A brief history of timing

Electronic timing is older than most people imagine and was used for the first time more than a hundred years ago at the 1912 Stockholm Olympics. Initially, the well-known telecom company Ericsson was tasked with developing the technology, but it was the Swedish inventor Ragnar Carlstedt who eventually delivered the final product. Using his expertise in electromechanics, he developed a system where reference clocks automatically started at the firing of the gun. 

carlstedt_midAt the same time, Carlstedt introduced another revolutionary invention; the finish line camera. The 1500 meter Olympic final was excruciatingly close with Arnold Jackson from Great Britain winning by only 0.1 seconds (picture above). But it was impossible to decide on the silver medal since the two Americans Abel Kiviat and Norm Taber finished side by side. For the first time in history, the outcome of an Olympic event had to be settled based on a photo finish when Kiviat was judged to be “slightly ahead.”

The significance of these two innovations led a major newspaper to write: “Electronic timing at the Olympic Games. Simultaneous timing and photography of contestants. A brilliant idea!”

The next step in timekeeping was the photo finish camera with a time stamp imprinted on each frame, designed by Omega, which was introduced at the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles. The 1948 Olympics saw the introduction of another innovation with the continuous slit camera, where a film behind a narrow slit rolls with the same speed as the runners. Four years later the clocks were connected to the slit camera giving a resolution of 1/100 s. But it was not until 1972 that official times were recorded to the 100th of a second.

The next big step in the eighties was to make the camera digital to speed up the feedback. But the idea behind the slit camera was kept and is still the basis of all timing systems for athletics used today. The only difference is that now there is a very narrow sensor array instead of the moving film.

After a century technology has reached the point where the whole timing system could be packed into a smartphone. So in a way, the circle was closed when SprintTimer was developed in the same place and precisely a hundred years after Ragnar Carlstedt.