In atomic clocks the controller is an evacuated microwave cavity attached to a microwave oscillator controlled by a microprocessor. A thin gas of caesium atoms is released into the cavity where they are exposed to microwaves. A laser measures how many atoms have absorbed the microwaves, and an electronic feedback control system called a phase-locked loop tunes the microwave oscillator until it is at the frequency that causes the atoms to vibrate and absorb the microwaves. Then the microwave signal is divided by digital counters to become the clock signal.
Time switches can be used to turn on anything that will awaken a sleeper, and can therefore be used as alarms. Lights, bells, and radio and TV sets can easily be used. More elaborate devices have also been used, such as machines that automatically prepare tea or coffee. A sound is produced when the drink is ready, so the sleeper awakes to find the freshly brewed drink waiting.
The piezoelectric properties of crystalline quartz were discovered by Jacques and Pierre Curie in 1880. The first crystal oscillator was invented in 1917 by Alexander M. Nicholson after which, the first quartz crystal oscillator was built by Walter G. Cady in 1921. In 1927 the first quartz clock was built by Warren Marrison and J. W. Horton at Bell Telephone Laboratories in Canada. The following decades saw the development of quartz clocks as precision time measurement devices in laboratory settings—the bulky and delicate counting electronics, built with vacuum tubes, limited their practical use elsewhere. The National Bureau of Standards (now NIST) based the time standard of the United States on quartz clocks from late 1929 until the 1960s, when it changed to atomic clocks. In 1969, Seiko produced the world's first quartz wristwatch, the Astron. Their inherent accuracy and low cost of production resulted in the subsequent proliferation of quartz clocks and watches.
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