A Quick Shout Out

Over the past week or so I’ve been dialoging with Harold ‘Hess’ Hester, owner of the Defense Mapping School alumni site.  What drew me to Harold’s site was an interest in locating an old Army buddy, CW3 Ralph Ruetze, who had served as an instructor at the school.

I learned from the website that, sadly, Ralph passed away in 2010.  However, Harold was eager to incorporate my memories of Ralph into his site.  Thanks Harold.  Ralph was quite a character and deserves to be remembered.

The Defense Mapping School (DMS) had the mission of training service members of all services, Department of Defense civilians and foreign students in the topographic arts and sciences – survey, cartography, graphics, press operations, terrain analysis, instrument and equipment repair and much more.  And they did an outstanding job.  The entire DMS organization – from the school registrar to the division chiefs to the individual instructors – went to extraordinary lengths to make sure our soldiers were well trained and well cared for while they were in the school’s care.

DMS was one of several agencies that included the Defense Mapping Agency, the Topographic Engineering Center, the Waterways Experiment Station and the Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory that provided unstinting support to the field topographic units.  The sad truth is that these agencies often provided more support to Army topographic units than their own local Engineer commands did.

So my thanks to ‘Hess’ (and Jack Batt) for standing up a much needed home on the web for Defense Mapping School alumni.



I was going through some of my books and manuals this morning and stumbled across this old favorite.  I spent a few minutes flipping through the pages and was reminded just what an absolute gem of a book it is.  I consider it a minor classic.
As the author David Greenhood states in the first line of the Introduction, “This book has been written to be read rather than studied.”
And so it should.  This is not a textbook or a reference, it is an educated man’s introduction to the concepts of topographic mapping.  Authored by somebody who had a deep understanding of the subject and knew how to write for general audiences, it is readable, enjoyable and instructive.
Although this book was first published in 1944 and incrementally updated through 1964 it gives up little to the back half of the 20th century because it focuses on concepts rather than gizmos.  There’s not a word or hint of satellite navigation, space-based imagery platforms, world-wide datums and coordinate systems or computer-based mapping.
Greenhood’s discussions on things like scale, perspective, contouring, projections and map compilation are some of the best and easiest to grasp that I’ve ever encountered.  Greenhood’s coverage of these concepts stand the test of time because they don’t change over time.  Scale is scale, perspective is perspective, whether you are looking at a paper map or a computer screen.
Some of the topics seem quaint, like how to properly sharpen a pencil or how to select the correct paper for drawing a map, but the discussions are charming and still somewhat useful in today’s world.  Most of the referenced publications are out of date and long out of print, but it’s important to note that many of Greenhood’s references were classics in their own right and are themselves worth hunting down and reading.
One of the real strengths of this book are the illustrations.  Most of the illustrations are hand drawn and they remind us that a talented illustrator can easily convey complex information in  ways photographs can’t.  The illustrations are expertly integrated with the text and provide support and reinforcement to the topics under discussion precisely when and where needed.
I bought my copy of Mapping in 1982 at the bookstore in the Smithsonian Museum of American History in Washington, DC.  It has been paged through and referenced so many times the binding is starting to come loose.  This morning I jumped out to Amazon to see if the book was still available.  I’m pleased to see it is still published by the University of Chicago Press, but the price is an eye-bleeding $32.50 – quite a lot for a trade paperback.  However, copies are available from used booksellers for very reasonable prices.  I grabbed a new-condition copy from an Amazon partner bookseller for $6.95, not much more than the $5.50 I paid for my current copy back in 1982.
If you are at all interested in mapping, or want to introduce the concepts of mapping to a young audience this book is an excellent start.  I’ve read a lot of books on mapping down through the decades and this is the best single volume introduction to the field I’ve ever read.


Are You Lining Up With The Dinosaurs?

Yesterday there was an interesting article posted in the NY Times Business Day section about a sharp scientist and entrepreneur named Gilan Elbaz and his company Factual.

In layman’s terms Factual can be described as a data warehouse.  A real BIG data warehouse.  But beyond being just a big storage bucket in the cloud, Factual applies quality values against the data and puts it into context.

The real message here is that Factual is structuring it’s data holdings to accommodate and enhance automated spatial analysis and reasoning.  The goal is that highly intelligent software systems, acting against quality data, will perform much of the same complex spatial analysis and decision support operations that human GIS analysts currently do with desktop applications like ArcGIS.

In the future – and the future isn’t too far off – high end software packages like ArcGIS will be nothing more than embedded applications in larger, highly intellegent software systems.  Think I’m joking?  Ever heard of ArcObjects?

So, can you read the writing on the wall?  Can you hear me stomping my foot on the floor?  Do you get the hint?

If you are a GIS ‘professional’ and you describe yourself and your role in an organization in relation to the software you use you are a dinosaur, and you are headed for extinction.

The Geospatial professional needs to be a complex problem solver, not a software jockey.

Adapt or die.

Field Notebooks

Does anyone use field notebooks anymore?

In the olden days (like, up until the 1980s) field notebooks were a staple of the surveying, engineering, geology and natural sciences disciplines.  If you did any field work it got recorded for posterity in a field notebook.  Taking and maintaining field notes was not just an art, it was often a legal requirement, particularly in the surveying field; the entries that surveyors made in their field notebooks constituted the legal record of a survey and those notebooks often were turned in at the completion of a project to become part of the permanent record.

Field note taking and recording was usually part of the early coursework for beginning engineering & surveying students, and you were graded on the completeness, legibility and accuracy of your note taking.  Pencil only!  Erasures not allowed!  Mistakes had to be lined through and corrected notations added.  Our geology field classes stressed accurate structural and stratigraphic mapping along with proper representations of rock types and strike and dip measurements.  It was common during field classes for our professors to pull out an old weatherbeaten field notebook and refer to notes they had taken years before on the rock formations we were studying.

Virtually all of the big name engineering and survey supply companies sold field notebooks.  They were all pretty much the same – a hard bound book filled with blank lined pages (or alternating lined and graph) about 5″ x 7″.  The paper was 50% cotton rag content and usually treated to ensure archival stability and prevent wrinkling  from high humidity.  Most books included tables of conversion formulas, trig functions, curve tables, etc. in the last few tables; things now easily handled by a simple scientific calculator.  My suspicion is that there were only a few companies that actually produced these books and just did job orders for the big manufacturers.  There was a slight difference in quality from manufacturer to manufacturer, and the K & E and Post field books I’ve got in my collection are clearly a step above the average field book with sturdier covers and radiused page corners.

