Complexity made visible: mechanical watches

Your “Check Engine” light comes on for no good reason. The fax machine keeps swallowing your pages, but the message never gets sent. The screen on your cell phone starts turning black. The world is full of so much baffling and deeply hidden technology it can make you crazy. Contrariwise, it is reassuring to see simple cause-and-effect in action. That’s what’s so appealing about Rube Goldberg devices. The complexity of the world is reflected in the improbable machinery, but it’s nice to see each little step spelled out, one obvious consequence after another. The roller skate rolled into the tea-kettle only because it was kicked by the shoe on the croquet mallet. It makes perfect sense!

A similar appeal is behind the surging interest in extremely accurate mechanical watches. Why would anyone pay more than $100,000 for a watch, especially when you can get a much more accurate electronic watch for a tiny fraction of that amount? Because it’s mechanical gears are reassuring, even charming. It feels more real, like something you can understand. Although honestly, I bet only three and a half people on the planet actually understand the Jaeger-LeCoultre Gyrotourbillon. Just look at it.

Call it micro-steampunk. Luddism writ small. I wonder if you can sabotage it with a tiny wooden shoe?

Pushing this mechanical fetish even farther is this remarkable mechanical-digital watch. It looks digital, but it’s powered by gears. And although it is powered by electrical motors, here’s a favorite of mine: the wooden TV.

Oh sure, those Electrons are your friends now. But one of these days they’ll forsake you for the industrial bourgeoisie. Then where will you be? Come the Revolution, you’re going to need Gears!

One thought on “Complexity made visible: mechanical watches”

  1. I recall once seeing a cartoon distinguishing “fancy” from “fancy-schmancy”: the Gyrotourbillon seems more the latter. I used to have a mechanical-digital alarm clock whose mechanism was based on a roladex.

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