August 13, 2012

"Citius, altius, fortius" . . . horological meanderings.

When athletes compete against each other for the glory of an Olympic medal, hundreds of photographers try to capture the one and only moment which makes the games so unique. 
At these London Olympics, for the first time, robotic cameras made specifically for the high elevated roof positions that can only be covered by a remote camera and not by a photographer have been used. The robotic camera can be released by a photographer over wireless transmitters or externally triggered by a cable. All images are directly transferred into the Paneikon remote editing system and from there can be transmitted on the wire. 

Each feat pushes back the limits of the humanly possible, and each is recorded with precision.  The horologists thus become heroes.  Because they never appear before the fast public, here is their story.

It all began with horses and war. In the seventeenth century, the kings and gen-tlemen of England took up horse breeding with a view to improving the strong but slow native stock. The older horses had served well when knights and steeds wore armor and it took a heavy beast to carry the weight and withstand the shock of battle. But now gunpowder had made armor obsolete; mobility was more conducive to survival. The English began importing nimble Arabian horses from North Africa and the Levant, sometimes paying the equivalent of hundreds of thousands of today's dollars.
Three of these animals achieved immortality as progenitors of the major bloodlines in the stud book: the Byerly Turk, the Darley Arabian, and the Godolphin Arab.

The English of that day were irrepressibly rational-that is, means-ends-directed. Once they began to breed horses to speed, they had to know whether they were getting results. To settle the inevitable brags of one owner to another, they raced their horses - at first informally and as was, then increasingly under standardized conditions, at equal weights, on prepared tracks, in scheduled events with prizes, and often to wagers far exceeding the value of the prize.
This kind of competition called for serious preparation. The horse trainer, as distinguished from the groom, made his appearance, and professional riders took the place of amateur owners in the saddle. Every race was preceded by a regimen of exercise and practice runs. Owners wanted to know in advance how a horse was doing, and the one unambiguous way to find out was to time him. Times were also important for assessing results from one year to another and for comparing the performances of different bloodlines.
By a happy coincidence, it was just about this time that watches became accurate enough for the purpose. In the last quarter of the seventeenth century, the introduction of the balance spring reduced the variance from as much as an hour a day to as little as two minutes. For the first time it paid to show minutes on watch dials, and some instruments even showed seconds. Such pieces were called doctors' watches, for they were obviously useful in pulse taking. They were less helpful, though, in timing races, for the seconds bit (as the name indicates) was tiny, and there was no way to stop the watch while keeping an eye on the finish.
Not until the invention of the so-called center-seconds watch with stop mechanism-the earliest examples that have survived date back to the 1730s - was a convenient timer available. It may have been with one of these that a horse named Flying Childers was timed in 1721 over a three-mile course at Newmarket in six minutes forty seconds - a performance almost too good to be true. Early times tended to the optimistic, and solo timing produced some farfetched results.
These shortcomings were not corrected until the invention of the independent seconds train by Jean-Moyse Pouzait, in 1776, and of the fly-back chronograph (what we would call a stop-watch) by Adolphe Nicole, a Swiss working in England, in 1862.
Along with gains of convenience came refinement of measure. The early center-seconds watches showed elapsed time to the nearest second; the watch dial used the same lines to mark seconds and minutes. Beginning around 1770, however, some watches began to show fractional seconds - quarter seconds for watches beating 14,400 times an hour (slow train), fifth seconds for those making 18,000 beats (fast train). These smaller units did not require any change in the watch mechanism; the new lines on the dial simply marked its beat (four or five times a second). They do show, however, that races were getting tighter, and, that trainers, owners, and bettors wanted more precise information on performance.
Timing of humans' races came much later. The first intrauniversity competitions took place in the middle decades of the nineteenth century; the first formal inter university meet, supervised and timed, was between Oxford and Cambridge, in 1864.
The runners ran to what were to become standard lengths: 100 yards, a quarter mile, a mile. Results were given to the quarter second. Times were slow in those days-not so much because the competitors were physically inferior to their successors (though they were, if only because the pool of recruitment was so much smaller) but because technique was primitive, training and preparation were negligible, and tracks were less resilient. In the decades that followed, there was much improvement on all fronts, as the record of running times shows, while the very fact of this record served as an incentive to ever-greater commitment and effort. Certain times became linked to particular events as perceived limits of human possibilities: the "even hundred" (ten seconds flat), the four-minute mile, the two-hour marathon.