The US Army even got in on the act, and produced two styles of field books they classified as ‘forms’  One, the DA Form 4446 – Level, Transit and General Survey Record Book was laid out like a generic notebook.  The other, DA Form 4196 – Horizontal Distance Book, was laid out specifically for recording traverses.  Both included a handy tear-out address label so that if found all someone had to do was tape the label to the outside of the book and drop it in a mailbox and the Army would pay the postage to get it back to its owner.  To this day I kick myself for not picking up more of these manuals when our Army surveyors abandoned them in favor of pre-printed recording forms.  They had boxes of them laying around new in the shrink wrap and I’m sure most went into the dumpster when they got tired of looking at them.

Thankfully, field notebooks are still available from engineering and forestry supply houses. Still in the same format and the same construction.  I guess when you hit on a winning formula there’s no need to change.

But like so much in life, electronics got in the way.  With the arrival of total survey stations (theodolites), GPS-linked data collectors and computers running surveying and engineering-specific software the need for writing down project notes in a field notebook quickly disappeared.  While surveyors still use field notebooks to record things like the height of instrument or the serial number of the GPS receiver they are using on a particular project, the field notebook is no longer considered an indispensable item.

For much of my Army career I used field notebooks extensively, a practice carried over from my geology fieldwork days.  I was a sloppy note taker (see above), but I managed to get stuff into a logical and readable format.  Over the years I filled about half a dozen field notebooks with data collected on various projects in different parts of the world.  As I neared retirement I got caught up in the digital craze and abandoned notebooks for whatever was hot at that moment.  I’ve owned or used Pocket PCs, BlackBerrys, smart phones, iPhones, laptops, digital notebooks, you name it.  I’ve stored my notes in Borland Sidekick (anyone remember that piece of malware?), Windows Notes, Lotus Notes, Outlook, Outlook Express, iPhone Notes, MS Word, Wordstar, PC-Write, Open Office, and Google Docs.  Guess what?  Just about everything I stored in digital format is gone, gone, gone – unless I made a paper copy as back-up.  Roughly 10 years of meeting notes, field notes, observations, discussions, instructions from supervisors and directions to subordinates, everything gone.  Not because of some catastrophic event, but lost simply to the march of time, the changes in technology and the inevitable degrading of the storage media.

How many of you still have 5 1/4″ or 3 1/2″ floppies sitting around you can no longer read simply because you don’t have a device capable of reading them?  Can your new DVD drive read that CD you burned back in 1999?  Ever wonder why TV shows shot in the 1970s and 80s look so funky?  It’s not because of the bad hairdos or polyester leisure suits, but because so many of them were shot on videotape and the tape is starting to deteriorate.

Today the only way I can resurrect the record of my military career is through the written word put down on paper.  Thankfully I saved just about everything. I can’t tell you the meetings I had in 2005, but I can tell you in some fair detail about the meetings I attended in 1985. In 2005 I trusted digital technology to store my data. In 1985 I trusted a notebook and a pencil.

About a year ago I realized I was missing key notes on some fairly heated meetings we had held with one of our business units at work.  I knew I had probably written my meeting notes and observations in a series of emails to my boss, but for the life of me I couldn’t find the emails.  After about two days of searching on my computer and on our shared drives I remembered that I had done an email backup and clean-out about six months earlier and that my backed up files were on a USB drive – a drive I knew I had misplaced a few weeks before!  At that point I resolved to start writing things down and decided to start using field notebooks again.

As I’ve gotten back into the process of writing things down archivally I’ve been surprised at how my seemingly random scribblings begin to come together to tell the tale of the projects, events or items of interest that impact my life.  I can flip through the pages of my notebook and clearly view the progress of projects and issues I’m tracking.  I can go back to meetings held months ago to remind myself precisely what was said and agreed to. When an engineer has a question about the invert of a pipe we measured three months ago I can show him my original field notes. Sure, all of this information can be stored digitally (and most of it is), but my experience shows that I can’t put much stock in that digital data being available five years from now. In five years I’m pretty sure my notebook will be sitting on my shelf ready to be opened and referenced.

If it’s important, write it down on paper!


A Detached Fascination

By any measure yesterday’s earthquake in Japan was a horrific human catastrophe.  It’ll take weeks, maybe months, to tally up the loss of human life.  The reconstruction of Japan will take decades.  I have no doubt that this earthquake and its aftermath will be viewed as seminal event in Japanese history.  From this point forward the Japanese as a people, a society and a nation will never be the same.  My heart goes out to them.

From the perspective of a geoscientist, however, this earthquake is an absolutely captivating event.  I’m following the emerging technical reports with almost morbid fascination.  Reports now are that the earthquake intensity may be upgraded from magnitude 8.9 to magnitude 9.1, based on post-event analysis.   There was an almost 60 foot displacement along the crustal plate boundaries at the epicenter.  The quake shifted Honshu, the main island of Japan, by over 8 feet.  The earth was knocked off it’s axis by about 10 inches!

And today, over 24 hours after the event, the area is still shaking.  Japan experienced a 5.8 magnitude aftershock in the same area just this morning.

If this event, like Katrina, teaches us anything it is that the earth will have her way with us and man can only do so much to anticipate and prepare.  We are all just along for the ride on this big blue marble.

Happy Birthday USGS

Missed it by a day, but Happy Birthday to the US Geological Survey!

The USGS was established on 3 March 1879, almost as an afterthought in a Federal budget submittal. It’s stated mission was “classification of the public lands, and examination of the geological structure, mineral resources, and products of the national domain.”

The first part of that mission, “classification of the public lands,” was what drove a lot of the USGS’s early efforts.  The US had acquired a lot of land as the result of the Louisiana Purchase and the Mexican War, but we didn’t have a very good picture of just what it was we had gotten our hands on.  The USGS launched a standardized mapping effort that continues to this day, and will never really be completed.  Mapping the United States is like painting the Golden Gate Bridge, as soon as you finish at one end it’s time to go back and start again at the other.

I’m hard pressed to name another federal agency that has done so much good work for both the nation as a whole and its citizens.

So here’s the the US Geological Survey. Happy one hundred and thirty second birthday!

In Praise of the Old Topographer

Progress is good.

Without progress we wouldn’t have a lot of great things like:

Electronic ignition
Cell phones
Frozen pizza

Few could argue that these developments have significantly enriched our lives or made them easier.  (Have an issue with electronic ignition being on the list?  Ever hand crank a car to get it started?)

But too many people equate change with progress.  If you change something, particularly if you change something that few people really understand, you can claim progress and nobody really stops to say, “Uh, I don’t think so”.

So it is today with my ‘profession’ – Geospatial Information Services (GIS).

