What Is Atomic Timekeeping On A Watch & How Does It Work

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Atomic timekeeping sound like a phrase from a Sci-Fi movie, isn’t it? However, this technology is not fiction and is being used since 1948 after the invention of the first atomic clock. The notable use of this technology is in the operation of GPS (Global Positioning System ). However, its use is not just limited to laboratories and GPS as it also has day-to-day practical use which is updating the atomic watches to the most accurate time and date.

Atomic timekeeping on a watch means the timepiece is controlled by radio signals that it receives from an atomic clock. The radio frequency signal contains the most accurate time and date information which is received by the atomic watch’s antenna and the watch updates itself to the latest time. An atomic watch receives these signals every day mostly at night because at that time the signal disruption is at the lowest. 

Put simply, if you have an atomic watch you don’t have to manually adjust the time to the most accurate one because it automatically does the needful. To learn more about these advanced watches you can keep reading the article.

Quick links to specific parts of the article:

How Does An Atomic Watch Work?

Every watch on the face of the earth is subject to losing time due to various reasons. Some watches lose more time while others lose less but there is no watch that is 100% accurate all the time. For example, a quartz watch may lose less time than a mechanical watch but none of them are still completely accurate. And that’s when the need for atomic watches was discovered.

These watches synchronize themselves with the atomic clocks (the most accurate timepiece in the world) through radio frequency signals. Once the atomic watch receives a signal from the atomic clock it itself gets updated to the latest time, day, and date.

An atomic watch searches for radio signals from the atomic clock once per day most probably at night so that they can receive the signal without any hindrance. The watches are programmed this way so you don’t have to do anything special to look for the signals as the watch would do that by itself.

What Is An Atomic Clock?

Without going into too many technicalities, an atomic clock is the most accurate timepiece ever built. To give you an idea an atomic clock is accurate to 1 second in every 100,000 years, which in simple words means that an atomic clock only loses 1 second in 100,000 years. Atomic clocks are placed in different locations around the world from where it sends signals which are received by atomic watches in their geographical location.

The atomic clock was first built in 1948 and is mainly used in satellite navigation systems like GPS and Glonass as they depend on precise time in order to calculate your positions accurately. To better understand what is an atomic watch and how it works you can see this video:

Factors That May Effect Atomic Timekeeping On A Watch

Atomic timekeeping on a watch may be affected by mainly two factors which we are going to discuss in this part of the article. If you come across any of these two factors then your atomic watch may not be able to update the time. And those two factors are as follows:

1. Distance

As we have told you earlier that the atomic clocks are placed in different locations in the world, each clock has a set limit or range up to where it can transmit the signals. If your watch is out of that range you will not receive the time update signal. Also, different clocks transmit signals at different frequencies so your watch will not synchronize with other atomic clocks if you are moving to other countries.

For example, atomic watches made in the USA are set at a frequency matching with the atomic clock in Ft. Collins, Colorado. So you will only be able to receive the signal if you are in the USA. Suppose you move to India then your atomic watch will not sync with the atomic clock placed in New Delhi. However, once you are back in your primary location your watch will automatically update to the latest time.

2. Signal Disruption

Atomic timekeeping on a watch works on a radio frequency which means if the frequency is hindered in its path then it may not reach your watch properly.

Even if you have not moved out of your place you may still face the issue where your watch is not able to sync to the atomic clock. This happens due to signal disruption from mobile networks or TV signals. The watch may also not receive the signal if you place it in a metal reinforced box that blocks radiofrequency.

Therefore the signals are mostly sent at night because at that time the risk of signal disruption is at the lowest because no one is using their phone or watching TV.

Conclusion: Are Atomic Watches Really Accurate?

When compared with other watches i.e. quartz and automatic mechanical watches the timepieces that come with atomic timekeeping are definitely more accurate. These watches get updated each day and hence never lose time. However, there can be some instances when the watch may not receive the signal from an atomic clock which we have already discussed above. In that case, the watch may lose some time but don’t worry as soon as the watch comes back in the range of the signal it gets updated to the most accurate time, day and date. So we can conclude that these watches are really accurate.


Who Makes The Best Atomic Watches?

Brands like G-Shock, Citizen, and Seiko are market leaders in making the best atomic watches.

Are Atomic Watches Worth It?

It depends on whether you actually need the atomic timekeeping feature or not because atomic watches are more expensive than regular watches. So if you really want a super accurate watch then they are totally worth it.

Are Atomic Watches Dangerous?

Since atomic watches use radio frequency many people think that they are dangerous for humans but there is no conclusive evidence that proves that atomic watches are dangerous to humans.

Are Atomic Watches Expensive?

Atomic watches used to be expensive but now you can find atomic timekeeping watches at all budgets from affordable to expensive.

Tom Nielson

Tom's love for watches started when his grandfather gifted him his Rolex watch when he turned 18! Being a teenager it was a big deal for him. Later when he got his first job he bought Fossil Palm Pilot back in 2003 which was a smartwatch. Since then smartwatches have come a long way and so is Tom's love for them. His experience with watches inspired him to start Wearholic and share his knowledge of wearables including watches, smartwatches, smart glasses, & smart clothing.

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