When Baron Pierre de Coubertin inaugurated the modern Olympic Games in Athens in 1896, he also rendered them mathematical.

Electronic timing supplanted stopwatches at the Helsinki Games of 1952. In the final, no fewer than four sprinters made it to the line in a time of 10.4. More remarkable still, the runners were considered somewhat slow. The then world record, first set by Jesse Owens 16 years before, defined sprinting excellence at 10.2.
Today's sprinters are measured in hundredths of a second. Last week in London, the most hi-tech equipment followed the sprinter Usain Bolt's every step. His reaction time out of the blocks was 0.165 (ranking him a modest fourth of eight). But then the Jamaican got into his stride. His long legs disposed of the race in 41 strides.
His Olympic record time, 9.63 an eighth of a second – clear of the rest.

We are all children of the Enlightenment: we count calories, set alarm clocks, watch weather forecasts on TV. So habitual, so inconspicuous, are these daily rituals that we perform them automatically. Unlike the ancient Greeks, who considered man the "measure of all things", we feel at home in an infinitely expansive cosmos. Great thinkers of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries passed down to us the notion of civilisation moving in a single – and desirable – direction. Thermometers, weighing scales and microscopes long ago moved us safely past the marshes of approximation. Time, risk and mortality are now told in numbers and quantified, since incremental progress relies on accurate measurement.
Even so, there was plenty of room for human disagreement at these games. Alas, nothing is perfect.


Charles said...

We'll have to make clocks that read in the picoseconds. C'mon Switzerland, that's your cue!

Mona said...

I believe Sarah the cheetah, who lives in the Cincinnati Zoo, recently broke her own world record by posting a time of 5.95 seconds, reaching a top speed of 61 mph.
The message is clear.
After human beings reach their physical limits - Animalympics.

Switzerland, answering.

Dr. Bunsen and gaggle of fans said...

Correction, Switzerland.
We will have robots compete, with built-in performance memory.
May the best country, correction, robot win!

frenchtoast said...

Crikey, I like!

Anonymous said...

Here is an even better idea, let the robots eat cake.

Anja said...

After that 100 meter freestyle final won by 0.01 of a second the games were lost to me. I went away and forgot about the Olympics!

Interesting post, Ms Edna.

Althus of that horological ilk said...

And in a tight race during the Olympics a split-second difference in time may just come down to the two key time-keeping engineering principles…
…accuracy and precision.
Thanks, great post.

surprised said...

Bravo! What an insightful piece of writing. I expected the usual fairly bland post.

acidrefluxed said...

Now there's a thought!
A cheetah released just after the starting signal would speed-up the runners and allow a degree of natural selection. Yep, I’m for all that.

Old Sauschwanz Wolfgang Amadé Rosenkranz said...

Such margins were unthinkable in Pythagoras’s day. The ancient Greek athletes cared far more about timing (kairos) than time (chronos). Wrestlers and boxers sought the right moment, the instant of maximum opportunity, in which to throw a rival or land a winning jab. Victory was always visible, incontrovertible. It was the same story in other disciplines. The hurly-burly of chariot races made neck-and-neck competition virtually impossible. Falls and crashes occurred regularly over the 12 laps of the track. In the Games of 482BC, out of a field of 41, there was only one finisher.

Bill (native 2) said...

Bandini is the word for... fertilizer.

Way cool, woman!

Ms. Edna (squared) said...

You got it!