I put the term profession in quotes when using it in conjunction with GIS, because I’m not really sure GIS is a profession.  It certainly is a job – there are thousands of people working GIS jobs around the world, but in my opinion it’s not really a profession, not yet anyway.

And the story of GIS is the story of change without real progress.

Background.  I have been working in the mapping, survey and geographic analysis field almost continuously since 1980.  I watched as the US military, particularly the Army geospatial engineering field, transitioned from the old manual analysis and production methods to computer-based analysis and production.  When I started it was all hand drawn overlays and paper maps.  Today it is GIS software and web-based mapping services.  I have certainly seen change in my field – fundamental, earth shaking change.  I’m not so sure I’ve really seen a lot of progress.  In fact, I would claim we’ve actually moved backwards in our ability to provide clear analysis and decision support tools to our customers.  We have moved forward with change, yet backwards with progress.

How can that be?  Simple.  The GIS field has traded fundamental skills for computer application expertise,  and the lack of fundamental skills and the ability to do critical analysis makes the field a slave to the software.

Change without progress.

Go up to any GIS professional and ask him or her to describe their job.  They will stumble around trying to explain it to you and invariably the words ‘arcgis’, ‘computer’, ‘database’ and ‘web maps’ will leak out.  The GIS professionals today can not think about, describe or relate their jobs without first thinking about the computer application.  For far too many of them the computer application is their job.  Continue the line of questioning and ask them if they think they can continue to do their job effectively without their computers and GIS software, even for just a short period of time.  Again, most will say no – in their minds their ‘profession’ is inseparable from and defined by the software.

Ask a civil engineer to define his or her profession.  You won’t hear words like ‘autocad’ or ‘microstation’ slip out, yet AutoCAD and MicroStation are the two leading engineering design packages in use around the world.  Reason?  Civil engineers don’t define their profession in relation to software applications.  Civil engineers are educated and trained to solve complex issues using analytical skills.  I work every day with extremely competent civil engineers who plan and manage multi-million dollar projects, yet they don’t even know how to open up an AutoCAD drawing file on their desktop computer.  They were hired for their engineering and problem solving expertise.  Software applications are merely enabling technologies that allow them to work more efficiently.

Put the same question to a land surveyor.  You won’t hear terms like ‘terramodel’, ‘geomatics office’, or ‘civil3d’.  These are software packages that enable surveyors to do their jobs more effectively and efficiently, but they do not define the profession.  The survey profession is defined by a set of standards tied to analytical and problem solving skills.

In each of these cases the profession defined what it needed from the software and the vendors responded.  In the GIS field things evolved the other way.  In the beginning (way back in the 1970s), the term ‘GIS’ defined software, not a skill set (the original term GIS stood for ‘geographic information software’ and has only recently morphed into ‘geospatial information system’).  Other professions like Forestry, Geology and Geography started using GIS technology to better manage large amounts of data that had a spatial component – things like timber stands, mineral lease boundaries and census data.  The software was revolutionary, but it was an enabling technology and not an end in itself.  Because the software was used by a broad range of professions there was little standardization.

As the years progressed and GIS software matured, more and more individuals became captivated by the GIS concept.  I will admit, in addition to having powerful analytical capabilities GIS packages like ESRI’s ArcGIS are just plain fun to work with.  However, these applications do little to enforce standards.   Everybody gets to do what they want.  That’s not the software’s fault – it’s up to the GIS professional to apply recognized standards.  But before you can have standards you have to clearly define your profession, and if you can’t define your profession how can you define your standards?  It was as though GIS had no conceptual roots – a discipline born anew, without heritage or precedent.  And nobody wanted to take ownership.  So, heavy GIS software user self identified themselves as ‘professionals’ and happily motored along, defining themselves any way they wanted.  As a result the GIS profession has become a primordal soup of software users with varying skill sets.  Some are damned sharp, other’s have trouble finding the ArcGIS icon on their computer desktop.  Yet all get to claim the title of ‘GIS Professional’ because, well, nobody told ’em they can’t.*

I refuse to be defined by a software package.  I am better than that, and my employers didn’t hire me for my button pushing skills.  They hired me to solve complex problems and provide unique services no other group in the organization could provide.  If I can provide the answer by scribbling a few calculations on a notepad, great.  If I have to fire up high end GIS software to run a complex analysis, OK.  How I arrive at the solution is immaterial to my employer, they just want an accurate answer that conforms to the established standards of the disciplines I’m touching.

But if GIS is the software, what is the discipline?  What melds geography, geology, forestry, hydrology, landform analysis, civil and structural engineering, environmental science and surveying into a multi-discipline approach to problem solving?  What discipline applies the best approach to describing the land and the structures on it and features below it with accuracy and precision?  What discipline relates data using a multi-disciplinary approach to solve the unique and complex problems beyond the realm of other earth science and engineering disciplines?  That discipline doesn’t exist, you say?


The discipline I describe has existed for over 150 years.  This discipline opened the American west to exploration and settlement, unlocked the vast natural resources of this country and helped fuel it’s rise to an economic world power, it charted America’s home waters for safe navigation, mapped vast expanses of Central and South America and even mapped the Moon to identify safe landing areas for our Apollo missions.  Most came to this discipline from other professions.  It drew in its share of civil engineers, geologists, surveyors and geographers.  It was once the leading career choice for the top graduates from West Point.  This discipline started to die out in the 1980s, with the rise of specialization and computerization, when we tried to replace broad experience with computer algorithms.  Yet it is a discipline that is still as relevant today as it was in the mid-1800s, perhaps even more so as our infrastructure, development, enviromental, and energy issues start to intersect in ways only spatially-based analysis can address.

This is the discipline of the old Topographer!  

A topographer of the old Coast & Geodetic Survey, conducting
what is essentially a geospatial analysis using a plane table survey set

By definition, a topographer is someone who precisely maps and describes a portion of the earth’s surface and the man made features on it.  That is about as elegant a description of what I do as any I’ve found.

So, don’t call me a GIS professional, analyst, manager, coordinator or anything else related to a software application.

Call me a Topographer!

– Brian
* I understand we have this thing called the GISP certification program.  In its current form it’s a joke.  What does it certify?  Other professions with established licensing standards, like the engineering and survey fields laugh at the GISP certification program.  How can you certify against something that doesn’t have standards?

Lasting Impressions

Roberta and I were having lunch today in our favorite BBQ joint (Cafe Pig in Peachtree City, Georgia). As we were talking I looked up at the bric-a-brac on the wall and noted a copy of a painting of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. It was the painting that was being worked on the day of his death in Warm Springs, Georgia – April 12, 1945.

