I was thinking about this phenomenon today. Digital clocks are so common now that I don't often need to read an analog one, much less in a hurry. I worry that I'm losing the ability to do so. (The worry is a little bit because I might still need it at some point, and much more because being able to quickly read analog clocks makes me feel like a grown-up.) In particular, when I am called upon to read one, I'm embarrassed by how long it takes me to do so. It's only several seconds, but that's enough to make it clear to anyone watching that I had to stop and think about it.

But then I caught myself, and thought, wait a moment. Am I actually much slower at this than I used to be? Or is reading an analog clock really just a noticeably slower action than reading a digital one? This is intuitively plausible; it has more mental steps. Rather than comparing my current analog-clock-reading speed with a previous one (which I don't really remember), I'm comparing it to my digital-clock-reading speed, which doesn't make sense. I was going to ask how you'd design an experiment to test this. Then I remembered that not everyone is young enough to have to speculate about what it's like not having mostly digital clocks around. :P So if you're old enough to have significantly more practice reading analog clocks than digital, how long does it take you to read one? Is it noticeably longer than reading a digital clock? If you aren't, and have a significantly different experience from mine, I'm interested in that too.

32 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 5:35 PM
New Comment

I've always found analog clocks faster than digital clocks to grok (1985-born here). At a quick reflection, I believe it's because I internally represent the time in a day as an analog clock - that is, when I have no clock and ask myself "what time must it be?", I represent my guess as a rough imaginary analog clock.

(And that is probably because I grew up in a house where there was always an analog clock in sight in almost every room - my brother and I have actually joked that the cheap 25-year-old kitchen clock is going to be the one heirloom we will fight over, since it's such an iconic reference point for both of us.)

I don't think we'll lose that ability in the medium term, analog wristwatches are still a bit of a status symbol / a common gift.

In the long term, we may lose the ability, but then it would be because it's about as useful as the ability to do multiplication using roman numerals or to convert acres into square feet.

A few minutes ago I would have agreed with this, but now I'm not so sure. It seems like there are people who represent time in their heads in a way which is more similar to an analogue clock (breaking it into chunks, thinking of before/after an hour), and such people might always prefer them. One could argue that that kind of thinking is the product of a culture that still uses analogue clocks, and therefore it'll go away as digital clocks come to dominate, but I think that perspective is also reinforced by some common language constructions ("quarter of an hour," "it's ten of") which will be harder to get rid of. Not to mention the fact that, if digital clocks aren't preferable for everyone now, there's no reason that they'll become so dominant as to start that snowballing process.

I'm 43. I grew up with analogue clocks and a few early digital ones (this was the 1970s). As a child, I had a toy which had a clock face with minute and hour hands, and a mechanically-linked display of the time the hands were indicating, to a five-minute resolution - it didn't actually look like this, but that'll give you the idea.

I seem to think of an hour as divided into twelve five-minute parts, each of which divides into five individual minutes. If I look at a digital display of the time (e.g. looking at the clock at the top of my netbook screen just now), I process it as a certain way around a circular sixty-minute track. It was 4:55pm just now, so I visualised a minute hand in the last segment before the hour.

I stopped wearing a watch in 1996 as it was simply annoying me. I still wanted to know what time it was, but wearing a watch annoyed me more. I now tend to use my phone as a watch. When I did wear a watch, I had one for a while that had hands and a digital display, which I liked a lot - glance quickly at the hands, or look at the digits for precision.

I haven't measured if analogue is quicker, but it feels easier. Culturally comforting, in some way.

Which suggests that it actually is an issue of familiarity. Hmm. Thanks!

The thing that got me thinking about this in the first place was seeing that my sister has her phone set to display an analog clock, not a digital one, on the outer screen. I have the same model; I may do the same, for practice. (I'm annoyed by wristwatches, like you.)

I stopped wearing a watch in 1996 as it was simply annoying me. I still wanted to know what time it was, but wearing a watch annoyed me more. I now tend to use my phone as a watch.

Huh. For me it's the opposite. I always find it easier to glance at my wristwatch than to dig in my pocket for my phone. Part of it is that I keep my phone off most of the time, and because I hate purses/briefcases/etc. there's always lots of things in my pocket blocking the phone.

