Modern Pendulum – My Thoughts on the Fitbit

I travel through an exploration of the history of distance, a look at the origins of the pendulum, and a discussion about the start of the pedometer. From there I dive into the Fitbit, sharing my thoughts and opinions on it.

The mile we know oh so well is supposedly equivalent to the distance covered in 1,000 paces by soldiers in armor for hour after hour, day after day, week after week. Well, that is what I was told in school. The soldiers would drive wooden steaks into the ground every 1,000 paces to track the distance covered. Despite the comparative similarity of the words, the etymology of the word ‘mile’ comes from the Latin for the number one-thousand. Thus the linguistic connection between a unit of measure today and the Roman foot soldier two thousand years ago.

Roman soldier Re-enactors

Well, sort of.

In truth the Roman mile was roughly 400 feet shorter than the 5,280 feet we know today. Well, usually. You have to consider the differing length of steps depending on how rushed the soldiers were, or how tired they were. But let’s assume the distance around 4800 feet is the solid average distance for the Roman mile.

So where did those extra 400 feet end up coming from? Burueacracy. 1,760 yards, or 5,280 feet, was defined as the length of a mile since 1593 when the British Parliament passed an act that officially defined the distance as “eight furlongs, every furlong forty poles, and every pole sixteen foot and a half.” Not exactly a simple thing, but from this declaration came the official measure that we know today. This became known as the statute mile (not to be confused with the nautical mile which is itself another unique length not directly relevant to this discussion.)

That act of parliament wasn’t the final word on the matter though. The actual distance of a mile varied from country to country or even person to person. So, in July of 1959, a handful of nations met and agreed upon the exact length of the international yard in terms of meters, and thus the international mile was also codified as 1,760 yards.

Now that we’ve reached the final distance of a modern mile, lets jump back to the renaissance for a bit and examine the origin of the meter. (I swear I talk about the Fitbit soon.)

John WilkinsIn 1668, seventy five years after the distance of a mile was defined by parliament, an English cleric and philosopher named John Wilkins proposed a unit of distance that he named the ‘metre’ which was defined by the distance covered by a pendulum with a half-period of one second.

It’s a brilliant way to determine distance. He avoided the rabbit hole of dependency in determining length by using the constants of gravity and time, all by using a very simply machine: the pendulum.

I remember being fascinated by pendulums as a kid. The Orlando Science Center had a giant Foucalt pendulum that I would always run up to to and press my face against the glass as I watched its slow swings back and forth.

I can remember drawing a similarity between that pendulum and the way our legs moved. Sure, our legs have extra joints and muscles which enable further motion, but I remember many times standing there watching that pendulum while also swinging one of my legs back and forth freely as if it was a pendulum of its own. Without any good reason I was fascinated by the idea that our legs were pendulums making use of gravity for at least part of the work.


So there I’d stand and watch the pendulum swing, convinced that if I stood there long enough it would eventually slow down and stop. Eventually the parents would tear me away, ready to move onto the next exhibit. And like any good math nerd I’d then count the number of steps it would take me to get to them, or the number of words in a sentence I heard someone saying, or the number of squares in the tile. Etc.

Counting is so fun as a kid. But I can’t imagine it was fun for the Roman soldiers tasked with tracking the distance they covered. I’m sure they all dreamed of some automated way to track the number of paces taken. Unfortunately the Italian peninsula had to wait over a thousand years for the idea of a pedometer to arrive. Leonardo Da Vinci imagined a simple mechanical pedometer in the 1400s and wrote about it in his design journals. It wasn’t until the 1700s when the first mechanical pedometer actually came into being.

The first mechanical pedometer was invented by Abraham-Louis Perrelet. It made use of a pendulum-like system that incremented the counter with each sway of its counting mechanism. Far from perfect, but it remained largely unchanged until the the 1960s.

In 1965 the ‘manpo-kei’ was introduced to Japan along with the notion that 10,000 steps a day was the secret to a healthy life. This is credited as the first digital pedometer in the world, quickly making its way from Japan to the rest of the world. The technology improved incrementally but in the end a digital pedometer was still a fun gadget that never really caught on. Sure most people tried it, but usually as part of some ill-fated weightloss scheme. Among its faults was the that it was a solitary device, and thus you relied on yourself to track and use as a motivational tool.

Forty years later Fitbit Inc. launched the “Fitbit Classic.” In technical terms it isn’t a pedometer like those above, it’s most certainly not mechanical, it is an accelerometer system which analyzes the data to generate step counts, as well as analyze the intensity of the activity.

My Fitbit Activity

Fitbits do more than just count steps. They are wearable at night as a way to monitor your sleeping habits and they track some other points of activity as well. Through the iPhone & Android app you can also track calories eaten, water drank, as well as your weight and body fat percentage.

In all, it allows you to track several points of your ‘quantified self.’

Quantified SelfIn 2008, Kevin Kelly (ex-Wired editor) and Gary Wolf (contributing writer for Wired), held the first Quantified Self meetup in San Francisco. QS is a movement for “self-knowledge through numbers.” With the Fitbit, as well as a few other entrants in the field of self-tracking gadgets, they saw the opportunity for an organized group dedicated to using the technology, sharing the knowledge they gain, and seeing just what can be done. Since then thousands of people have gathered in various city-based meetups, as well as at larger conventions around the world. Some make use of gadgets like the Fitbit, others code their own digital tools while others do it with simple old fashioned way with a spreadsheet and a graph.

I’ve never gotten to attend one of these gatherings but I follow Quantified Self’s website and, as exhibited by the careful tracking of my weight loss and body fat, I do have an interest in the realm of QS.

