An Early Ad for the Most Successful Personal-Data-Tracking Device of All Time

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In 1913, a prominent watch company promised its time pieces would help buyers 'to form desirable habits of promptness and precision.'

The rise of data-driven personal tracking is one of the biggest technology stories of recent years. As Gary Wolf put it in a Wired magazine article published back in 2009, "We have pedometers in the soles of our shoes and phones that can post our location as we move around town. We can tweet what we eat into a database and subscribe to Web services that track our finances. There are sites and programs for monitoring mood, pain, blood sugar, blood pressure, heart rate, cognitive alacrity, menstruation, and prayers. Even sleep--a challenge to self-track, obviously, since you're unconscious--is yielding to the skill of the widget maker."

The trend is partly driven by a desire for self-improvement. The company FitBit claims that one of its tracking products "motivates you to reach your goals by bringing greater fitness into your life - seamlessly, socially, 24 hours a day." Mint.com explains that by giving it access to your financial information you can "set a budget, track your goals and do more with your money, for free!" All sorts of companies make similar sales pitches, which we associate with relatively recent innovations like automated data-tracking, personalized Web apps, and wireless communication.

So it surprised me to realize, while perusing an old magazine published in 1913, that at least one company used a very similar self-improvement sales pitch to sell a familiar data tracking device:

watch ad 3.png


As you can see, the advertisement* begins with the claim that "a watch so dependably accurate as the Hamilton leads its owner to form desirable habits of promptness and precision. Such a watch exerts a positive influence for good on the person who carries it." And the ensuing railroad theme underscores an interesting parallel. Just as widespread personal tracking is inseparable from smart phone era, watches as a personal improvement device wouldn't have made sense to the average person before the rise of the transcontinental railroad.

It was in 1883, after all, that standard time zones as we know them today were created by the railroads. Before that, local time was determined by sun dial. "Local jewelers synchronized their customers' watches to local solar noon," Randy Alfred explains. "In a small town with one jeweler, everyone might use the same time settings. In a large city, the many jewelers' various observations might diverge by several minutes." Motivated by an internal need for precise timekeeping, railroads innovated, and new notions of temporal precision spread. People everywhere began to see value in tracking happenings more precisely than they ever had before, a development that depended upon both a new connective Web, the railroad, and a personal device, the precision watch. By 1934, two decades after the ad above was published, Lewis Mumford would go so far as to argue that the clock, "a piece of machinery whose 'product' is seconds and minutes," did more to bring about the industrial revolution than the steam engine.

It's so difficult to inhabit the mindset of people from bygone generations -- they experienced the arrival of technologies and ideas so ingrained in our world that we can hardly conceive of daily life without them. But looking back at that watch ad, and reflecting on it as someone who experienced life before and after the revolution in personal data tracking, gives me a tiny window into how it might've felt to live back then and to witness a change in the way daily life is tracked.

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*The 1913 prices mentioned in the ad, $38.50 to $150, are staggering. In today's dollars, the watches cost roughly $900 to $3,500! Aren't falling prices in the technology sector great? It's fascinating to imagine a society where, for awhile, wealthy people had an advantage in the precision with which they could tell time. I don't know if it ever made any practical difference, but if nothing else, it would be an interesting conceit for a clever piece of historical fiction -- and perhaps an allegory for a controversy in a future world in which some self-measuring and improvement device gives the rich an advantage that matters.
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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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