Always on (atomic) time

WAILUA HOMESTEADS — John Patterson will be the first to admit he’s not a cutthroat businessman.

He’s a business man, no doubt, owner and operator of his watch-making enterprise, Bathys Hawaii.

But the 50-year-old doesn’t have that obsession with dollars and numbers, and he doesn’t weigh each decision incrementally based on the measured value to the company.

Sometimes, he just makes something because it’s cool.

And sometimes that cool idea — which came from shooting the breeze with old research buddies in this case — takes off and Patterson is left admitting to business reporters that he hasn’t mapped out a five-year plan.

Because after Patterson designed what could be the next big thing in the watch world, he told interviewers from as far as London that, well, he was just playing it by ear as everything unfolded.

“I don’t play it up, it’s just my natural way,” Patterson said recently at his Wailua Homesteads home.

But there’s a seriousness at stake, too.

Patterson’s prototype could be a game changer in the watch world. It’s called the Cesium 133. Simply put, it’s the first atomic wristwatch, accurate to 1 second in 1,000 years. It’s the method the military relies on, miners as well when they’re working deep below the Earth’s surface, and it’s the scientific definition of a second by the International System of Units.

Basically, it’s the standard by which accurate times are judged.

It’s just never been shrunk down to the size of a wristwatch. Until now, thanks to Patterson and his engineering partner, George Talbot, who did exactly that on Kauai and, not longer after, got the watch world’s attention.

“I try not to get too excited about stuff like that,” Talbot said about his innovative engineering that miniaturized the atomic model using some parts, believe it or not, that came from Radio Shack. “But yeah, I was excited.”

You might say the two met randomly last fall. Talbot had recently been laid off and was searching for work. Patterson had put an ad on Craigslist looking for engineers willing to chase a wild hare. Together, they chipped away. And in early spring Talbot called Patterson and said he got the prototype working. Patterson drove to Waimea to see it.

“Part of me is in stunned disbelief we got it working,” Talbot said.

Things took off when they put their idea on Kickstarter, the website that allows innovators to raise funds for their projects. In April, the goal was to raise $42,000 in 30 days to make 10 watches. All 10 were funded in three days, at $6,000 each. Less than two weeks into the campaign, backers have pledged over $73,000.

People want to see these made.

The watchmakers are aiming to finish the first batch of 10 by the end of the year. If the method could be worked into an iPhone, the phone’s battery would last much longer because it would run the phone whenever GPS was blocked — kind of like switching the device to airplane mode but without having to manually do it.

Where the innovation takes them, the watchmakers said they’re unsure. Both are taking a play-it-by-ear approach.

“I’m not sure what’s going to happen with this, we’ll see where it goes,” said Talbot, who has since been contracted for engineering work with the Pacific Missile Range Facility. “As some people say, it’s on the bleeding edge.”

The idea received positive feedback at the watch industry’s biggest convention in Basel, Switzerland, and landed Patterson’s name on Wallpaper Magazine, a publication that specializes in high-end watches.

“The next big thing,” the March article’s headline reads. “Why the atomic wristwatch is going to be huge.”

“I’m just a tiny, tiny player somehow competing in this market with multi-billion dollar companies,” said Patterson, who’s been making watches for nine years after working as a cancer researcher in Chicago.

OK, but what does the time keeping method do, exactly? And who would need such precise time?

Inside the chip is a drop of cesium, and a little heater, which turns the element to a vapor. Inside is also a little glass vial, “like a miniature microwave oven, essentially” and it turns into an energy reflector. When the microwave component hits the vapor, the frequencies become perfect, precisely dividing a second into 9,192,631,770 vibrations.

All strapped to your wrist. The military’s devices are much bigger — soldiers carry it around in their backpacks.

Potential buyers could need absolute time, want something unique or just be collectors. The market has watches that sell for over $1 million a piece.

Aroldo de Rienzo, living in Europe, purchased one of the 10 prototypes.

Having grown up with an appreciation for fine, artistic watches, he was looking to buy a watch to commemorate a special date in his life. He read about the prototype online, then later, by chance, saw there was one left on Kickstarter. So he made his pledge.

Many people do not get those complications, but it’s art,” he wrote in an email. “Why do I want a watch that keeps time accurate to 1 second every 1,000 years? … It’s the art. It’s about having an atomic clock on your wrist. Not aesthetics.

“It’s not the brand or watch itself, it’s what’s behind those hour and minute hands that make it all count,” de Rienzo wrote. “It’s about the same art that fuels a perpetual calendar or a tourbillon, it’s making it and putting it into such a small thing.”

The idea for the watch came to Patterson when he was shooting the breeze with an old hydrologist friend, who was explaining marine seismology process behind searching for oil and gas beneath the ocean’s floor.

“We’re just sitting around talking story and he tells me about this and I’m like, ‘Wait, what?’” Patterson said.

And now, Patterson’s left in an unfamiliar position. What’s the next step after creating a potential game changer? Marketing? Trademarking?

“I’m nervous, I’m always nervous,” Patterson said. “But there’s always the fun part. And that’s fun anytime you see that next, new thing.”

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