It’s About Time!

The Art, Science, and Business of Timekeeping, in the Olympics and Long Before

Michael Phelps was 4.10 seconds behind Ryan Lochte in the 400-meter Individual Medley at the 2012 Olympics.  Lochte lost the lead to a Frenchman on the final relay leg and checked in 0.45 seconds behind.

Mere fractions of seconds now separate Gold Medal winners from out-of-the money participants. The swiftest will reap millions and bask in fame for the rest of their lives. The slower – barely, but still slower – ones who finish in their wakes will join the madding crowd in anonymity.

“As long as I’m around you’re second best. You might as well learn to live with it,” said Edward G. Robinson as Lancey Howard in The Cincinnati Kid. Live with it, they will. Maybe they won’t like it, but the also-rans should be bloody well proud that they even had a chance to compete.

Is there a higher honor for an athlete than to represent his country in the Olympic Games? I don’t think so. Well done, ladies and gentlemen, whatever your time or place of finish happens to be. That’s the editorial comment. Now, to our story.

Time is Money

The games of the Thirtieth Olympiad take place in London. It’s fitting. London is home to the Royal Observatory at Greenwich, which has long been the world’s point of geographical reference and is the fons et origo of modern timekeeping. Back in 1836, the Royal Observatory knew, down to the second, what time of day it was. But they had just about no way of sharing that information with the public.

Enter the first entrepreneur of time: John Henry Belville, an astronomer and meteorologist who worked there. He built up a lucrative side business – selling time.  Customers – local merchants, dockyards, shipping offices, instrument shops – paid a subscription fee for a weekly visit from Belville and his personal chronometer. That pocket timepiece, which was nicknamed Arnold, was tuned to the observatory’s clock to within one-tenth of a second.

Belville died in 1856, and his young widow Maria took over the time-supply business with the blessing of the Observatory. Her daughter Ruth inherited both the business and Arnold. Though telegraph, radio, and telephone’s “speaking clock” service moved onto the scene, the “Greenwich Time Lady” was most reliable and had a loyal following of customers. Ruth stayed in the time-selling business until 1940.

Timekeeping in Sports

Omega, the official timekeeper of the games, is now able to calibrate race times to one-thousandth of a second.  The starter’s “gun” is integrated with the laser detectors at the finish.  There’s no longer a human element to Olympic timing.

George V. Brown (right), the writer’s grandfather, finish line judge at 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles.

Omega has been the Olympic timekeeper for eight decades. The relationship began back in 1932, at the Los Angeles Olympics. Omega supplied 30 stopwatches for the track judges.  These watches were accurate to a tenth of a second. In the Amsterdam games of 1928, the timers had all used their own stopwatches.

The writer has little doubt that one of those who used the first official Olympic stopwatches from Omega was his grandfather, George V. Brown (pictured here).  George V. had been involved with U.S. Olympic Track and Field since the first London games in 1908. In Los Angeles, he was a finish line judge.

More accurate watches didn’t make for undisputed decisions at the 1932 Games, however. The 100 meter duel between Thomas Edward “Eddie“ Tolan and Ralph Metcalfe, both USA sprinters, is described thusly by Robert Parienté in his book La Fabuleuse Histoire de l‘Athlétisme:  “Everyone saw Metcalfe win, and yet he was only placed second… Metcalfe was beaten by the rule book.”

The timekeepers‘ hand-held Omega stopwatches had recorded three times of 10.3 seconds for Metcalfe and two times of 10.3 and one of 10.4 seconds for Tolan. Even so, Tolan was declared the winner. Why? Both competitors reached the finishing tape at exactly the same moment, but the rules specified that the race is finished only when the athlete‘s torso has completely crossed the finishing line marked on the ground.  Tolan crossed before Metcalfe. This rule, which was often interpreted in different ways, was changed in 1933. Since then, the winner has been the first person to cross the line with any part of his or her torso.

Thomas Edward “Eddie” Tolan

The results list shows both Metcalfe and Tolan with times of 10.3 seconds. Even though this time, which was achieved against a headwind of 1.4 m/sec, equaled the world record then held by Tolan, it was never officially recognized as such by the IAAF.  Tolan won two gold medals in Los Angeles, and Metcalfe went down in the history books as an unlucky loser. In the 200 m final, he was wrongly told to start the race from the relay mark and ran 3.5 m further than he needed to, finishing third as a result. Unbelievably, neither Metcalfe nor Tolan was a member of the USA 4 x 100 m relay team!

