Rants and Raves

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Friday, May 09, 2008

That's progress for you - it's hard to be a snob anymore

Previously I wrote about how our democracy enables anyone to be a snob, these days. Most prominently these days the son of an African immigrant who's horrified by the price of arugula at Whole Foods, and a housewife not content to bake cookies while she could be doing so much for us. Noblesse oblige.

I was being facetious of course. It's actually quite hard to be a snob these days.

Consider... watches.

Clocks have been around for a long time. The ancient Egyptians invented water clocks and the Greeks refined them to tell time and date, and run an astronomical orerry as well.

In the Middle Ages pendulum clocks were developed in monasteries so monks could keep the times for prayer. Clock makers created marvelous works of art with figures that came out of doors and performed for audiences on the hour. You can still see some of these wonderful clocks in old towns throughout Europe.

But a timekeeping device that you could actually carry on your person wasn't developed until a few centuries ago. A pendulum gets kind of out of whack when you move it around a lot and a water clock would be inconvenient to carry, (Though it might be a fun Rube Goldberg exercise to try and invent one that runs off a camelpack.)

That's why navigation remained a by-guess-and-by-gosh proposition for a long time. You can tell latitude to a good enough degree with a device you can build out of sticks and twine, but determining longitude requires a clock set to the time of the port you left from - or a place everyone agrees on as the standard for maps. Pendulum clocks don't work at all well on the rolling deck of a ship.

For portable time pieces there used to be pocket sun dials you could take out, orient and use. If the sun was shining. If you knew the compass directions.

Then mainspring wound clocks were invented and sure enough, pretty soon clock makers tried making them portable enough to carry in your pocket.

So what the hell has this got to do with snobbery?

Just this.

The first watches were expensive and didn't work all that well. Some gentlemen of fashion used to carry a pocket watch and a backup pocket sundial.

Then watch technology got good enough to produce excellent, and expensive, mechanical watches that told pretty exact time, losing only minutes, then seconds, per day, then week, then month...

As I said, these were expensive and the very best were of course, made by the watchmakers of the Jura region of Switzerland. We still use the phrase, "run like a Swiss watch" to indicate excellence of design.

I believe this was about the time they started mounting watches on little belts so people could wear them on their wrists.

Along with these expensive watches were cheaper ones that regular folks could afford, but they didn't tell time as well. As the manufacturing technology advanced and cheap watches got more accurate, the makers of expensive watches added features such as day of the week and month displays. So your social status and wealth could be displayed by the watch you wore.

So where are we now?

For a buck, or as a toy given free with a Happy Meal you can get an electric digital watch that tells better time than the most expensive mechanical Swiss watch ever made or ever could be made.

Features? For a price well within any workingman's budget you can have your choice of watches with calendar, alarm, compass, barometer/altimeter, thermometer, calculator... am I missing anything?

Now days if you want to display your wealth with a watch, you have to buy obsolete technology, and adornment with precious metals and jewels that are entirely irrelevant to function.

Understand, I think the art of the mechanical analog watch is breathtakingly beautiful and ingenious, and I'm very glad that Cartier, Rolex, et al are keeping it alive. But none of that makes it a better time piece.

This applies to a long and growing list of consumer goods. For those old enough to remember the Playboy lifestyle sections decades ago, the stereo equipment that produced equivalent sound fidelity to fairly cheap CD players cost thousands back then.

Heck, we don't even bother to label sound equipment 'Hi-fi' anymore.

Yes of course, you can still display wealth with a BMW, but I think even that gap is narrowing. At least as concerns function. I'm sure it's more comfortable, but does a beamer actually drive better on city streets better than my ancient Honda?

I mean what's a poor little rich, or noveau riche boy or girl to do these days to show they're better than the rest of us boors?

We'll just have to make him/her ruler of the free world I guess.

Note: This essay stands alone as a humorous diversion, but could be considered a footnote to my series: 'Western Civilization and its Discontents'


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