Unfinished Portrait of FDR by Elizabeth Shoumatoff. FDR was sitting for this portrait at Warm Springs on April 12, 1945 when he complained of a terrific headache and then collapsed. He died later that day of a cerebral hemorrhage. A copy of the painting still sits in an artist’s easel in the living room of the Little White House, as though waiting for the subject to come back to finish the sitting.

Roosevelt was a blue blooded patrician from the Hudson River Valley, a member of an extensive family that traced its roots back to the earliest Dutch and Huguenot settlers to establish a foothold in the New York region. One of his cousins, and his personal hero, was Theodore (Teddy) Roosevelt, Assistant Secretary of the Navy, commander of the Rough Riders in the Spanish American War, Governor of New York and later the 26th President. Born into privilege and wealth and blessed from birth with family connections that could have carried him anywhere in the Republican political world, FDR chose instead to run as a Democrat. In his first political foray in 1910 – a run for New York State Senator – he sensed correctly that Democrats were poised to take control of the New York statehouse. This began his lifelong political career as state senator, Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Governor of New York, vice-presidential candidate, Governor of New York and, ultimately, US President.

FDR’s life history is one of the better known and studied among US presidents, and for good reason – the length of his presidency (12 years), his personal struggles with polio, his efforts to pull the US out of the Great Depression, his struggle to maintain neutrality in the face of mounting world crisis and, ultimately, his leadership in WWII all leave plenty of rich pickings for historians. FDR also had the good fortune of being in office just as broadcast radio emerged as a reliable and widespread communications medium, and he used it skillfully to take his message directly to the American people. For many Americans in the 1930s FDR was the first President they ever heard speak live, and through radio they heard him often. That high, nasal patrician voice gave comfort and reassurance to millions of Americans struggling to just survive.

FDR was an extremely skilled politician, manipulator and chameleon. He played his audiences like a finely tuned musical instrument, and he was rarely off key. It has been said that an FDR appearance was like grand theater, and when you met him one-on-one and got the ‘full Roosevelt treatment’ you came away awed by the experience and the man. It also left historians with a treasure trove of radio broadcasts and newsreel footage with which to balance the often dry recitation of a presidential administration as evidenced by the paperwork it left behind. Unlike any President that came before, the modern media of radio and film allowed Americans to view the President as a human being, not a figurehead.

Yet I am of two minds when it comes to the FDR as president. I greatly admire his foresight and leadership in WWII. His early (and probably illegal) efforts to skirt the US neutrality laws ensured that Britain survived until America’s entry into the war. FDR also brought the full weight of his political and diplomatic skills to bear on pre-1941 efforts to expand and modernize our armed forces in preparation to face what he saw was America’s inevitable involvement in WWII. I don’t think any other president could have done a better job.

On the other hand, his undisciplined tinkering with the US economy and his administration’s abandonment of free market principles certainly extended the Great Depression. Everything his administration did between 1933 and 1940 only served to stifle US economic growth. Many economists today reluctantly admit that had Roosevelt simply left the economy alone and allowed the free markets to correct themselves the economy would have rebounded much faster than it did. In the end it took a world war to pull us out.

FDR also kicked off an expansion of the federal government that continues unbridled to this day, although I’m sure he would be appalled at just how big, how far reaching, how intrusive and how liberal the government has become.

But all this is neither here nor there in relation to today’s posting. Our lunch today reminded me of the the impressions FDR directly made on the State of Georgia. When you travel through west central Georgia, from just south of Atlanta to Columbus, you travel through FDR territory. The story of FDR’s legacy in Georgia is one of the fascinating back-stories of history.

In 1921 FDR was struck down by polio. His search for a cure, or even moderate alleviation of his symptoms, led him to the resort of Warm Springs just outside of Pine Mountain in Georgia. At the time he discovered Warm Springs in 1926 it was a small resort that had seen better days. Using his personal fortune and political influence he built Warm Springs into a leading hydrotherapy treatment center (and it remains a leading paralysis treatment center to this day).

But to FDR it became much more than just a place to find a cure. He fell in love with Warm Springs and the Pine Mountain area. It was a place where he could find relief from the pain and crippling effects of polio, where he could work his personal magic by encouraging fellow paralytics and where he could be himself without any pretensions. He wasn’t ‘Governor Roosevelt’ or ‘President Roosevelt’ to the hundreds of kids who came to Warm Springs for treatment. He was simply ‘Mr. Franklin’, a fellow polio victim who encouraged them, cajoled them, played with them in the pools, shared their joy when treatments worked, kept their spirits up when treatments failed. He helped pay for their therapy, sponsored parties and picnics, took them on drives through the countryside and up into the mountains. He was one of them, in body and spirit.  Many observers noted that at Warm Springs FDR was truly himself.

FDR was so in love with Warm Springs that in 1932 he built a cottage there that became known as the Little White House. This is where FDR stayed whenever he was in Warm Springs. Significantly, Eleanor Roosevelt hated the place and only visited once or twice. This meant that the Little White House became a place of solace and refuge for FDR. It is where he went to escape the pressures of the Presidency and WWII.

FDR’s Little White House, and it is little!  Three small bedrooms, a small kitchen and a living room, but a wonderful porch with a great view. It is amazing to think FDR would run the country from this small cottage for weeks at a time.

But FDR did more than just drop in to Warm Springs and the Little White House for treatment. He was too much of a politician to just soak in a pool for a few hours. He needed to get out and get around, see what the people are doing, get their stories. He had a compulsive need to press the flesh.  And he did it from the driver’s seat of his car.

FDR would roam Meriwether County, driving his specially modified Ford. He would stop and talk to local farmers, sharecroppers, laborers, store keepers, politicians, anyone who wanted to chat. White or black, it didn’t matter. He would listen to their problems, issues and concerns, and he turned much of what he learned from those conversations into programs through New Deal legislation. FDR’s roamings were so extensive that even today it is easy to find people around Pine Mountain and Warm Springs who remember being held up by their parents as they chatted with the President or climbed on the running boards of his car as he stopped in town. It seems at one time or another about half the residents of Meriwether County claimed to have spoken with, had lunch with or had a drink with Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Recently I went fishing with a group of friends on the Flint River which runs close to Warm Springs. Our guide told us the story of his grandfather, a county official back in the late 1930s, who was out with a road maintenance crew one day when FDR, driving alone, raced up to the group and came to a sudden stop. “Jack, is that you?  Jack, I’m looking for some whiskey and I know you can tell me where to find some!”  Jack, our guide’s grandfather, had met FDR during some of his previous outings and gave the President quick direction to a local moonshiner’s house. As FDR pulled away he gave a wave and with the characteristic FDR grin shouted, “Boys, I’d like to stay and chat, but my Secret Service detail is right behind me and I don’t want them to know what I’m up to!”  And with that the President of the United States sped off down the road in search of illegal whiskey. Moments later a convertible full of Secret Service agents raced by as the maintenance crew pointed down the road in the direction they sent the President. A true story? Who knows, but it reflects the relationship the region had with the 32nd President – a rich and powerful yet friendly and unpretentious character who needed Warm Springs as much as the town and region needed him. The two came to love each other, and Warm Springs and Pine Mountain claimed FDR as one of their own.

