Friday, March 27, 2015

I Don't Know Whether Mechanical Watches Would Survive An Electromagnetic Pulse

An electromagnetic pulse, or EMP, accompanies the blast of a nuclear bomb and disables all electronics within the range of the bomb's blast. Of course, this tended not to be noticed in bomb blasts because anything the pulse had disabled had also been destroyed by the blast and heat and radiation. But then devices began to be built which would produce just the pulse, and not the nuclear blast. The point of weaponizing such devices would be to cripple the enemy's electronics without killing people. As it was phrased in the Soderberg-Clooney Ocean's Eleven's rather unrealistic depiction of a big EMP, the desired result would be not Hiroshima, but the 17th century.

As both an admirer of mechanical watches and a person who attempts to be realistic and rational, until recently I had thought that since, oh, 1980 or so, there had been very little, and ever less, rational reason for making or buying mechanical watches. Which is fine: there's also no rational reason to make and buy paintings or Ferraris. There's a lot more to life than rationality.

But then I thought, Wait a minute: EMP's! 17th century? This would mean that suddenly the possessers of mechanical, wind-up or automatic watches would instantly go from eccentrics and conspicuous consumers to kings and queens among men, because when it came to time-keeping, everyone would have to rely on things like clocks powered by pendulums, wind-up portable alarm clocks -- and those mechanical watches. Fine jeweler's stores, with more mechanical watches and fewer quartz-powered ones, would become logistical centers from which We Would Rebuild.

But then I thought again: wait a minute, maybe an EMP would have an effect more drastic than the 17th century: mechanical watches are full of many tiny delicate metal parts. Would an EMP magnetize all those parts? If so, the mechanical watches would be just as dead as any electronic timekeeper. (And would large metal objects as well as tiny ones be magnetized? Would cars and trucks and trains be piled together in big magnetic clumps?)

So I researched the question of how mechanical watches would hold up under an EMP blast, and I still don't know the answer, because I don't know enough about physics to evaluate the answers I've found, nor the people answering. There are some people who say yes, the watches would hold up just fine and their wearers would indeed be kings and queens among men, and there are others who say no, mechanical watches would be magnetized and therefore destroyed in all their function, and still others who maintain that only a few mechanical watches, perhaps including those with Omega's new co-axial movement, would survive and still function, and the rest would be completely useless, some temporarily and many forever. (No, I have no idea whatsoever how Omega's new co-axial movement works, or whether Omega is massively overhyping it or whether it truly is a great advance in timekeeping, or anything. No idea whatsoever. I do know that NASA officially approved Omega watches for astronauts to wear in space, and I have no idea whatsoever how much importance, if any, to attach to that fact, or if it means anything at all when comparing Omegas to Rolexes.) I don't know how to evaluate the technical arguments made by the people on either side, nor do I know how to tell who is to be taken seriously as an authority on this question, and who is to physics as Dan Brown is to history.

My general (very very amateur) impression is that there may well not be enough data yet to know how mechanical watches would withstand an EMP.

Or is the gummit sitting on huge amounts of the relevant information, deliberately collected during its bomb tests over the decades, and on huge stockpiles of Omegas? (Duh-duh-DUHHHH.)

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