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What is Internet Time, and can I buy a watch that tells it?

As you can see by this circa 2000 Swatch Beats product photo, the watch showed local time as well as Internet Time -- and it was @423 Internet Time when the photo was taken.
Newsmakers/Getty Images

Internet Time, a concept developed by the Swiss watch manufacturer Swatch in the late 1990s, basically boils down to this: Gee, wouldn't it be cool if we could get rid of all those confusing international and regional time zones, so that everywhere on Earth, everyone's clock or watch showed the exact same time?

In an age in which we're increasingly interconnected with people in distant countries, having the same time everywhere would have some huge advantages. For example, if you're in New York and you have an appointment to call someone in Barcelona or Beijing at 2 p.m., you wouldn't have to rack your brain to calculate what time that will be over there -- or worry that they meant 2 p.m. their time, which means you'd need to do the same calculation in reverse.

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But there's a bit more to it than that. What if we also got rid that cumbersome system of hours, minutes and seconds, and the semicolons we use to separate those numbers? And, what if we ditched the a.m. and p.m. distinction as well? Why not just have a single three-digit number, preceded by an at sign for a certain moment in time? After all, when you're standing in line to pick up your order at a pizza parlor, the number on your receipt usually is something easy to remember like "124," and that seems to work pretty well, doesn't it?

That's pretty much the idea. In Swatch's Internet Time system, the day is divided into 1,000 "Swatch beats," each equivalent to one minute and 26.4 seconds. Each day starts at @000, which happens to coincide with midnight in Biel, Switzerland, where Swatch's headquarters is located [source: Harmon].

In 1999, Swatch founder Nicolas Hayek told The New York Times that Internet Time was the wave of the future. ''The Internet has made human beings more globally conscious of being on a small planet where we are all really equal,'' Mr. Hayek said. ''Internet time is the perfect measuring stick for this era.'' The company envisioned making a mint selling $70 watches that displayed "Swatch beats" alongside the local time [source: Harmon].

But as you may have deduced from the dearth of people e-mailing you to set up an appointment at @84 or @242, Internet Time never really caught on. Today, the company still provides a calculator on its Web site that allows you to convert local time into Swatch beats and vice-versa. But it's not very useful, since the company no longer sells watches that display Internet Time. Why didn't the idea go viral?

Could the world one day operate on global time?
Could the world one day operate on global time?
Benjamin Shearn/Photodisc/Getty Images

From one angle, the notion of getting everyone on the planet to toss their existing 12-hour clocks in the trash and switch to a new system seems about as crazy as getting them to stop speaking their native languages and switch to Esperanto, the artificial language created by a 19th-century Polish linguist who mashed up bits and pieces of various European romance languages [source: Britannica]. But it's not so crazy when you consider that it has pretty much already happened on the Internet, where by the late 2000s English had become the dominant, if not universal, language [source: Mydans].

It's even less crazy when you consider that back in the late 1800s, railroad companies created the present system of standard time zones that covered regions, and forced cities and whole countries to stop using local solar time and switch to their new system. Of course, the rail barons had a powerful bit of leverage; if you didn't adapt to their new system, you might not be able to have train service, which in those days would signal the demise of any community [source: Mansfield].

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In contrast, Swatch -- which gets people to buy its watches by making them look cool -- didn't have the clout to force anyone to adopt its new system. And a lot of people scoffed at it as if it were the product equivalent of the Newton -- that kludge of a handheld tablet that Apple tried to peddle in the early 1990s before Steve Jobs came back to the company [source: Hormby].

And Internet Time, as critics quickly pointed out, didn't solve another, more important problem that interferes with global interactions. Even if people used the same artificial time standard around the planet, their circadian rhythms -- that is, the pattern in which their bodies release hormones in reaction to exposure to light and other influences -- would remain different. As Judah Levine, a physicist for the National Institute for Standards and Technology, pointed out to The New York Times: When it was @430 in cyberspace, New Yorkers might be up and about, but Beijing residents would still be asleep in their beds. "They [Swatch] have the same problems with the Earth going around the Sun as we always did," he said. "The Internet can't change that" [source: Harmon].

And it didn't. If you're still really intrigued with the Internet Time notion, you may be able to find a vintage Net-Surfer or one of the other models that displays Swatch beats on eBay [source: eBay]. But when you suggest to someone that you have that conference call at @637, don't expect them to know what you're talking about.

I have to admit that I somehow totally missed Swatch's publicity campaign pushing Swatch Beats and Internet Time back in the late 1990s, perhaps because I was too busy worrying about how the Y2K bug would bring civilization to a crashing halt at midnight on Jan. 1, 2000. I remember dialing up AOL that night with my old analog telephone modem and watching the last seconds of the 20th century slip away, just to see if the Internet would keep running or not. Swatch Beats and Y2K were both part of an era in which the idea of a wired, 24-7 planet still seemed new, dangerously edgy and exciting. Today, though, that connectivity is just an accepted, ordinary part of our everyday lives.

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Sources

  • eBay.com. "Swatch Beat." (March 14, 2012) http://www.ebay.com/sch/i.html?_nkw=%22swatch+beat%22&_sacat=0&_odkw=swatch+%22internet+time%22&_osacat=0
  • Encyclopedia Britannica Online. "Esperanto." (March 14, 2012) http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/192713/Esperanto
  • Harmon, Amy. "It's @786. Do You Know Where Your Computer Is?" The New York Times. March 7, 1999. (March 14, 2012) http://www.nytimes.com/1999/03/07/weekinreview/it-s-786-do-you-know-where-your-computer-is.html?scp=10&sq=swatch+internet+time&st=nyt
  • Hormby, Tom. "The Story Behind Apple's Newton." Gizmodo. Jan. 20, 2010. (March 14, 2012) http://gizmodo.com/5452193/the-story-behind-apples-newton
  • Mansfield, Howard. "Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?" The New York Times. March 10, 2011. (March 8, 2012) http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/11/opinion/11mansfield.html
  • Mydans, Seth. "As English's dominance continues, linguists see few threats to its rule. But new dialects and technology pose challenges." Boston.com. April 29, 2007. (March 14, 2012) http://www.boston.com/news/world/asia/articles/2007/04/29/as_englishs_dominance_continues_linguists_see_few_threats_to_its_rule/?page=full

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