By Bob Blake

I bet you have heard the comment, “That car is fifty years old, AND the clock still runs!” Old car enthusiasts attach great significance to a ticking dashboard clock! Mobile time pieces have been around since the horse and carriage days.

The clock is one of society’s earliest inventions. Ancient humans required a means to divide their lives into basic periods – days, months and years. I doubt, however, if the departing caveman yelled to his wife, “Hon…I’ll be back in five minutes,” but his survival depended on splitting time into fractions.35_windup-1920s

The sundial was an early invention that tracked the sun’s shadow and related it to passage of time. It required a stationary pointer and was useless at night. Water clocks appeared in China as early as 4000 B.C. and measured time by shifting volumes of water. Interestingly, they were calibrated against the sundial. Later improvements caused the flowing water to turn gears and move hands.

35_modern-clockCarriage clocks appeared during the 1800s and demanded a strong movement to withstand the tossing jolts of rutty roads. These were often ornate and had a handle for portability. French watchmaker Abraham Louis Brequet invented the first shock-proof clock.


As the automobile improved, a new breed of clock emerged—the car clock. Since speedometers and time pieces shared common parts, it was natural for companies to build both. A few names that began in 1908 remain today – such as Warner Instruments, Seth Thomas, Waltham and Boston Clock.

Manufacturers offered varied choices and designed clocks for dashboards, steering wheels, gearshifts, and even rear-view mirrors! Gradually the venerable winding key gave way to the twist of the stem. As gears and springs improved, so did the accuracy of the clock.


The electrical automobile clock appeared in the 1930s but did not dominate the market for twenty years. A direct motor drive failed as variations in voltage affected accuracy. Instead, these clocks simply used the car battery to wind the mainspring.35_carrriage-clock

During 1927, engineers Warren Marrison and J.W. Horton of the Bell Telephone Laboratories invented the quartz mechanism. It did not gain popularity as a time piece until the 1980s when solid state electronics caught up with their discovery. The quartz mechanism is now the world’s most common method to measure time and the average wristwatch is accurate to a half-second per day!

The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and the U. S. Naval Observatory (USNO) are the two U.S. organizations chiefly involved in distributing accurate and precise time information. With the cesium-based atomic clock, the standard does not vary one second in about 300 million years!

Our lives rely on accurate time measurement. The Global Positioning System (GPS) satellite receivers and the electric power grid rely on the high accuracy of atomic clocks.

35_1925-automobile-clockSo…while we fume and fret in snarls of traffic, it is comforting to know our modern automobile clock precisely measures time in split-seconds…while we sit motionless! We know it is TIME to go but cannot move – real transportation progress!