For some experiments I need some basic timer function. I tried various methods, and neither of them are fully satisfactory. What I need is a button, that starts/stops a timer, resets timer with each restart, updates some other variables as well besides the timer and has a trigger effect when started/stopped too. It should also be customizable for having any text on the button.

Let's see how Trigger behaves. First, define a switch that tests whether the counter is active or not, a total time of 50, and continuous variables for the running time and timeLeft:

active = False;
time = 0;
total = timeLeft = 50;

The Trigger should switch active and update time and timeLeft:

Trigger[Dynamic[time, (time = #; timeLeft = total - #; 
    active = 0 < # < total) &], {0, total}]

Dynamic@Column@{time, timeLeft, active}

This however has the following issues:

  • There seems to be no way to stop the timer other than the Trigger's own pause button.
  • The way active is set is wasteful, it is unnecessary to test for it every timestep. Sadly, no other way I could figure out how to call a function only once when the Trigger is started or stopped. I've tried to play with the start/end arguments (as in Dynamic[var, {start, update, end}]) with no success. Perhaps layering a button above the trigger? See next issue.
  • No label can be given for the button. The option Appearance does not seem to have any effect here, and even if I remove all buttons via AppearanceElements->{}, I cannot overlay a normal button over it and wrap it in an EventHandler that passes events down to the trigger, as the Trigger object cannot be set to have the same ImageSize as the Button:


   Button[Dynamic@If[active, "Stop", "Start"]],
    Dynamic[time, (time = #; timeLeft = total - #) &], {0, total}, 
    AppearanceElements -> {"TriggerButton"(*,"PauseButton",
 {"MouseClicked" :> (active = ! active)}, PassEventsDown -> True]
Dynamic@Column@{time, timeLeft, active}

Mathematica graphics

I also tried to construct my own clock function, as follows. It uses a global clock, that starts immediately when the cell is generated, thus it always runs in the background, and the actual stopwatch is created by subtracting the start time (the moment the button is pushed) from the global clock.

active = False;
total = 50;
start = end = time = 0;

  Dynamic[globalTime = Clock[{0, total}]; time = globalTime - start; 
  Dynamic@If[active, time, end - start],
  Dynamic@Button[If[active, "Stop", "Start"], 
    If[active, end = globalTime, start = globalTime]; 
    active = ! active]

Mathematica graphics

(Note that the actual dynamic value of globalTime (upper value) is not copied correctly via Szabolcs's otherwise magnificent image upload palette, and it shows less than time (lower value).)

However, It has the annoying feature that if globalTime does not appear on screen, no dynamic updating is done. Thus if I want to hide it, I have to wrap it into Style[..., Opacity[0]]. Also, time is constantly (and unnecessarily) updated, even if the button was not pushed.


Is there any reliable built-in way to provide such a functionality? How would you solve this problem?

I am interested in any idea, as for the last 3 months, I had to construct 3 guis with three different timing functions, and there is always something new (request/issue/feature) I have to deal with.


1 Answer 1


Here's my first stab at a solution based on the idea of a closure. Maybe it has some elements that you can draw on for inspiration.

Function to create a timer function

makeTimer[] := Module[{start = AbsoluteTime[]}, Switch[#,
    "now", AbsoluteTime[] - start,
    "lap", AbsoluteTime[] - start,
    "reset", (start = AbsoluteTime[]; 0)]

Timers can now be created with timer = makeTimer[] and utilised with actions such as timer["lap"] to get the current lap time. Timers are quiescent unless asked to do something.

You could extend this to handle a pause function if that's required.

Timer with buttons

Create a timer and some buttons to access it, associate the timer with a dynamic variable time.

Grid[{{Button["Start", timer = makeTimer[]; time = 0]}, 
      {Button["Lap",   time = timer["lap"]]}, 
      {Button["Reset", time = timer["reset"]]}, 

Schedule a task to update the timer/clock

Create a scheduled task to run every 2 seconds to update the displayed elapsed time or clock.

RunScheduledTask[time = timer["now"], 2]

Scheduled tasks can be removed thus:

  • $\begingroup$ My timer has to operate at a very fine resolution level. Could you please tell me something about how scheduled tasks cope with that in general? Are they fast enough to be called like a 100 times per second for updating, e.g. RunScheduledTask[time = timer["now"], 0.01]? $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 13, 2012 at 13:07
  • $\begingroup$ @IstvánZachar I only included scheduled tasks to demonstrate how you could get a displayed time updated without the need for an expensive timing loop and to address your comment about no updates being displayed unless it was on screen. The timer is not associated in any way with the scheduled task. The timer does nothing unless accessed. It can be accessed by expressions such as timer["now"]. These have AbsoluteTime resolution and can be called at normal function speeds. So you can call it hundreds or thousands of time each second. $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 13, 2012 at 13:13
  • $\begingroup$ Thanks image_doctor, and sorry: I didn't want to sound discontent, just that I never used scheduled tasks before. Using the system time via AbsoluteTime is indeed a clever idea, though this approach has one major problem. It does not return time in the expected resolution: if I define the scheduled task to be updated at each second, it returns the following times: {1.0110578, 2.0121151, 3.0131723, 4.0142296, 5.0152868, 6.0163441}, so there is a lag. $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 13, 2012 at 13:28
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @IstvánZachar I didn't feel you were discontent :) Sorry I was perhaps too brusque in my reply. What delay accuracy do you need? Is it vital that periods be 1 sec, for instance, to n decimal places. I'm not an expert on this but Mathematica is not designed as a real time system. It runs on top of Linux/Windows/OS X, none of these are real time operating systems and are multitasking, so the response you will get to any timing related function may well be subject to delay/inaccuracies dependent upon what else is going on. $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 13, 2012 at 13:38
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @IstvánZachar This answer deals with the accuracy of the windows task scheduler. It seems to be around 20 ms. $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 14, 2012 at 8:45

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