A quartz clock is a clock that uses an electronic oscillator that is regulated by a quartz crystal to keep time. This crystal oscillator creates a signal with very precise frequency, so that quartz clocks are at least an order of magnitude more accurate than good mechanical clocks. Generally, some form of digital logic counts the cycles of this signal and provides a numeric time display, usually in units of hours, minutes, and seconds.
Chemically, quartz is a compound called silicon dioxide. When a crystal of quartz is properly cut and mounted, it can be made to vibrate, or oscillate, using an alternating electric current. The frequency at which the crystal oscillates is dependent on its shape and size, and the positions at which electrodes are placed on it. If the crystal is accurately shaped and positioned, it will oscillate at a desired frequency; in clocks and watches, the frequency is usually 32,768 Hz, as a crystal for this frequency is conveniently small, and as this frequency is a power of two and can easily be counted using a 15-bit binary digital counter. Once the circuit supplying power to the crystal counts that this number of oscillations have occurred, it increases the recorded time by one second. This property, of changing shape under an electric current, is known as piezoelectricity. Such crystals were once used in low-end phonograph cartridges: the movement of the stylus (needle) would flex a quartz crystal, which would produce a small voltage, which was amplified and played through speakers.
Many materials can be formed into plates that will resonate. However, since quartz can be directly driven (to flex) by an electric signal, no additional speaker or microphone is required.
Quartz has the further advantage that its size does not change much as temperature fluctuates. Fused quartz is often used for laboratory equipment that must not change shape along with the temperature, because a quartz plate's resonance frequency, based on its size, will not significantly rise or fall. Similarly, a quartz clock will remain relatively accurate as the temperature changes.
In modern quartz clocks, the quartz crystal resonator is in the shape of a small tuning fork, laser-trimmed or precision lapped to vibrate at 32,768 Hz. This frequency is equal to 215 cycles per second. A power of 2 is chosen so a simple chain of digital divide-by-2 stages can derive the 1 Hz signal needed to drive the watch's second hand. In most clocks, the resonator is in a small can or flat package, about 4 mm long. The reason the 32,768 Hz resonator has become so common is due to a compromise between the large physical size of low frequency crystals for watches and the large current drain of high frequency crystals, which reduces the life of the watch battery. During the 1970s, the introduction of metal–oxide–semiconductor (MOS) integrated circuits allowed a 12-month battery life from a single coin cell when driving either a mechanical stepper motor, indexing the second hand (in a quartz analog watch), or a liquid crystal display (in an LCD digital watch). Light-emitting diode (LED) displays for watches have become rare due to their comparatively high battery consumption.
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