While the Pine Mountain region is rich with stories of FDR, he also left a physical legacy. First and most important is the Roosevelt Warm Springs Institute for Rehabilitation. The institute continues to operate today, providing treatment and support for up to 5,000 patients a year. Next is the Little White House. When Roberta and I visited it a few years ago I was very surprised to learn that the Little White House and surrounding grounds are not part of the National Park system. The property is owned by the Warm Springs Institute and is run by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources. The Warm Springs Institute maintains the house as it looked the day FDR died. It is easy to see why FDR loved it so much – it is a small and unpretentious structure, comfortable and comforting.

Even more personal for our family is a location called Dowdell’s Knob on Pine Mountain. The knob offers a beautiful view into the King’s Gap region of Pine Mountain, and the location was one of FDR’s favorites. It became his favorite picnic spot and he had a stone picnic grill built there for his personal use. Dowdell’s Knob is also one of the last places FDR visited, stopping there just two days before his death to spend some quiet moments alone before heading back to the Little White House and the war business that awaited.

Dowdell’s Knob is so charming and has such an intimate connection with FDR that our daughter Elizabeth chose it as the site of her wedding last December.

The Bride, Groom and Flower Girl at Dowdell’s Knob

The State of Georgia commissioned a sculpture of FDR to be placed at Dowdell’s Knob, and the artist did a wonderful job of creating an intimate portrait of the man as he was when visiting his favorite spot – comfortable, causal and accessible.

The Mother Of The Bride spending a few moments with Franklin at Dowdell’s Knob. Watch that hand!

I like to think that FDR was there in spirit on the day our daughter was married, sitting in his car, cigarette holder in his mouth, his old comfortable Navy cape around his shoulders, grinning the famous FDR grin as the family gathered by his picnic grill to celebrate. He certainly would have been a welcome presence, since this was his Warm Springs, his Georgia.

– Brian


I’ll make this quick.

I’m deep into preparing a briefing/presentation/class on the issue of magnetic declination and the easiest rules to follow when you need to apply it.

What’s magnetic declination, you ask?  Sorry, that’s not the topic of today’s post.  If you really – REALLY – need more information right now check out the Wikipedia page on Magnetic Declination.  I’ll be referring to it in a later post.

Anyway…  I was mentioning to a friend that I was working on this presentation and he commented “Does anyone really care about that anymore?  I think everyone has just gone out and bought a GPS.”

I actually get that reaction a lot when I talk to people about compasses and using a map and compass to navigate.  “Compasses confuse me.  I’d rather just use a GPS” seems to be the common refrain.

(For the uninitiated, GPS stands for Global Positioning System, or space-based satellite navigation system.  There are several operational (US, Russian) and developing (the European Union’s Galileo) satellite navigation systems, but ‘GPS’ has become an almost a generic term used to describe the US developed and operated NAVSTAR system.)

I live and work in the world of GPS.  I’m a geospatial professional and I run the GPS-based survey and data collection program at the World’s Busiest Airport.  Every day I am thinking about, using, training, developing policies on and attending meetings about GPS and how we use it at our airport.  Everything from upgrading our high-precision GPS receivers to providing airport-specific input for the FAAs GPS-based NextGen precision approach program to review and quality control of project layouts generated using GPS-based survey systems.  And more.

I am the biggest cheerleader for the GPS system and GPS-based technologies.  GPS is perhaps the best example of a project that only the United States could do, and do right.  The driver who switches on his Garmin Nuvi for the drive to the airport is leveraging tens of billions of dollars and decades of research, development, testing, deployment, maintenance and upgrades.  All paid for by the US taxpayer, and all free to any user anywhere in the world.

Conceptually the GPS system is simple – satellites in space broadcast their position and your receiver (example – our driver’s Garmin Nuvi) uses time shift calculations to determine the precise distance from your location back to the satellite.  Once the receiver picks up and processes signals from at least two more satellites it can triangulate your position.  The size of the position ‘triangle’ determines the accuracy of the position fix provided by the receiver, but in general a modern receiver tracking three or more good satellite signals can locate you to within about 15 feet of your true position anywhere on earth.  That’s pretty damned good by anybody’s reckoning.

GPS has revolutionized many industries and spawned completely new ones.  GPS systems are so pervasive that most people no longer give them a second thought.  Today GPS technology tracks your package as it travels from the retailer to your door, and it tracks the paroled felon sporting the nifty ankle bracelet.  GPS technology manages the hand-off of your phone conversation from one cell tower to another as you speed down the interstate, and GPS technology guides the angle of the bulldozer blade working a local road construction project.  Anything that locates you on a map is universally identified as ‘GPS’, even if the function has nothing to do with satellite-based navigation.  GPS has become an integral part of our lives and impacts us for the better every day.

And yet, GPS is a system with serious limitations.  It can’t locate you indoors, in tunnels, under overpasses, in dense forests or even in the man made canyons of large cities.  The signals can be easily corrupted, blocked or bounced around so much they are virtually useless.  The entire GPS system is a delicate balance of high technology and rocket science, enormously expensive to maintain and upgrade.  At some point the GPS system – certainly a system that succeeds what we have now – will fail.  It will fail due to funding shortfalls, political upheaval, changing national priorities or simple neglect.  This failure is merely a recognition of a historical inevitability – man made systems always fail at some point.

Long after the GPS satellites go cold and dark in their far orbits and GPS receivers become little more than technological oddities, the magnetic compass will continue to offer reliable wayfinding.  Using a compass (along with a map) is not easy or intuitive for most people, but once learned it provides a reasonably accurate, reliable, steady and ‘always on’ navigation capability that can not be turned off by man’s whim or neglect.  I feel fairly certain that at some time in mankind’s future we’ll be back to navigating using the simple, reliable magnetic compass.  It’s inevitable.

That’s why I still practice my map and compass skills.

It’s About Time

I love time.  I love the idea of time. I love the concepts of time.  I love the history of time.

Get it? I’m fascinated by time.

