THE STUFF THAT MAKES YOUR STUFF WORK: Quartz crystal

you remIt’s an exaggeration to say the world runs on quartz, but not much of one. You probably know that quartz has something to do with timing, but it’s probably not clear exactly what. Quartz crystals control the timing of the computer chips in your devices. Every electronic component has some sort of clock, and for the most part, each clock is made of quartz.

How quartz is so helpful

Quartz, like many crystals, has a piezoelectric quality. That is to say, if you put electricity into it, it will distort and return to shape in a very predictable period of time. Most people think that simply applying electricity to quartz will make it vibrate at exactly 60 cycles per second, but it’s actually a little more complex than that. You can make quartz do its little dance at any frequency you want (within reason) actually and the reason people think that 60 is the magic number is that’s the frequency of your typical watch crystal.

Quartz is the best choice not the only choice

Crystals aren’t all quartz, although quartz is easy to manufacture and incredibly stable. It’s used any time precise timing is needed, and that happens to be pretty much any time an electronic component is used. Anything that makes your life better or even more fun has at least one crystal in it, and that includes every TV and radio you’ve ever seen, every computer, every cell phone (if you’re old enough you might have seen a landline phone that didn’t need a crystal), every camera and every electric watch. Life runs on crystals.

Anyone else have a crystal radio?

This particular quality of crystals was only discovered about 140 years ago and was first used to control the frequency of radio transmissions. Without crystal oscillators, it would be practically impossible to create a tunable radio station; its frequency would jump up and down by 3-4kHz at a whim. Crystals were originally mined from the ground but since about 1950 it’s been possible to grow them synthetically which makes them not only cheaper but also more reliable.

By the late 1960s,  the first electronic watches and calculators used quartz crystals. When that happened, the public finally became aware of the stable properties of quartz. It’s not even the most stable crystal but it’s certainly good enough for most consumer uses. The most stable oscillators, by the way, aren’t even crystal. Ceramic resonators are much much more stable. They measure molecular decay and for things like setting the clocks used in the national standards institute.

One more weird thing about quartz

Of course, if you remember the 1970s, you remember something else. You’ll also remember that quartz’s innate abilities made it a magnet for “new age” devotees. Some folks thought it was a conduit for “human energy” or witchcraft. No one has proven or disproven that.

Quartz is in practically every product we offer at SolidSignal.com. I don’t think you’ll find it in any cables, but if you think about it, it’s pretty much everywhere else. Good thing it’s such a common element, since we wouldn’t have anything to sell without it.

About the Author

Stuart Sweet
Stuart Sweet is the editor-in-chief of The Solid Signal Blog and a "master plumber" at Signal Group, LLC. He is the author of over 6,000 articles and longform tutorials including many posted here. Reach him by clicking on "Contact the Editor" at the bottom of this page.