Ralph Metcalfe

Metcalfe did not win a gold medal until 1936, when he was part of the US relay team that included the legendary Jesse Owens. Tolan and Metcalfe were the world‘s top sprinters before

Owens began to rewrite the sporting history books. Metcalfe set a total of 15 unofficial world records over 100 yards, 100 m, 200 m, 220 yards and the 4 x 100 m relay; Tolan set 14.

Tolan later became a teacher. Metcalfe spent the last seven years of his life as a Democrat member of the House of Representatives. Both were members of Alpha Phi Alpha, the first academic fraternity for blacks in the USA.

The Horse and the Stopwatch

Stopwatches were not a new thing in 1932. As far back as the 1850s, they came into demand in America because of the famous racehorse, Lexington. Here too, is an interesting story in the history of race relations and American sport.

Lexington was a beautiful bay that stood at 15 hands and 3 inches. He was foaled in 1850, bred for a Dr Elisha Warfield, who named him Darley. Darley’s trainer was a former slave known as Burbridge’s Harry. He was a superb and well-known trainer, but Darley could not be entered into races by the Burbridges because the trainer was black. The horse first ran under Dr. Elisha Warfield’s name.

The Chronodrometer from American Watch Company

Darley was fast and strong.  He won his first two races handily and was purchased by a Richard Ten Broeck. The horse was renamed Lexington, and he proceeded to become one of the most popular of all race horses during his day.  He raced seven times and won six of them. Those races were four miles long. In April 1865, Lexington was raced against the clock. He complete four miles in seven minutes and 19 ¾ seconds, a record speed that he held for more than twenty years.

Lexington’s success spurred demand for timepieces that could measure fractions of seconds.  In 1869, the American Watch Company of Waltham, Mass. introduced the “chronodrometer,” or improved timing watch. The company made about 600 of the watches between 1859 and 1861. The watch sold for $50, compared to as much as $350 for a high-grade European import.

The Photo Finish

The first Olympic photo finish. Harrison Dillard wins the 100 Meters in 1948.

The Omega company’s website claims that the “Birth of Modern Sports Timekeeping” came at the second London Olympic Games in 1948. The world’s first independent, portable and water-resistant photoelectric cell, made by Omega, made its Olympic debut in 1948. There was also the Racend Omega Timer, a device that combined a Race Finish Recording photo finish camera with a timer.

The first photo finish came in the 1948 Men’s 100-Meter Final.  In that race, Harrison “Old Bones” Dillard of the United States finished in 10.3 second and beat out fellow American Barney Ewell by a tenth of a second.

Then at Helsinki in 1952, Omega became the first company to use electronic timing in sport with the Omega Time Recorder .

The Clock that Saved Professional Basketball

Hard to believe, but the National Basketball Association has not always used the 24-second clock. The league had been in operation for five years before the owners realized that they had to speed up the game or go out of business. Fans were often disgusted and upset when teams would hold the ball for minutes on end.  In 1954, Syracuse Nationals owner Danny Biasone figured it all out with some simple arithmetic.

Biasone believed that basketball was most entertaining when it was neither a stallball game nor a wild shootout. His personal observation put the optimal level of shots per team at 60. That meant 120 shots per game. So he divided the length of each game, 48 minutes or 2,880 seconds, by 120. The result? 24 seconds per shot.

We’ve Come a Long Way

As with almost any subject, the history of timekeeping has a number of interesting developments in the 5,000 or so years since the Egyptians started building obelisks to track the passage of time with their shadows.

The Chinese used candles with evenly-spaced markings to track the passage of time. The Greeks had the clepsydra, which might have been the first way to record attorneys’ billable hours.  It was used to limit the length of lawyers’ speeches, actually. A hollow vessel with a hole in the bottom, the clepsydra was filled with water that would gradually run out into another vessel.  When the water was gone, the speaker’s time was up.

“Clock” comes from cloche, the French word for “bell.” The first mechanical clocks originated in European monasteries. They were faceless devices that marked the time with chimes rather than with hands.

The Swiss were talented horologists, as we all know. In 1577, Jost Burgi of Switzerland invented the minute hand. But it didn’t get popular until some 80 years later, when the addition of a pendulum decreased clocks’ daily margin of error from 15 minutes to about 15 seconds.

Back to Britain for our final story, and another lesson in economics.  Advocates of big government and of taxing everything that moves should be aware of yet another example of the killing power of taxes, this one involving timepieces. In 1797, British Parliament in its wisdom passed a law requiring citizens to register privately-owned timepieces, then pay taxes on them. The scheme, predictably, devastated the British clock making industry.  The law was repealed just nine months later.

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