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What is a Stopwatch?

Stopwatches are handheld timers used at a variety of sporting events.
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  • Written By: R. Kayne
  • Edited By: Niki Foster
  • Last Modified Date: 19 July 2014
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A stopwatch is a handheld timer used in sporting events such as track meets, swim meets, triathlons and other time-lapse games. It is designed to be manually started, for example at the beginning of an event, then stopped with the press of a button at the exact moment a runner crosses a finish line, a swimmer reaches the end lap or a skier sails past the final gate. Aside from officials, coaches use stopwatches for training and practices.

A stopwatch can be mechanical, resembling a pocket watch with an analog face, or digital. Digital stopwatches are more accurate, though some people prefer the traditional look of a silver-cased analog stopwatch. Winning team members or students often choose this type of stopwatch to engrave as a gift to a coach or trainer.

A stopwatch can have many functions or modes, depending on the model. Even a basic stopwatch will keep a running time and "split" or lap time, which allows the user to keep track of individual laps or events and cumulative time. Some models only store up to 10 lap times, while other models will be able to store 50 laps or more. If the distance of a track or lane is known, some stopwatches will also calculate speed based on the time it takes for the competitor to cover the distance.

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Another function of a stopwatch is a countdown timer. The device can be set for a specific amount of time, and at the press of a button, the timer starts counting down to zero. Calendar, pacer and alarm functions are other features that might be included in a stopwatch.

Although stopwatches are most closely associated with sports, they are also used for many other purposes. For example, a film student might use a stopwatch to time scenes, sequences and acts in teleplays or movies in order to better understand story structure. Stopwatches will also be found in research laboratories, and some teachers use stopwatches to hone debate skills, time spelling bees or issue tests.

Stopwatches range in price starting from about US$20. Many digital wristwatches have a stopwatch or "chronograph" function built-in. Very large stopwatches suitable for hanging on a wall are called stopclocks.

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