I probably take just as long as you to read analog clocks, but I don't have to keep looking at it to do so. Maybe you could try this too. Just glance at the clock, remember what it looks like, and then figure out what time that indicates.

I can barely read analog clocks, but that's because I never properly learned. In second grade, I went to a school where they taught analog time-telling (and cursive handwriting) in third grade. In third grade, I went to a school where they taught those skills in second grade. I had to self-teach in both areas, and the analog clock thing never seemed worth getting good at, although I can do it if I decide it's worth a minute.

I wear a digital watch every day. I went to some trouble to find a source for attractive, feminine, jewelry-ish digital watches, but with that taken care of (this lady makes them, if anybody's curious), the last incentive to be good at analog is gone for me.

In second grade, I went to a school where they taught analog time-telling (and cursive handwriting) in third grade. In third grade, I went to a school where they taught those skills in second grade.

Man, that phenomenon is so annoying!

I can sympathize with not wanting to bother, though. I like analog clocks because they're pretty and interesting devices which signal intelligence and class, but it's becoming less and less necessary to keep them around. Of course, my previous sentence works if you replace "analog clocks" with "dead-tree books" as well. In both cases, the main advantage of the older format is that it doesn't (necessarily) require electricity; other than that, the reason for peoples' preferences for them is a bit nebulous.

As someone whose Kindle recently died on me, I'd like to put in a word for dead trees. Also, I can loan one dead tree to a friend while still having all the others, but when someone wants to borrow a book I have on Kindle, I can't loan it to them unless I loan them the Kindle.

Very good point. Although I think I remember reading that one of the ereaders--Nook, maybe--lets you lend books. Also I'd hope that it keeps track of what you'd bought and lets you redownload it without repaying, but that may be overly optimistic.

It does keep track and let me redownload, and the replacement was covered by warantee. I'd recommend kindle to anyone who reads a lot, but I'd advise en to invest in a protective cover--it doesn't handle being bumped well.

When reading an analog clock, what method do you use? Do you:

(1) multiply the (minute-hand) number by 5?

(2) search a memorized list of (minute-hand number, number of minutes) correspondences (i.e. remember that "8" corresponds to 40 minutes separately from remembering that 8*5 = 40)?

(3) use the minute-hand number as a measure of the geometric angle of the minute hand's current position, and remember a correspondence between visualized angles (that are multiples of 30 degrees) and numbers of minutes?

(4) something else?

My own method seems to be a combination of (2) and (3). (I think I originally learned by "counting" multiples of 5 up to whatever the current minute-hand position was. This is actually similar to the way I learned multiplication, but the two processes weren't stored in the same mental location.)

[-][anonymous]12y 2

(4): I don't convert the minute-hand position into a number of minutes - I convert the angle into a duration. If I want to know how long it'll be until some other time I picture than angle swept out by the minute hand as it travels.

(4) Count to the minute hand in five-minute intervals from one of the geometrically-obvious reference points :00, :15, :30, or :45.

I also dislike analog clocks and never properly learned to read them.

(4): Ditto Khoth -- the keys in my lookup table are angles (mainly the obvious four). When I'm thinking about the minute hand or second hand, I don't think about the hour numbers printed on the clock face at all.

With computer GUIs, specifically with clock widgets that offer a choice between analog and digital presentation, most people choose digital - I suspect it's because they convey the same and even more rpecise information in a much more compact way.

Analog clocks may be phasing out, but is this necessarily a bad thing? We aren't expected to be able to operate abacuses or punchcard computers, after all.

I'm currently using a wristwatch with an analog clockface and a smaller digital screen underneath. Looking at it, it takes me less time to tell the analog time, with an approximate error of up to 2 minutes, but the digital screen isn't well visible. A well visible digital time is mych faster, though.

Some approximate times would be 0.7-1 seconds for the analog and something around 0.3 for digital. Although, it does take me slightly longer to work out, e.g., how much time I have left when looking at a digital clock.

So, digital is easier to percieve, but more difficult to analyse.

That's an interesting point--I hadn't thought about that. Analog time "chunks" easily into groups of 5 and 15 minutes, for example.

