On Time And Under Budget

Keith Bayern won IEEE Spectrum's clock-making contest with brains, elbow grease, and a lot of solder

If it took him, on average, 10 seconds to set up and solder one thing to another, then Keith Bayern must have gripped his solder gun for a total of 7 hours while building his all-transistor wall-mountable digital clock.

”That’s 2700 solder joints,” he told an openly impressed visitor to his demo in the IEEE Spectrum booth at Maker Faire, the science fair for adults sponsored by Make magazine. This year it was held in May in San Mateo, Calif.

Bayern was flown there from his home in suburban Seattle as part of his prize as the winner of IEEE Spectrum’s ­contest for making the best possible clock with ­generally available components that cost no more than US $100. (A steak dinner was the other part of the prize.) He’d built such a thing quite recently, after turning the idea over in his mind for a few years, always following the principle of using as little modern stuff as possible and, above all, avoiding integrated circuits. Except for 1970s-vintage LEDs, he says, every component was available back in the 1960s.

The contest’s guidelines emphasized accuracy, usability, attractiveness, and the cool factor. Bayern’s clock won because it was at or near the top in every category; the timepiece’s only arguable weakness is its dependence on the timing provided by the 60-hertz signal from the wall socket.

One runner-up entry, from Randy Heisch, an engineer in Austin, Texas, also takes its time from the wall socket, but it presents the result in a beautiful analog display, which uses a rapidly moving rotor with synchronized LEDs to paint ­concentric rings of light showing the seconds, the minutes, and the hours. It is, however, rather delicate and a little hard to set. A second runner-up, made by Joe Sousa, an engineer in Lowell, Mass., supplies its own time and displays it with Nixie tubes, but it’s encumbered by a clunky old U.S. Army power unit.

Bayern’s clock won out in the end for the geeky beauty of its 194 transistors and many, many other components, all clearly presented for scrutiny. Solid and reliable, it’s mounted on an eminently hangable ­wooden panel and now greets all visitors to the Spectrum ­office in New York City. You can see how Bayern made it and buy a kit from him, if you like, by ­going to his site, at http://www.transistor-clock.com.

Bayern, 49, is married and has four children. He got his bachelor’s in electrical engineering from Montana State University and worked at Dana Corp. for 7 years, Hewlett-Packard for 16, and Honeywell for 7, with a year of self-­employment thrown in. As he moved into ­management—especially after earning an MBA—he found himself drifting away from hands-on technical work, and so he ­compensated by redoubling the hobby work he’s done since he was a kid. ”I’ve been immersed in solder fumes since I can remember,” he says, chuckling.

Late last year he moved to SAIC, an engineering ­consulting company, where he is a senior principal digital and analog engineer. Now he’s got a lot more technical meat on his plate than he’s had in a long time.