When you think of the word “digital” we typically think of computers and data and graphics that are all driven off of data stored in 1 and 0 digits. A digital clock is a type of clock that displays the time in numerals (digits) versus based on the positions of rotating mechanical hands. The digital part doesn’t relate to the power/drive mechanism or how the clock is derives the current time.
Most digital clocks typically use the 50 or 60 hertz oscillation of AC power or a 32,768 hertz crystal oscillator as in a quartz clock to keep time. This is the mechanism that is used to drive the tracking and passing of time for the clock display. So instead of pulleys and weights or springs and other mechanisms its based on a repeatable physical phenomena that his highly accurate.
The first digital pocket watch was invented way back in 1883 by an engineer by the name of Josef Pallweber who was an Austrian. He came up with the idea of having two dials that showed digits based on rotating discs. This movement was called “Jump-Hours” as the digits would jump. The technology eventually found its way to wrist watches and can still be found in watches today.
A similar digital approach that was a “flip clock” was the plato clocks (the timeframe was early 1900s not back in Plato’s day) These clocks were spring wound and as the spring unwound the cards would flip to show the current time. The clocks were introduced at the St. Louis World Fair in 1904 by the Ansonia Clock Company.
From a patent stand point the first digital clock patent was approved in 1956 for D.E. Protzmann in the United States. They had another patent in 1970 as well. The use of electricity and small motors were an integral part of the timing mechanism.
Around this same time the first digital watches with an actual LED display became widely available. The Pulsar was a major breakthrough and very expensive. It also gained a strong following and the digital watch age became very popular through many popular brands and even eventually included the infamous calculator watches and other multi-function wrist watches.
Today we have time devices that are driven by digital data. If you boot up a computer or even start up your car its reaching out over the network to find out the current time. For major computer networks the NTP (Network Time Protocol) is used to synch all computer clocks. At the heart of this protocol synchronizations are done with highly accurate atomic clocks and similar devices that are extremely accurate.
The clocks we have on our computers have the ability to display digitally (with numbers) or to visually have the old time positionally based format. Depending on your mood for the day you can pick a clock display for your computer. Now you know the history of what we all see every day on our wrist, in our hand and on our desk.