I’m not talking about a Steven Hawking-level consideration of time – the metaphysical consideration of when and how time started.  I’m more down to earth.  Literally.  My fascination with time is rooted in the practical applications of time.  How it is measured, how it has effected human history, how we use it and how it affects our daily lives.

I have worked most of my life in professions and disciplines that are ruled by time. The US Army takes time very, very seriously in both the practical human dimension (“The meeting starts precisely at 1430. Be there!”) and in the absolute system dimension (example: the anti-jamming systems built into our military radios are based on extremely precise time synchronization). As a soldier you very quickly become aware of how important time is to the whole organization and you ignore it at your professional peril. Some of the biggest ass-chewings I got in the Army were for missing meetings because I lost track of time.

In the civilian world I manage systems that are ruled by time. I manage the GPS-based surveying and precise positioning systems at the worlds busiest airport. At its very core, GPS is about the extremely precise measurement of time.

I am surrounded by time, immersed in time and, occasionally, consumed by time.  And it fascinates me.

It’s All About Time

Mankind has always been fascinated by time.  It seems that once we realized that we needed to track things – planting seasons, birthing seasons for domestic animals, festival times, etc. then the concept of time took hold in the human psyche and has never let go.  In fact, I believe that it is the understanding of the concept of time and the ability to consciously plan against future time that is a uniquely human trait and one that separates us from the lower species. The understanding and use of time is very much a part of the human ‘spark’ that philosophers talk about.

Virtually every advanced human civilization was fascinated by time.  The Mayans, the Chinese, the Greeks and the Romans all expended enormous intellectual and physical capital in the development and maintenance of time systems, first in the macro application (accurate calendars) and then in the more precise daily measurement of time (what we think of today as clocks). The more complex the civilization the greater the interest in, and need for, accurate timekeeping.

Two of the great monotheistic religions, Christianity and Islam, were obsessed with time from their beginnings.  Ritualized daily prayer was (and in many cases still is) a driving force in these religions, so the need to accurately divide the day into equal parts drove a cultural fascination with time and timekeeping. While the Christian concept of ritualized daily prayer has become sloppy over the past thousand years or so, Islam still holds fast to the tenant. The fascination with accurate timekeeping remains a critical part of the Islamic culture.

The Al-Jazari candle clock

(I have been told by several sources that it was the Islamic world that kept the Swiss mechanical watch industry alive in the 1970s and 80s.  As the quartz watch craze swept the Western world sales of quality mechanical watches dried up in the that region.  However, the demand for high end mechanical time pieces grew with Middle East customers who were flush with petro-dollars and a fascination with time.  Eventually the West came to it’s senses and the mechanical watch industry is healthier than ever.)

The human need for accurate timekeeping reached a peak in the early 18th Century with the explosion of sea-borne international trade.  By the late 17th Century we had accurately mapped the world, located the continents and key cities, and identified commercial markets. The sea-borne trade routes had been laid out, efficient ships developed and a whole maritime infrastructure established that was poised to exploit the exploding demand for international goods. The problem was that countries and corporations were losing too many ships to bad navigation. What was lacking was an accurate, easily understood and easily taught method of determining a ship’s longitude (location east or west of a prime meridian) while at sea. Fixing latitude (location north or south of the equator) was well understood and easy to determine with simple instruments, but developing a method to easily and quickly determine longitude from the deck of a rolling ship in the middle of the ocean was a problem that had vexed the best minds of Europe for hundreds of years.

By the early 1700s highly accurate land-based longitudinal determination had been going on for over 50 years, but it required complex astronomic observations and the use of large, heavy and fragile pendulum clocks. What was needed was a simple and accurate method that could be easily practiced by marginally educated ships captains across the maritime fleet. The best minds of the time understood that accurate timekeeping was the key to solving this problem, but clocks that could keep good time aboard a pitching and rolling ship were beyond the technology of the time, or so they thought. In one of the earliest examples of government sponsored applied research the British Parliament launched a competition to see who could develop an accurate method of determining longitude at sea. The ultimate winner of that prize was a self taught clock maker named William Harrison, who gave the world the H-4 chronometer and made accurate maritime navigation a reality.

It was all about time…

William Harrison’s H-4 Chronometer, 1760

(I glossed over far too many of the details related to longitude determination and the development of the chronometer, so if you want the whole story I strongly recommend you read Dava Sobel’s minor classic Longitude.)

The Industrialization of Time 

For the next 200 years the mechanical clock was refined, standardized, downsized and mass-produced to the point that the pocket or wrist watch, the mantle clock and the bedside alarm clock were affordable to the common working man. As industrialization pushed forward and workers flocked to the cities to meet the growing demand for labor, time entered our collective consciousness as never before. Suddenly a man had to be on time. On time for work, on time for lunch, on time to church, on time to the doctor. Industrialization made cheap time pieces possible while at the same time driving the requirement for better time management. One requirement fed the other.

The Big Ben mechanical alarm clock.
My Grandmother had one of these
and when it went off there was
no mistaking the message:
“Get your ass out of bed!”

The concept of parsing a day into discreet time segments for specific functions was a revolutionary concept. For most of history the worker’s day was ruled by three time checks – sun up, noon and sun down. The roosters took care of sun up, the bell in the church steeple took care of noon and his own eyes took care of sun down. That was all that really mattered. Starting in the mid-1800s, with a watch in his pocket the common man could now easily and accurately plan his day. When the boss told him to be at work at 8:00 he could backwards plan and know that if he wanted to be at work five minutes early he needed to catch the 7:30 street car, meaning he had to be out the door and on his way to the street car stop by 7:25. Likewise, if his wife told him dinner would be served at 6:00 he knew he needed to leave to saloon by 5:45 for a brisk walk home, knowing it took at least 15 minutes for the smell of beer and cheap cigars to blow out of his clothes.

But whose time was he following? You see, all time is relative. For our prototypical common man working in the mid-1800s the answer was simple – set your clock to the boss man’s clock. In fact, even today that’s a good idea (ha, ha). But what did the boss set his to? This was easy too – just set it to local time. Most clocks were regulated to local noon. The problem is that local noon is different everywhere. This wasn’t a real big deal until the railroad came to town.

For a few decades during the mid-to-late 1800s the railroads simply make use of local time. This was when railroads were a regional phenomenon with fragmented ownership. Local time was a recognized problem, but it was manageable. However, after the Civil War and the massive railroad consolidations and the push for a transcontinental rail line the major line operators realized that using local time simply was not going to work anymore. There were too many time changes as trains flew down the tracks (at a blistering 40 mph) from one town to the next or one state to the next. Since the railroads operated on a time coordination system and single rail lines were shared by multiple trains, time management became an absolutely critical issue. After a few horrific and highly publicized train crashes in the 1860s (due mainly to poor time coordination) the railroads introduced the concept of coordinated railroad (or railway) time.  It was the railroads that gave us the time zones (EST, CST, MST, etc.) we use today!

