The clock sources in modern electronics seem to come invariably from quartz and MEMS oscillators, both of which generate vibrations mechanically. The amplitude and frequency of the vibration are orders of magnitudes different from the everday mechanical vibrations I observe in, say, musical instruments. Nevertheless, it's surprising to me that we don't get clock sources in the electromagnetic domain directly, say using capacitive or inductive elements.

I know that inductors especially are hard to manufacture without parasitic losses. But I would expect mechanical oscillators to be non-ideal as well.

You could use the propagation delay of electricity, but then it would be hard to make a small oscillator that operates at slow frequencies.

Is it really true we can make microscopic vibrating devices more ideally than we can make electrical oscillating components?

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    \$\begingroup\$ Just a note -- Quartz crystals were the new, better frequency control for radios back in the 1920's. I have amateur radio magazines from 1928 where they're already an established technology (albeit way bigger than today's). For a while they were the best frequency control standard to be had, only being overtaken by atomic clocks in (I think) the 1940's or 1950's. So the practical answer to your question is because they work better and cheaper, and no one has been able to do better without being a whole lot more expensive. \$\endgroup\$
    – TimWescott
    Nov 27, 2018 at 20:33
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    \$\begingroup\$ Thanks for that note. Practicality aside, does it strike you as surprising? If someone told me that the voltage reference in a circuit comes from a generator connected to a constant-velocity reference. (or even better, from the amplitude of the current or voltage generated by the quartz crystal), I would think that's a little funny. I've known that crystal oscillators were mechanical for a while, but today it struck me as odd that it's actually good in practice. The electrical domain seems to win for signal processing, energy transfer, communication, and so on. \$\endgroup\$
    – Gus
    Nov 27, 2018 at 20:40
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    \$\begingroup\$ If I were to remain that surprised by everything that does not make immediate sense, I would not be able to get out of bed in the morning in my astonishment that the sun is up and gravity still works. I suppose it's kind of surprising, but it would require very deep study to find a really good "why". I tend to be distrustful of anything glib; I'm not sure that there really is a good, 100% true, and short explanation for this. \$\endgroup\$
    – TimWescott
    Nov 27, 2018 at 20:45
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    \$\begingroup\$ Quartz is simply amazing. It's piezoelectric effect is very large (the link between its mechanical/electrical properties). Its inherent temperature coefficient is very small. Any remaining temperature effect can be reduced by rotating crystal planes. Grinding/lapping can be done with great precision. Sometimes, the universe just gives you such a gift. \$\endgroup\$
    – glen_geek
    Nov 27, 2018 at 20:51
  • \$\begingroup\$ As a novice amateur radio operator in the mid 1950's, the FCC REQUIRED me to use quartz crystals. Fortunately, I found a source of cheap crystals around 6.5 MHz, and was able to re-grind them to around 7.15 MHz. \$\endgroup\$ Nov 30, 2018 at 0:09

2 Answers 2


Because the mechanical devices are much more stable than their electric counterparts. Let's compare a crystal oscillator to an LC oscillator:


  • Has a very high Q. According to wikipedia, a crystal oscillator has a typical Q of 10,000-1,000,000.
  • Stable with temperature. Many crystals are specified at <50ppm over their temperature range, and temperature compensated or controlled crystals are also available, down to ~1ppm with temperature
  • Manufactured to a tight tolerance. Cheap crystals are usually specified to ~25ppm, but tighter tolerances are available

LC or RC:

  • Not available as an integrated device, so must be assembled from off the shelf components (unless integrated into a mcu or similar)
  • Low Q, it's difficult to make an inductor with a Q higher than a few hundred
  • Temperature sensitive - making temperature stable inductors is difficult
  • Voltage sensitive - the threshold voltage and charging voltage in the feedback circuit is usually voltage dependent.

