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Father Time goes digital

IT'S funny how time technology runs in cycles: A century ago the biggest problem for inventors was to make an electric clock that kept reasonably accurate time. Today, the hope is to find an invention that keeps digital clocks from being recycled after the electricity goes off for a nanosecond or hour. What we need now is the likes of a Henry Ellis Warren of Ashland, Mass., who made it possible for Americans to scrap the tick-tock of a mechanical clock for the sounds of silent time in the American home. That feat took Mr. Warren 10 years to accomplish and almost drove him up the wall.

Warren, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology graduate, was given all kinds of patents, including one for a Thermophone that measured temperatures at a distance, before tackling the electric clock at the turn of the century. Building an electric motor was simple; the problem was that the alternating current coming from the power stations varied so much that the time on the clock could be in error as much as 15 minutes over 24 hours. Of course, that inconsistency didn't affect light bulbs or toasters, but an electric clock had to be correct all the time.

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So Warren started at the source: the power companies. He invented a master clock so that the utilities could measure the speed of the current, ensuring that the clock would move exactly one minute every 60 seconds. Installed first in the Edison Electric Illuminating Company in Boston in 1916, the master clock spread to other power stations, which agreed to correct any inconsistency in the current six times during each 24-hour period.

Of course, it took time to get all the kinks out of the system, but Warren was assisted by the General Electric Company, which purchased a half interest in the company he set up to manufacture electric clocks for offices and homes. By the 1920s, purchases of the new clocks steadily rose, and by 1931 a contemporary observer believed Americans were hooked on the second hand that glided across a clock face without any ticks or tocks:

``With that sudden rush which characterizes the charge of a new invention upon the American pocketbook,'' the observer noted back then,`` a host of synchronousor `electric' clocks have appeared in electric, jewelry, department - and of course - drug stores.''

In spite of his achievement, Warren would not be heralded by scientists, because even his electric clock would lose a few seconds now and then. For that reason the only clockmaker ever to receive a Nobel prize - a Swiss inventor in 1920 - did so for a device that made accuracy in traditional timepieces a foregone conclusion. Some Americans, however, gave Warren a consolation prize of sorts. They dubbed him ``Father Electric Time.''

So what's the moral of this tale? Hopefully, it is that we won't have too long to wait for someone to put a charge in digital clocks when power outages occur. What we need now is a Father Digital Time.

Thomas V. DiBacco is a historian at the American University.