The railroads knew that for all this to work they needed to precisely synchronize time between stations. They adopted an ingenious solution that remained in use for over 100 years. Using the time signal service of the US Naval Observatory, time signals were send down the telegraph lines to allow station masters to synchronize their local station clocks. For the first time the US had a coordinated time system. For the first time someone in Denver could look at their watch and know precisely, in Denver time, when their aunt in Boston would be sitting down to dinner. It did not take long for the railroad time management standard to become the defacto national time management standard. It simply made good sense and brought order out of chaos.

The railroad industry’s demand for accurate and synchronized time spurred an interesting development in watch making – the railroad watch. Since time synchronization was absolutely essential to railroad management and safety it was imperative that all railroad line personnel (station managers, supervisors, conductors, engineers, etc.) carry time pieces that met a certain standard for accuracy and reliability. This requirement triggered the production of some of the most accurate mechanical time pieces ever developed. My Grandfather Winterberg was a maintenance supervisor on the Erie RR in Buffalo, New York during the early 1900s and carried an Illinois Bunn Special. My mother used to reminisce about watching her father wind the watch every night before going to bed and going with her mother to a jeweler in downtown Buffalo to have the watch checked and adjusted (a regular requirement imposed by the railroad). That very watch sits proudly on my mantle today, ticking away merrily almost 90 years after it left the factory.

The movement of a Bunn Special railroad watch.
Not mine, but very similar.  The movements of these watches
are absolutely stunning examples of early 20th Century
industrial design and execution.

The Digitization of Time

Let’s skip forward a bit. By the late 1950s America had ‘jet age fever’; the WWII generation and very early Baby Boomers were fascinated by the promises that the new electronics industry offered. The potential of the new science of electrical miniaturization seemed limitless.  Computers that could fit under a desk, TV sets that used fewer vacuum tubes, pocket transistor radios that received AM and FM. Why, someone was even talking about using microwaves to cook food! Wow! In 1960 the Bulova watch company jumped into the market with the Accutron line of watches and they were an immediate hit. Here was the first consumer grade watch that was fully electronic. The Accutron made use of tuning fork technology to generate the time signal and it proved that fully electronic watches were not just technologically feasible but that they were accurate, practical and that there was more than enough pent up consumer demand to make them profitable.

The other impact of the Accutron and all similar designs was that consumer-grade electronic watches could now be made that met or surpassed the accuracy of high end mechanical chronometers.  For the first time ever the low level account executive wearing his Accutron to the company Christmas party could know precisely what the time was with as much confidence as the Senior VP wearing his Rolex Oyster.  Accurate and precise time keeping had been brought to the great, unwashed masses!

Workers of the world, rejoice!  You can now time the start of the Jackie Gleason Show with the same precision as your bourgeois oppressors in the executive wash room!


Let’s pause for the ‘so-what’ factor here. So the low level account executive now has a relatively inexpensive watch that offers the same accuracy as the Senior VP’s high end mechanical chronometer.  So what? Well, the ‘so what’ is really the understanding that inexpensive, high accuracy time keeping is about to be unleashed on the consumer in ways he or she could never predict. The Accutron watch was just the first manifestation of that trend.

Let’s also pause to consider just what we are talking about when discussing accuracy. There are several accuracy standards in the watch and clock making industry, but let’s use the most common and best understood: the Swiss COSC certification standard. The COSC standard for chronometer movements states that a mechanical movement can lose no more than 4 seconds per day or gain no more than 6 seconds per day over a 10 day test period. Keep these numbers in mind as we move forward.

The mechanical tuning fork design of the Accutron design was good, but was ripe for improvement.  Nine years after the Accutron’s debut Seiko introduced the technology that would revolutionize the time keeping industry – the quartz watch.  The quartz watch follows the Accutron concept in that it uses an element oscillating (vibrating) at a known frequency to regulate the time signal.  In the case of the quartz watch that element is the quartz crystal.  The Japanese talent for miniaturization and integration meant that the basic quartz movement quickly found it’s way into a broad variety of watches and other time keeping and time control devices.  The physical size and power requirements of the quartz time movement went down and the accuracy improved. The Japanese electronics industry cleverly leveraged it’s lead and expertise in quartz watch movement technology into a multi-industry colossus and Japanese companies like Seiko and Casio continue to dominate the worldwide digital watch markets.

The Seiko Astron, the world’s
first quartz wristwatch

Now let’s take a look at those COSC standards I mentioned earlier.  The demand for mechanical ‘certified Swiss chronometer’ watch movements goes up year after year.  The market for high end mechanical watches is virtually insatiable.  Manufacturers like Rolex and Omega grind out watch movements by the thousands every year.  Each movement is tested by the Swiss COSC organization and those that pass receive an official Swiss chronometer certificate.  The problem is, the COSC accuracy standard in today’s terms really isn’t all that strict.  Remember, to receive a certificate a mechanical movement may not gain more than 6 seconds per day, or lose more than 4 seconds per day.  The average quartz watch from a reputable manufacturer easily beats the COSC mechanical chronometer standard.  I have a $29 Timex quartz watch that has lost roughly 1.5 seconds over the past 10 days.  That’s a 0.15 second per day loss.

[The Swiss COSC organization does have a quartz chronometer standard that is quite rigorous and any consumer-grade quartz watch would find it tough to meet the standard.  We are talking accuracies in the neighborhood of a few seconds per year vs. a few seconds per month with consumer grade watches.  Astounding accuracies by any measure, but right now we are discussing run-of-the-mill quartz movement accuracies vs. mechanical chronometers.]

Watch enthusiasts will scream that I’m ignoring a LOT that is related to quartz movement accuracy and stability, and they are right to criticize.  However, the point here is not that a cheap quartz watch can beat a high end Omega or Rolex, but that technology brings increasingly accurate time keeping to the consumer at lower and lower prices.

Today a consumer can walk into just about any watch retailer and for less than $100 purchase a quartz watch that beats a Swiss chronometer.  Now that is progress!

The lowly G-Shock beats the Rolex?
You bet!  In accuracy, that is.

The Sky Is (Not) The Limit

As you can tell, I think quartz watches are ‘da-bomb’; precise, rugged little time keepers that truly take a lickin’ and keep on tickin’ (props to John Cameron Swayze).  But accurate time doesn’t stop with the oscillating quartz crystal.  Time and technology march on and today the average consumer has newer, even more accurate time options.

