Can You Tell Me the Time?

How many youngsters today know how to read an analog clock?  How many of them say, “Why do you ask?  My cell phone and my computer tell me the time.  So does the microwave.  With numbers!”

Some schools have stopped teaching students how to read and write cursive script.  Have they also stopped teaching them how to read analog clocks?  

Should analog clocks follow dial phones and steam locomotives into oblivion?

No, because analog clocks have capabilities that have not been superceded by digital (and talking) ones.

Dial phones have left little behind besides the phrase, ‘Dial the phone’, which is what early anthropologists called a ‘survival’, here a phrase whose origins are lost to younger generations.  Tapping in numbers is much quicker than dialing them, and digitization makes it possible to store numbers in phones and computers and link them to other data.  The dial phone is today no more useful than a crank on a modern automobile.  Unbelievably, to those of us from previous eras, the knowledge has already been lost.  Watch these two teenagers attempt to fathom the mystery of the dial telephone:

Steam locomotives defined railroading for its first 150 years, but now are relegated to museums and ‘heritage’ railroads for fans and tourists.  They are still used in China, which manufactured steam locomotives until 1999 (see ‘The Endless Excursion’, where I rode behind one built in 1989), but increasingly in remote areas for iron mining.

My friend Guy used to argue that modern steam could be competitive for power and speed with diesel-electric locomotion, demonstrated as I recall by the Norfolk and Western, but steam required a dedication to maintenance and infrastructure (just dealing with water, coal, and ash imposed high overhead) that the diesel simplified enormously, even though the internal combustion engine is more complex than the external one.  The steam locomotive has its dedicated fans of course, as one of the most exciting machines to experience in action, but so for that matter do horses, now mainly used as a measure of power.

The analog clock, however, has not been overtaken, except in the hands of the young and untrained.  Why?  Look at this clock, and tell me the time:


Hands Black Wall Clock Large by Karlsson, available from Simple Wall Clocks



My wife says that I have not explained why analog clocks are still relevant.  It seems obvious to me, but here are three reasons:

(1) You don’t need to read or see any numbers, which can be faint, or too small.  The position of the hands tells you the time.  Add a sweep-second hand and minute/second markings, and you can tell time to the second—still without numbers.  Yes, the numbers are implied, even if invisible; you’ve just learned where they are.  But once you’ve learned, you don’t need them.

(2) You can tell at a glance how much time is left in the hour.  Your digital clock tells you it’s 8:45.  Your analog clock also tells you it’s 15 to 9.  Does the younger generation know what “Quarter to” means?

(3) Corollary to number 2: If you’re on a deadline, e.g. an approaching end to a radio show (as I often am), the analog clock shows you graphically how much time you’ve got left.  When Rush Limbaugh says to a caller, “I’ve got one minute,” I have no doubt he’s looking at an analog clock with the second hand sweeping through that minute, and he knows at 8 seconds before the top, to say to the caller, “You’re absolutely right. Back after the top of the hour”; cue bumper theme.

Of course you can always use a digital clock, and mentally calculate remaining time.  Some digital clocks can even be set to count down.  But it’s much easier to just look up and see it—on an analog clock.

PS I’ve refrained from using the old spelling, ‘analogue’, though it looks more authoritative to me.  ‘Analog’ is my concession to modernity.   /LEJ

4 thoughts on “Can You Tell Me the Time?

  1. If you are lost in the wilderness and cannot determine cardinal points (N/S/E/W) you can use a 24-hour analog clock (or do a mental computation on your 12-hour wristwatch) by arranging the dial to the position of the sun (Example: if the Sun is overhead and it is Noon, point the “6” (mentally re-configuring the face to a 24-hour watch) towards the Sun, and the “12” will point North. Though not exact due to time-zones, it’s “close enough for government work”.

    • Thanks askeptic. Good tip. Your method, by thinking of the 3 as a 6 (24-hour clock) is simpler than THIS ONE, found on the Internet. Not sure how you hold the watch horizontal and point at the Sun if it’s directly overhead, though. /LEJ

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