    However, that doesn't mean that electric oscillators are never used, just that they're not used where great precision is needed. They do however have some advantages over crystal oscillators:

  • They can be easily integrated into another IC. Many microcontrollers now come with an integrated oscillator

  • They (sometimes) use less power. Often times a microcontroller will include a low power oscillator to run the watchdog timer, which uses less power than a high speed (MHz) crystal, and sometimes less power than a low speed (32.768kHz) crystal.
  • Since they can be integrated onto an IC, they can be used in places where a crystal would be far too large
  • They can be tuned fairly easily. A crystal can only really be shifted a few kHz off its calibrated frequency, but by adjusting the capacitance of the LC circuit (like with a varactor diode), the frequency can be adjusted over a fairly wide range. This means that LC oscillators can be used in circuits like PLLs or VCOs, possibly even locked to a crystal reference.

Non-mechanical oscillators are used in many devices, just not in those where accurate timing is required.

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    \$\begingroup\$ One last question for now, I think of the Q factor as a measure of how well an system "rings" after you "strike" it. In a powered system, it would correspond to how much energy is needed to keep the oscillator running (not considering that the oscillation signal has to be sensed by some other circuit). Is this the big deal with a higher Q? Or does higher Q help ensure frequency stability as well? \$\endgroup\$
    – Gus
    Nov 27, 2018 at 20:22
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    \$\begingroup\$ The sensitivity of an oscillator to noise is inversely proportional to Q. That's part of the reason why an RC circuit would be worse than an LC circuit -- an LC circuit may have a Q of 100 or more, an RC circuit has a Q less than one, always. \$\endgroup\$
    – TimWescott
    Nov 27, 2018 at 20:24
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    \$\begingroup\$ High Q also relates to how stable the system is. A high Q oscillator has less phase noise than a low Q one, which is important for radio circuits and timing sensitive stuff (like controlling an ADC clock or DAC) \$\endgroup\$
    – C_Elegans
    Nov 27, 2018 at 20:25
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    \$\begingroup\$ " I think I assumed we can build, for a similar cost, a more accurate voltage reference than we could a mechanical oscillator". Only if you have an atomic clock handy. And some liquid nitrogen. See this link. \$\endgroup\$
    – TimWescott
    Nov 27, 2018 at 20:50
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    \$\begingroup\$ I can buy easily buy a crystal oscillator TCXO that is stable to within +/-50ppb over 0° to +70°C for less than $30 one-off. A 0.6ppm/°C temperature compensated voltage reference costs more than $150. Initial tolerance is +/-1ppm vs. 0.01%. So orders of magnitude worse for 5x the cost. That's not atypical. You can easily measure frequency better than ~\$10^{-10}\$ accuracy (1 year), but voltage is difficult to measure better than single digit ppm accuracy (I'll include Tim's Josephson Junction laboratory standard which lives in a dewar at 4.3 Kelvin as more than difficult..) \$\endgroup\$ Nov 27, 2018 at 23:47

It's not really whether inductors and capacitors can be made more precisely than a mechanical oscillator. It's whether those components can operate in a stable manner over voltage/temperature ranges. Unless you want to design all of your circuits to have a band-gap voltage reference, a thermometer, and a heating circuit to keep voltage/temperature constant, you can't get inductors and capacitors to operate anywhere nearly as stable as a crystal does.

To tune a crystal to the correct frequency during manufacturing, I'm assuming they could just polish it until it's at the right size. You can also manufacture caps and inductors as accurate as you need. The problem is that it just won't stay there.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Is it important that the clock source be stable over voltage ranges? I had figured that modern electronics, like your cellphone, does have an accurate voltage reference (due to a band-gap). Stability over temperature makes more sense. There are oven-controlled crystal oscillators, so they must be sensitive to temperature as well, but to a lesser degree? \$\endgroup\$
    – Gus
    Nov 27, 2018 at 20:14
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Gus voltage range won't be nearly as important as temperature. For really accurate stuff, it makes sense to temp-control a crystal. \$\endgroup\$
    – horta
    Nov 27, 2018 at 20:19
  • \$\begingroup\$ GSM cellphones are trimmed in frequency, so the packets do not drift in timing; this ensures there always is the predicted rampup and rampdown time between packets and there never are missing or conflicting simultaneous packets. \$\endgroup\$ Nov 28, 2018 at 2:54

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