I began this blog post with the discussion of how time and the concepts of time have fundamentally changed human culture and behavior.  Well, current and emerging technologies are poised to have an even greater impact on how time influences our lives.

Everybody knows that atomic clocks are as good as it gets for accuracy.

The first word is GPS – Global Positioning System.   (OK, three words, but who’s counting).

The second word is embedded, as in embedded (or integrated) technologies.

Let’s start with GPS.  Everyone knows GPS is ‘those navigation satellites’.  GPS is what your Garmin uses to fix your position.  What most people don’t understand is that the GPS system uses the concept of time shift to calculate position.  The GPS satellite broadcasts it’s position and precise time.  Your GPS unit receives that signal and calculates the time shift from when the satellite sent the signal to when it was received.  Knowing that the signal travels at the speed of light, your receiver can calculate where it is in relation to the satellite (just remember, you receiver needs the signals from three different satellites to fix your position).

To calculate an accurate time shift you need highly accurate and precise clocks at both ends – in the GPS satellites and in the receiver.  Each GPS satellite carries three or four atomic clocks accurate to about 50 nanoseconds (that’s 0.0000000050 seconds!).  But clearly we can’t stuff an atomic clock into each GPS receiver.  This is one of the neat tricks of the GPS system.  Since your GPS unit receives the time signal from the atomic clock in the satellite and it knows that signal is traveling at the speed of light and your unit is receiving the time signals from multiple satellites which allows it to average out error, with a cute bit of programming your GPS receiver is transformed into a ‘slave’ atomic clock.  This is how every single GPS receiver works.

A GPS satellite.  There are always 24 in orbit providing
worldwide coverage 24/7.  Each satellite carries four atomic clocks.

Accurate time tracking and synchronization is the fundamental principle behind GPS. Every GPS receiver tracks, manages and calculates time to atomic clock accuracy and precision!

Businesses and services that used to rely on expensive atomic clocks for accurate time measurement now instead use the GPS time signal.  For example:

  • Did you know that there is a GPS receiver on top of virtually all cell phone towers in the US? No, the tower owners don’t want to track the location of their towers in case they get stolen (ha, ha), but the owners are after that highly precise and accurate time signal.  Precise time management is how cellular systems handle the transfer of a phone call from one cell tower to another. As you cruise up the interstate yakking on your cell phone your call is being automatically transfered from one cell tower to the next and the synchronization of that transfer is managed using the highly precise GPS time signal.
  • Computer networks that require highly precise time synchronization use GPS receivers as their time signal source (rather than the network time protocol servers).
  • Secure radio networks use the highly accurate and precise GPS time signal to manage ‘frequency hopping’ for all radios in the network, reducing interference and increasing security.

The next innovation is integration.  Manufacturers are making GPS receiver ‘chips’ that are incredibly small. How small? Check this out:

iPhone 3G main board

This is the main circuit board from an iPhone 3G.  Circled in yellow is the GPS receiver chip.  That chip is less than 4mm x 4mm!  GPS chips are now built into virtually all smartphones and are being embedded in laptop computers, PDAs, tablet computers, personal training devices and a whole host of consumer electronics that are designed for use out of doors.  Unfortunately so far this integration only takes advantage of the GPS location capabilities, not time tracking and synchronization.

This brings us to close to the end of our journey through the history of consumer time.  With the advent of board-level integration of GPS in consumer devices the market is poised to take the next leap in time measurement for the common man – atomic clock quality time in the hand or on the wrist!

However, two simple developments need to take place.

The first is the use of the GPS time signal to update the internal clocks of consumer grade GPS receivers.  All GPS receivers have an internal clock or, for board mounted chips, receive a time signal from another timing device on the circuit board.  The internal clock maintains basic system time when the receiver is powered down and, in most cases, drives the time display on the device.  As silly as it sounds, most consumer grade GPS devices do not use the GPS time signal to continuously update the internal quartz clock!  For dedicated GPS units the system may do a clock synchronization when it is turned on and first achieves GPS lock, but from there the quartz clock may drift out of sync.  For embedded systems (like the iPhone GPS chip seen above) the device only uses the GPS time signal to calculate position.  The device firmware does not allow the GPS time signal to update the system clock (a shame, because the iPhone’s internal clock is notoriously inaccurate).  While most users don’t really care about atomic clock accuracy, it is a shame to not take full advantage of that exquisite atomic clock signal coming from the satellites.

Next is the integration of GPS receivers into consumer grade wrist watches.  Manufacturers like Garmin and Suunto currently integrate GPS into their watches, but these are purpose built devices designed for specific functions like sports training or wilderness hiking.  They are not general use watches.  What watch manufacturers need to do is integrate GPS into the watch specifically for time synchronization.  Make the technology invisible to the consumer – all he or she needs or wants to know is that the watch updates itself whenever it is outdoors and it’s really, really accurate!  The technology is already there – Casio and others make extensive lines of watches that sync nightly with the time signal broadcasts in the US, Japan, Europe and China.  While this is a neat (and useful) trick, the concept is somewhat flawed  because the signals are available in only limited areas and they are easily masked or disrupted.  Since these watches already contain a radio receiver and antenna system to pick up the broadcast signals; swapping a radio receiver/antenna system for a GPS receiver/antenna system should be a fairly simple feat.  With GPS the synchronization signals are available worldwide 24/7.

Technology is on the cusp of putting atomic clock-quality time in the wristwatch of the common man.  We are almost there.  Do we need that level of accuracy or precision to guide our common daily tasks?  No, of course not.  Should we push to achieve it?  Of course!  The technology is available, proven and cheap.

So come on Casio!  Get to work on it.  I want my watch by Christmas!


Thanks for hanging with me, dear reader!  Before I close let me clear a few things up.

First, I’m not trashing today’s mechanical watches.  From an aesthetic point of view the mechanical watch has a heart and soul that the digital watch utterly lacks.  I love mechanical watches (and own my fair share).  They are wonderful time pieces that continue to please.

Next, there are a number of ways to make quartz movements inherently stable and extremely accurate, but those methods only seem to be used on high end watches and chronometers because each unit needs to be individually calibrated and adjusted.  It is actually easier for a manufacturer like Casio to build a watch using a consumer grade (but still quite accurate) quartz movement and off-load the synchronization task to an external service like the WWV time signal out of Fort Collins, CO.  A slick and cheap trick that actually works!

And last, when I started writing this post over a day ago I wasn’t really sure where I’d go with it.  I know I wandered around a bit, but my research has taken me from the history of timekeeping to the concepts of industrial time management to the development of electronic watches to the exploding field of GPS time synchronization.  It has been an interesting and educational experience and I hope you’ve learned something along with me.