Sunday, March 12, 2017

Time has come today

There were two 19th century mantel clocks in my mother's house, family heirlooms, that had stopped working. So I took them to the only person for miles around who fixes old clocks. Such people are called horologists, in  case you didn't know.

It turns out this common style is called an ogee clock, named after the molding around the door. They are weight driven (although one of my mother's clocks had a replacement spring driven movement), and they chime the hour. 

The horologist told me that these were first mass produced in the 1830s, making it possible for the first time in history for families of moderate means to own clocks. He said the inventor of this weight driven brass clockwork sent a shipload to England, where they sold out instantly. The Brits impounded the next shipment because they were putting British clockmakers our of business.

Anyway, this got me to thinking. The typical family's experience of time must have changed radically. Before, if you lived near enough to a church, you might hear the steeple clock chime the hours, and perhaps the quarter hours, but you never had a more precise sense of time than that. People outside of the village would have measured time only by the passage of the sun. Now suddenly we lived in a world of minutes. We could make punctual appointments. We could measure the speed with which we accomplished tasks. We could time cooking processes.

But people must also have developed a new sense of urgency, of guilt about being late, of the need for discipline in the use of time. Time was necessary for factory work. Of course the factory could and did blow a whistle to let people know when the shift started and ended, but workers needed to keep track of time so they could be ready.

I expect the 19th century clocks chimed the hour because people were accustomed to the steeple clock doing that and they expected it. By the 20th, however, we had gotten used to seeing clock faces everywhere, quite likely on our wrists, and the chime was obviously pointless and was abandoned.

I took one of the clocks, so now I live with the tick tock and the hourly chime. I have to wind it every day. So I have a new connection to my ancestors.

1 comment:

  1. It's hard to imagine a time without the insistent ticking of clocks. Second by second we have digitized what was once a simple quiet rotation of our earth.