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The Vintage Stopwatch Predicament

I thought I had time (no pun intended).

Well, to be more accurate, I hadn’t thought as deeply of “the times” as I ought to have whenever I’d come across my dad’s broken stopwatch. I just carted it around, move through move, in a collection of memorabilia – the physical manifestations and prompters of memory that make their way with me physically and temporally.

I remember when the stopwatch worked – probably up through at least the 1980s or early 90s. I don’t recall when it stopped. The plastic has been cracked for a long time. I kept it because it had been my dads and it reminded me of his years as a pilot, and I remembered playing with it when I was a kid, timing how long I could hold my breath and how long it took me to skate around my elementary school on weekends.

One day, early this year, I came across it again and several things fell into my mind at once: one of the last remaining businesses in our dead mall is a watch-repair shop staffed by an older Vietnamese man. His business partner holds down the cash register-counter across from him, the two separated by a low bin of imported plastic “straw” hats, cheap white teddy bears, and plastic and chrome toy cars. The watch repairman gathers customers from those who need their watch batteries replaced, but he also fixes analog watches and clocks.

It occurred to me that he’s not getting any younger, the mall is not guaranteed to remain open to continue to host him, and who in the world younger than these men in their 60s is having anything to do with watch repair?

I hurried over with my small family treasure and he said he’d get it back to me in about six weeks. I felt relieved. I’d gotten there in time! On the downslope of our civilization and in spite of societal turbulence, something would be repaired and restored to be made available for the future – when there’d be no guarantee of finding someone with the requisite skills, knowledge, or network of learning, tools, or parts.

He didn’t call me, as I thought he would, so about eight weeks after dropping it off, I swung by and made my way through the cavernous, partially-lit, and echo-y mall. I handed him my claim check, explained what I was there for, and he said, “Ah,” and turned to the drawer where he extracted the small envelope containing my watch. He slid it out of the envelope and I saw that the plastic was still cracked. He said, “I could not find anyone who manufactures the mainspring anymore, I’m sorry.”

I may yet find a way to repair this stopwatch, but it’s absolutely not a guarantee. I have family in Germany, and Germans seem to be among those who repair small machines or practice old, skill-requiring crafts. Perhaps, if travel ends up in our cards, I could take it there. Or maybe I could look around in one of the big cities not far from where I am. That’s likely to be an expensive endeavor, but I might decide it’s worth it.

I don’t have any better reason for that than the one I give here – maybe it will be of use to someone some day. I think that’s as good a reason as any to do things, to think about the benefits we might convey to those who are to come, rather than thinking of all the ways we can amass more, now.

So, this vintage-stopwatch predicament probably sounds as familiar to you as it does to me: an older technology, a few people who know how to use/repair/maintain it, a few (hopefully) spare parts somewhere… and some sort of disruption/disjunction/discontinuity in connecting those things because we’ve moved a bit too far “into the future” and that future has cut off certain necessary tendrils of possibility, the connective “tissue” so to speak. And so we witness things falling apart and cannot wish them back together.

A while back, I posted about a fax machine I’d gotten to serve as a thermal-stencil printer. New, in-box, and never used, it seems to have suffered from a slow battery drain over the years (and there is some corrosion is visible outside that compartment) and that’s affected its memory. It seems to not remember its functions – the buttons beep and do little else. Now and again I can get a varied response from it if I try some secret-code combination of opening the paper compartment and pushing either the “stop” or “copy” buttons. Once I got a reduced copy of an original, but repeating the pattern afterward didn’t get a response.

I’ve called a few fax-repair shops and none of them have even heard of this model and they’re not sure what I should do. One did suggest a battery replacement, though it’s a bit complex and requires soldering parts in – and wouldn’t be a guaranteed fix.

There are a series of parallels here, just under the surface, that have to do with a degraded power source and the resource issues that direct our collective energy and our energy use, with the machine’s lost memory and the loss of collective memory around particular technologies and their repair, and with the soldered and corroded connections and the broken connections between last-of-their-kind repairmen and the parts they once could get.