I read digital clocks faster, but I have an analogue watch. Partly for aesthetic reasons and partly because I don't want to lose the skill. Similarly, I do arithmetic in my head whenever I can spare the extra seconds, because I don't want to be dependent on a calculator (and for the status).

I do arithmetic in my head whenever I can spare the extra seconds

Same, except since I can almost always spare the extra seconds, my condition is "when I can afford to be as likely to make a mistake as I believe that I am."

Although more frequently I just don't have a calculator handy.

I have always read digital clocks faster. I suppose it is the matter of representation one uses for time. For me, it is always hours:minutes, so when I look at analog clocks, I have to translate. My watch is analog, but there is a small digital display below, and I always look at that display and ignore the analog information, which is confusing for other people, because they sometimes do show different times (the only use for the analog display I have is that it can be used to determine the direction of north, but to do that I do not adjust the analog part to the daylight saving time).

I have to translate in verbal communication, too. The majority who prefer analog clocks usually tell time in format "quarter to eight", while for me it is "19:45". Of course, when I give the time information, I do it in my native format, so they have to translate.

Interesting. I am, as I said, more of a digital-clock-reader, but I still say "quarter of" and "half past" and the like. I attribute this to labels my parents put around the (analog) wall clock in my childhood bedroom, showing where "of" and "to" were, and where "past" and "after" were.

An old SO of mine used to get annoyed when I said "quarter of," though. I wonder if they were so accustomed to digital timekeeping that my habit required an annoying amount of translation for them. The reverse wasn't true, though--I understand "seven forty-five" perfectly.

An old SO of mine used to get annoyed when I said "quarter of," though.

Was it that phrase in particular? Maybe they're like me (though I don't find it annoying): I've used "half past", "quarter past", and "quarter to" since childhood, but for whatever reason (presumably the phraseology of the people I grew up around) I made it to adulthood not being sure whether "quarter of" meant "quarter to" or "quarter after".

Edit: I know what it means now because I have a friend who uses it. I was born and raised in Michigan, and my friend in New York.

Hm, it may have been. I don't remember very well.

For me, reading an analog clock can be faster (in terms of comprehending what the time actually is, not just reading the numbers) than reading a digital one. This may be less so since I stopped wearing a watch several years ago, and recently my analog alarm clock broke - now I only have an analog clock in my kitchen.

(in terms of comprehending what the time actually is, not just reading the numbers)

That's an important point, I think. Digital clocks are more abstract, and that affects what you can do with the information quickly.

[-][anonymous]12y 2

I don't know how one would test it, but for me at least reading an analogue clock seems a simpler process than a digital one, because the information doesn't have to go through the verbal centres of my brain. For the record I'm in my early thirties and learned how to read digital clocks before analogue.

My impression from the comments in general is that different people represent time in their heads differently; it seems that the way you do it is closer to the way that's displayed on an analogue clock, so digital requires translation, whereas for some other commenters it's the other way around. Hmmm.

With both analog and digital clocks, I look at it and I know the time in a subjective instant, the same as I can look at any word of English and know what word I am looking at. There is no internal process I am conscious of. I guess that's what 55 years of practice does.

BTW, lecture theatres often contain large wall-mounted clocks. In my experience they are almost always analog, even if the display itself is electronic. So are public clocks mounted on buildings. An advantage of analog clocks for public display is that they look like nothing except a clock, whereas a digital clock is just a string of digits that could be anything.

I find that I may spend more time parsing the result from an analog clock when someone asks me to say what time it is (generally the problem is when I perceive the minute hand to be halfway between two of the markings). HOWEVER, an analog clock has a key advantage for me over a digital one -- 7:34 when I have to leave at 7:35 does not make me nearly as desperate to go as when my watch gives the same reading. I think it's because digital clocks make me see the glass as half-full (since I always know exactly how much time there is left) while analog clocks make me see the glass as half-empty (since my watch is almost always at least two minutes off in some direction no matter what I do).

I wasn't born before digital clocks were common, but I did start wearing an analog watch without numbers, which forced me to memorize where all the numbers are meant to be instead of reading them each time. Now I find it about equal if not slightly faster than digital.