[Part1]Technology enables world record times measured in 100ths of a second

The invisible passage of time is being measured with increasing accuracy and precision. People's lives and the nature of society have evolved as time marches on. What kind of future are we being led to by the clocks of today?

photo:Shinya Wale

The cheering of tens of thousands of fans has drowned out the sound of falling rain and thunder. It's Aug. 11 in Moscow, site of the 2013 World Championships in Athletics. Jamaica’s Usain Bolt, picking up speed in the final 30 meters, has just blown past Justin Gatlin of the United States to win the 100-meter final.

In unison, the crowd turns toward the digital time display beside the finish line. The clock reads 9.77 seconds, a personal best for Bolt this season. The grounds reverberate with appreciative applause.

In a glass-sided room off in a corner of the stands, 12 members of watchmaker Seiko’s timekeeping team let out sighs of disappointment because no world record had been set.

Seiko was responsible for all timekeeping duties at this year’s worlds. The staff from Seiko arrived in Moscow on Aug. 1. The glassed-in room served as the timing team’s command post.

About 50 square meters in size, the room was lined with 16 personal computers and sound equipment. Here, the team recorded competition results and video footage, sending information to TV broadcasters, large-screen displays in the stadium, and other destinations.

“All of the systems and equipment being used to measure and record times have been developed in-house,” Seiko manager Hiroshi Kajihara said.

In the case of the 100 meters, when the trigger on the electronic starting gun is squeezed, light flashes out the end of the pistol and a synthetic sound resembling the “bang” of a gunshot reverberates out of the stadium speakers. The trigger on the gun also serves as a switch connected to a variety of devices, including the starting blocks, personal computers in the control room, and cameras used for determining race winners. This equipment all starts to operate simultaneously when the trigger is squeezed to start the race.

Sensors in the starting blocks recognize the pressure being exerted by a runner’s feet and measure reaction times in increments of one one-thousandth of a second. If an athlete starts running one-tenth of a second or less after the gun has sounded, it is deemed an “impossible reaction time for humans” and a second “bang” is automatically sounded, signifying a false start.

Cameras are set up on either side of the finish line and in the stands to take pictures of the athletes in one two-thousandth of a second increments as they cross the finish line. The images are relayed to PCs where they are pieced together to provide exact times for each athlete.

Without the support of watchmakers, major sporting events, such as the Olympics and World Championships in athletics and swimming, could not be accurately timed. In terms of both technology and funding, it is said that probably only Omega of Switzerland and Seiko are capable of fulfilling all the requirements.

photo:Shinya Wake

The first time Seiko was tasked with timing duties at a major global sporting event was the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.

At that time, the Japanese government was promoting domestic technology under the slogan “The Olympics of Science.” Seiko engineers began by studying the rules for each sporting event, and then developed devices such as highly accurate stopwatches and photo-finish camera equipment linked to starting pistols.

For short-distance events in those days, three judges using stopwatches were assigned to time each athlete. At the Tokyo Olympics, hand timing was used to record official times in increments of one-tenth of a second. However, on a trial basis, accurate times down to one one-hundredth of a second were verified using photo-finish electronic timing equipment. Ever since, electronic timing has been the official method used in the Olympics.

Until Seiko entered the market, Omega went unchallenged as the dominant player in providing timing services at athletic events. For the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics, Omega provided 30 in-house-developed stopwatches capable of measuring time in increments of one-tenth of a second. This act triggered the company's involvement in sporting events.

To date, Omega has been responsible for providing timing services to 25 Summer and Winter Olympics. It is also scheduled to be the official timer for the 2020 Games in Tokyo. It costs a lot of money to develop the various devices needed to provide the services required. Still, the Olympics attract the attention of a vast number of people around the world and are one of the best places for promoting one’s brand.

“Our history of working with the Olympics and the astronauts who went to the moon is raising our brand (value),” said Stephen Urquhart, Omega president.

What is the most difficult event to time?

“Journalists always want to ask that," said Peter Hurzeler, a 45-year Omega veteran. "But if I think one event is easier than another, I could make a mistake.”

Successfully timing of races in which athletes only get one shot can certainly raise brand value. On the other hand, making a mistake can result in irreparable damage. The pressure to perform is great.

Still, the thrill of possibly being responsible for timing a world record helps relieve the on-site pressure. Susan Boobyer, a manager for Seiko’s operations in Britain, said, “Everyone is looking forward to seeing another world record in these championships, and yes, we are really looking forward to getting one with our team.”

Omega was in charge of timing for the London Olympics last year when the Jamaican team set a world record in the men’s 4 x 100 meters relay. At the World Championships in 2009, Bolt set the world record for the men’s 100 meters. His time, 9.58 seconds, was measured by Seiko.


photo:Shinya Wake

The oldest time measuring device dates back to around 4000 to 3000 B.C. Sundials, invented in ancient Egypt, are regarded as being representative of the first stage of timepiece creation. Water clocks, first appearing around 2000 B.C., were used across a wide range of regions, including Egypt, Greece and China.

The relationship of these early timepieces with astronomy and astrology was strong, and they tended to be managed by influential persons associated with the "domain of God."

It was not until much later, in the 13th century, that mechanical clocks and clock towers in European churches first appeared. According to the a watch museum in Switzerland, “It was the monks who first needed clocks. They needed them to know the accurate time for praying to God.” Around this time, the relationship between clocks and religion was deep. After the early modern period, their connection to science grew stronger.

Early on, the driving power of gravity and weight was used to turn the gears of mechanical clocks. However, before long, this gave way to spring power. Springs allowed clocks to be made smaller, which, in turn, gave birth to pocket watches in the 16th century, making it possible for individuals to keep track of time on their own.

In the 18th century, the accuracy of clocks was rapidly improved in order to help reduce accidents at sea. The precision of timekeeping devices had an effect on the Industrial Revolution of the mid-18th century. Clocks became indispensable to accurately measure the number of hours worked. They facilitated awareness of the relationship between time and money and helped introduce the concepts of efficiency and productivity to society.

From that period on, clocks continued to evolve both in terms of miniaturization and improved accuracy.

The first wristwatches were made when small timepieces were set into ornamental bracelets worn by women. For men, wristwatches first came into vogue among military personnel after World War I. Later, advances in science and technology brought about the invention of extremely accurate quartz and atomic clocks.

Once the provenance of those associated with the “domain of God,” timekeeping devices are now abundant and easily accessed by all. They are worn as fashion items and come as standard components in mobile phones and personal computers. Advances in the technology of measuring time have changed our lives, spurring on development in the worlds of industry, science, and even hobbies.

On the other hand, by making once-invisible time visible, people have become trapped by “busyness.”

In his 1973 novel "Momo" (The Grey Gentlemen), German author Michael Ende paints a picture of a world in which “men in grey” steal people’s “time,” taking away the flexibility to enjoy social activities or other pursuits excess time had provided them. Although Ende had intended the book to be a warning about material wealth and greed, many have interpreted his work to be a “warning that the modern world was losing the richness of the heart by constantly being pressed for time.”

What have people gained or lost with the ability to measure time? Perhaps only time itself will tell.


Translated by The Asahi Shimbun AJW. More related stories available at

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