I struck out with another fax machine. It would probably work as a sending-fax, but its thermal printer is only spotty (and that, only after it spent 24 hours with “wait a moment” on the LCD screen). Luckily I’m still within the return/refund window for this one, unlike the first one. I’m still waffling over the cheap tattoo stencil printers. The reviews online are mixed: “plugged it in and smoke poured out,” “it worked for about three stencils,” “great purchase.”

Until I decide something, I can’t move forward with any of my hoped-for projects. I’ll keep looking and evaluating, but in some ways, the clock is ticking.

6 replies on “The Vintage Stopwatch Predicament”

That’s sad about the stopwatch. Consider the level of engineering talent that went into the invention of such small marvels (yeah, I can easily waste an hour observing a mechanical watch at work) …we might be losing something irreplaceable at multiple levels.

Yeah, pretty much all that sort of fine mechanical repair skill is going the way of the dodo. Best option might be to find a steampunk “maker” who works in small springy things … likely to have sources and stock of unusual sorts, or know someone who can make one.

I’ve had a good vinegar bath de-corrode leaky-battery damage sufficient to revive a flashlight, but a fax unit?? Used to have one of those thermal fax machines; didn’t occur to me at the time to open it up and look, but it lost its marbles and began printing gibberish; wonder if it had a similar issue.

Yeah, that’s how I feel – and it’s probably not a new feeling being felt. My great-grandfather’s life spanned 1898-1998. He saw the end of a lot of skilled crafts and beautiful technologies and the rise of a whole lot of energy usage to make cheap, short-lived doodads. Heh, my lack of enthusiasm for “new, shiny, modern!” is showing. Gloomy, backward-looking, and proud! 😀

What’s funny about the Pitney Bowes is that it seems to be gathering a few marbles ever so slowly. Every week or so I go into the garage and look at it and something has changed. A few weeks in was when I got that one size-reduced copy. Yesterday, I saw that the LCD, where a few Katakana or Hiragana characters had been displayed, I now have a date in English. It’s not harming anything just sitting there plugged in, ruminating and who knows, maybe it’ll snap-to at some point.

Heh, I know the feeling well. I love ancient Rome, and cathedrals, and castles, and baroque decorations, and 1600s paintings that are so lifelike they put photos to shame, and… pretty much anything old and rusty. 😛

And I hate Brutalism, and the whole postmodernist craze for uglier-than-thou.

Hmm. LCD screen, so new enough to have capacitors, and possibly be suffering from the capacitor plague, or just caps that are old and dried out. They’re replaceable, if you’re handy with a soldering iron (and cheap; all the cost is in labor or skill). Would be worth taking a look inside and see if you can spot any that are bulged or leaking. But definitely open up that battery compartment and vinegar out the corrosion, because once it spreads into the electronic traces, that’s all she wrote.

Blergh. I don’t WANT to open it up! 😀 But I may yet do so.

Hey, do you ever glance at the Wrath of Gnon on twitter or substack? He’s always got thought provoking musings on what makes those good places good (hint: it’s not their age). I think he’s a bit overoptimistic to think we’ll just up and create new walled cities (or whatnot) because our sunk costs have sunk us pretty far into what we see all around us… but when we slide a little further down into decline and all there is to work with is what you’ve got on site and nobody expects high-energy-input everything any longer… well, we might just get something good again. He’s keeping the dream alive. 😀

I’ve heard of Wrath of Gnon (someone probably mentioned in one of my other retrobate hangouts) but hadn’t actually looked him up! I see he’s got some good articles there on Substack. But I have quite a long list of regular reads and watches that are off in the same direction… variously blackpilled and whitepilled, but I think the future will be some of both. For a little optimism try According to Hoyt (Sarah Hoyt’s blog), where we have a lively comment community.

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