wore a watch. There was a time when almost everyone had a mechanical clock in their home. There was a time when almost no one had any kind of timepiece at all.

There was also a time when pretty much everyone had a VCR that blinked 12:00 AM twenty-four hours a day.

But what about now? Now your phone asks GPS satellites the exact time once an hour at least. Now the dashboard in your car syncs up to Master Clock 2 at the US Naval Observatory. Now your stupid microwave probably knows the exact second to eight decimal places.

So now nobody wears a watch anymore, right? And Timexpo, the Timex museum in Waterbury, is closing its doors. But at the same time, sales of Swiss watches recently hit a 20-year high. And there apparently aren't enough watchmakers to keep up with the demand for new watches.

And… what about tomorrow? Tomorrow some fancy new device comes out that calls itself a watch even though timekeeping is probably the last thing anyone will do with it. (On the other hand, though, how much is timekeeping the point of a fancy old Rolex really?) Tomorrow we'll have clocks that are so accurate that they'll measure the effects of relativity on the clocks themselves.

This hour: the past, present, and future of timekeeping.

Join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter.


  • Tom Manning – Curator of clocks at the American Clock & Watch Museum
  • Demetrios Matsakis – Chief scientist at the US Naval Observatory's Time Services
  • Stacy Perman – Author of A Grand Complication


Colin McEnroe and Chion Wolf contributed to this show.

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Jonathan is a producer for ‘The Colin McEnroe Show.’ His work has been heard nationally on NPR and locally on Connecticut Public’s talk shows and news magazines. He’s as likely to host a podcast on minor league baseball as he is to cover a presidential debate almost by accident.

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