On this day in 1998, in a colossal act of hubris, the Swatch company announced that they were going to restructure time. They felt that having twenty-four hours in a day, sixty minutes in an hour and sixty seconds in a minute was a bit confusing and untidy. Swatch wanted to decimalise time. Each day was divided into 1,000 .beats. Each .beat is equivalent to 1 minute and 26.4 seconds. Time would be notated as a three digit number between 000 and 999. So, as we write this it is @775 .beats, that is 775 .beats after midnight. You might have noticed the dot at the beginning of the word .beats, that isn’t a typing error on my part, it’s probably a combination of copyright issues and pretentiousness.
This happened in the early days of the internet and it was intended to be a way of standardising time across the world. There are no time zones with .beat time. Instead, everyone operates on BMT, which stands for Biel Mean Time. Biel, in Switzerland, is the location of Swatch’s headquarters. They felt that communication via the world wide web would be easier if everyone used .beat time. No more confusion, no more missed meetings because people couldn’t work out the time difference between two countries. Swatch produced watches that displayed the time in .beats, they really thought they had something. People didn’t really like it. It’s okay if you’re a computer talking to another computer, but if you’re a human person, it really doesn’t alter the fact that someone, on the other side of the world, trying to contact you at the beginning of their busy working day might be hassling you at bed time.
The following year, they made another gaff. They planned to launch a satellite that would synchronize all .beat watches… from space. Pretty futuristic. They called it the Beatnik satellite (oh dear). Beatnik was also to broadcast messages from Swatch promoting their fantastic new idea of Internet Time. Unfortunately they were using frequencies that belong to amateur radio people and they were pretty upset about it. The use of those frequencies for commercial purposes is forbidden by international treaty. Swatch insisted that they would be sending messages of hope and peace to the world, but others thought it just sounded like junk mail from space. They were forced to abandon the project and instead, donated it’s batteries to the Mir Space Station from which it was to be launched.
Decimalising time seems like a great idea on paper, but it doesn’t really work that well. .Beat time does not allow for daylight saving time. Also, because we travel in an elliptical and slightly irregular orbit around our sun, it is sometimes necessary to add a leap second to our day. Then .beat time is really screwed. The idea has been tried and has failed before. After the Revolution, the French tried to introduce a ten hour day. They divided each hour into a hundred minutes. They pretty much gave up on it after about six months. The problem is really with the size of the time units. If you have a decimal hour equal to 2.4 hours, a decimal minute equal to a little under one and a half earth minutes, and nothing in between, it’s a bit difficult to gauge quite where you are in the day.
Swatch hasn’t completely given up on .beat time. You can still find a converter on their website.