Up to now I tracked my weight loss through a scale and a spreadsheet. I tried a handful of other things, mobile apps, etc. but I found that I preferred just having a raw Google Doc to work with. I also tried tracking more, things like hours slept, calories eaten, etc. But in the end I always found the extra tracking cumbersome.

Fitbit, Nike Fuelband, Jawbone Up

In the mind of wanting to track more and understand my body better, I’ve been eyeing QS related gadgets for a while. Largely though the focus centered on the Fitbit, the Nike Fuelband, and the Jawbone Up. Fitbit is a company founded to make their flagship gadget. Nike’s Fuelband is an obvious accompaniment to their growing athletic brand offerings. Jawbone is perhaps a surprise given that the company is most famous for their bluetooth earpiece, but I dutifully researched each before making my purchase.

There were three things which really sold me on the Fitbit:

1) I didn’t want a bracelet. – Bracelet trackers appear to be slightly less accurate than those worn on the belt or pocket clip, though they do have two benefits over the belt clips which I’ll get to later. Note, I don’t have any conclusive evidence that bracelets are less accurate.

2) Access to data – I really want the ability to do data exports. Of the three companies, Fitbit is the only one to have any such functionality though they include it only as part of their premium subscription benefits.

3) Customer service – The customer service stories about Fitbit are all positive from what I could find.

Now that I’ve owned my Fitbit for almost two weeks I feel ready to draw some conclusions and make some comments about the gadget as a whole.

I find wearing a Fitbit fun. That probably says a lot about me and where my mindset it. I really enjoy being able to look down and see how many steps I’ve taken today. Fun is good. Fun means there is a positive feedback introduced for simple activities which it tracks and makes it much more likely I’ll continue to work on being active.

Stairs to Elevator

On the opposite end of the scale, the Fitbit causes me distress when I know I’m bypassing things which would up its count such as taking an elevator rather than climbing the stairs at work. It’s not major distress, but I find myself feeling guilty. Which is also a good thing. Sure, sometimes I have a good reason to skip the stairs such as continuing a conversation with someone who takes the elevator – but all things being equal it is the push I need to make me take the stairs when traveling between floors at work.

There is also one very clear truth that the Fitbit makes blindingly clear: Between the office chairs at work and the couch at home, I live a sedentary life. I spend a lot of time sitting around and that further emphasizes the need for me to carve out time for exercise.

As for criticisms, there are perhaps a few things I’m not thrilled with.

You have to be careful with this thing. I had a scare nearly losing my Fitbit after having it for less than a week. Initially I wore my fitbit with it hooked onto my jean’s change pocket putting the Fitbit on the outside. This seemed reasonably secure and allowed easy access to the view screen.

Bad plan.

It got caught in my seatbelt when I was in the car and was pulled free of the belt clip without my noticing. Thankfully it fell out in the car and not in a parking lot so I was able to find it. But this event taught me an important lesson: keep the Fitbit tucked inside your pocket, not outside it.

Clean ad infinitum

Beyond the risk of it falling off your belt there also lies the risk that it remains in you pocket all the way to the wash. This thing is small. The size of a USB drive. I know of one friend who washed his Fitbit only a few weeks after getting it. If the Fitbit is in the middle of a pile of laundry there is no way you will notice it.

While the battery life seems quite good, one of my complaints is around the proprietary charging cable. They use a proprietary cable for charging and I really wish they had just used Micro-USB so that I could use my own cables and not have to keep track of this proprietary dongle.

Lastly, and perhaps most damning: I’m not actually convinced that it is… well, useful. Yet.

The Fitbit can be a passive tool. If used solely for personal tracking, it is not too different from the pedometer we already discussed. And in that case, it has the same downfall as pedometers. But Fitbit and the other companies have begun working beyond this by adding a social layer and introducing achievements based on your levels of activity. In an attempt to be more than a passive tool Fitbit has also set it up such that when you’re within striking distance of a goal your smartphone and email can pop up a note urging you to push a bit further to hit your goal. But these are not aggressive pushes.

There is one feature for the Fuelband that I hadn’t considered before buying my Fitbit. More of my friends have a Fuelband than have a Fitbit.

Fitbit, Nike, and, I assume, Jawbone, all have built in social capabilities where you can add friends to compare and compete with your levels of activity. Taking this feature, where your own little daemon reports regularly on your progress, the social activity should not be overlooked as simply a tacked on part of these tools. This is what I did before I had one of these. I believe the social aspect is actually the most critical thing for these gadgets.

While the Fitbit appears to be the better technical gadget, it is in truth lagging behind Nike’s Fuelband for this very fact. Where as I have one coworker who owns a Fitbit, I know of a half dozen who have Nike Fuelbands and, had I chosen to go that way, I’d be in a bigger pack for fitness.


They say that surrounding yourself with fit people will help you with your fitness goals. I think, as we grow to be more and more enmeshed in our digital lives that this sort of digital flocking could have the same effect. Seeing my friend Paul cross the 12,000 step mark for a day, or that Brian might have doubled me up in terms of activity, can definitely be motivators.

I think it says something that after I had a few people read the early drafts of this article they weren’t sure how I actually felt about the Fitbit.

I like it but I don’t love it. I enjoy having it and seeing the counter increase, but I do not regard this as a must have gadget – yet. I do think, for those who live mostly sedentary lives, it has definite value as an additional motivational tool and quantifiable survey of just how active you are. For those who are already mostly fit and simply look to tread water, I don’t think this qualifies as a tool that will really benefit you.

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