Let’s face it: Time-keeping is nothing new. By 4,000 BC, Ancient Egyptians used stone obelisks to tell the time. Huge pieces of rock, carefully cut and carved, were deposited in common areas and near temples so that people walking by could observe the movements of the shadows and estimate the passage of the sun. Right around the same time, people in the British Isles were constructing Stonehenge, a huge stone circle that measured the passage of the stars above in a calendar of years, months, weeks, and even hours.

Before long, humans across the world found their own ways to mark the passage of time, and the majority of them turned to rocks. As sundials became popular in the east, early travelers in the Americas marked out time on the walls of stone dwellings. Even when clock-making began to grow into the sleeker, more modern science that we know it to be today, rocks played an unintentionally large part in the process. When Galileo designed the first pendulum in 1583, he realized that it required weights; as Dutch and German engineers sat down to craft the first spring-form watches in the 1650s, watches and clocks required glass faces and beautiful adornment.

Then, just as watch-making seemed to have surpassed the days of sundials, obelisks, and water weights, Warren Marrison and J.W. Horton invented a new kind of accurate time-keeping while they were working for Bell Telephone Laboratories in 1927. What was their secret? No surprise here: It was rocks.

To be more precise, the key to the modern watch is actually quartz, also known as silicon dioxide. By using quartz to carefully control an electronic oscillator, Marrison and Horton created a watch that had better precision and longevity than any other mechanical clock up until then. Quartz carries electrical signals and can be bent into very specific shapes, which makes it ideal for long-lasting and accurate time measurement.

Today, despite the popularity of atomic time and satellite updates, quartz is the most common clock component on the planet. It is used not just in watches and clocks, but also in a large number of electronic devices that need careful frequency regulation. In other words, in our attempts to become more precise, more modern, and more progressive, we have returned right back to where our ancestors started. We use rocks to tell the time.

Now, the quartz watch on your wrist or the musical clock on the wall of your daughter’s bedroom are certainly no Stonehenge. They take up less space, for one thing, and they don’t require a platoon of strong men to move them. They are not quite obelisks or sundials either, though a good grandfather clock shows some similarities to those community time-keeping devices of old. The history of watch-making is a testament to the human ability to make complicated things smaller and shinier, but it also speaks to the way that a good idea—and a good rock—can withstand the fads of time.

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