I Should Have Become a Watchmaker

Clocks have always intrigued me. For those of you who have visited our home, you know that we have at least one wind-up, pendulum clock in every room in our home, except the bathrooms and closets. The pendulum clock that hangs in our kitchen has been in our personal possession for over fifty years. I am fascinated by old clocks and captivated by the concept of time.

We have traveled to Greenwich, outside London, and viewed the Shepherd Gate Clock at the Royal Observatory. I have carefully lugged home interesting clocks from South America and Asia for my family, and have even visited the rare display of ancient clocks at the Forbidden City in Beijing, China.

The clock is one of the oldest human inventions, and if I would have become a clockmaker and an official studier of time, I would have been called a “horologist.” Our word clock is derived from the Celtic words clagan and clocca, meaning “bell.” If the mechanism doesn’t have a bell or chime, it is simply a “timepiece” or “watch.” For the past 6,000 years, devices such as the sundial, the candle clocks, the hourglass, and the ancient water clocks have been different physical processes studied and used to consistently measure intervals of time shorter than the natural units of day, lunar month, and year. So, in layman’s language, clocks measure time and time is what keeps everything from happening all at once. That sounds simple enough . . . but wait. What is time? 

We all know that an hour can seem like an eternity, or pass in a flash, depending on what we are doing. You can’t see time or feel time, yet your car mechanic can charge a hundred dollars an hour for it without fixing a thing. And some wise guy can convince you that “Time flies like an arrow, but fruit flies like a banana.” I even had a sacrilegious bloke once ask me “What year did Jesus think it was?” Time was a serious enough issue that when Queen Elizabeth I of England and Ireland was on her death bed in 1603, she begged, “All my possessions for a moment of time.” 

Ancient philosophers and theologians have never been able to agree on the nature of time. St. Augustine handled the subject cleverly. He thought he could grasp the meaning of time, but admitted that when it came to explaining it he had a difficult time: "What then is time? If no one asks me, I know; if I wish to explain it to one that asketh, I know not." He ended up explaining it by calling it a distention of the mind, “by which we simultaneously grasp the past in memory, the present by attention, and the future by expectation.” 

The ancient Greek philosophers believed that the universe had an infinite past with no beginning. Medieval philosophers and theologians developed the concept of the universe having a finite past with a beginning. This view is shared by Abrahamic faiths, as they believe time started by creation, therefore, the only thing being infinite is God and everything else, including time, is finite. 

So, the one view is that time is part of the fundamental structure of the universe—a dimension independent of events— in which events occur in sequence. The opposing view is that time does not refer to any kind of "container" that events and objects "move through," nor to any entity that "flows," but that it is instead part of a fundamental intellectual structure (together with space and number) within which humans sequence and compare events. This second view holds that time is neither an event nor a thing, and thus is neither measurable, nor can it be traveled. 

When I get tired of reckoning with the dusty minds of the past, I resort to the real world and philosophy of Dr. Seuss to shed some insight on the subject of time: “How did it get so late so soon? It's night before it's afternoon. December is here before it's June. My goodness how the time has flewn. How did it get so late so soon?” Then he goes on and quips, “They say I'm old-fashioned, and live in the past, but sometimes I think progress progresses too fast!”

I started paying attention to the historic clocks as I traveled the world. I am totally rapt by Big Ben along the River Thames in London. The Salisbury Cathedral clock, built in 1386, is considered to be the world's oldest surviving mechanical clock that strikes the hours. I learned that Galileo first had the idea to use a swinging bob to regulate the accuracy of the clock, even though Christiaan Huygens was the fellow who figured out the mathematical formula that determined 39.13 inches was needed to be the length of the pendulum for the one second movement. He actually made the first pendulum-regulated clock in 1670.

Spring-driven clocks appeared during the 15th century. On November 17, 1797, Eli Terry received his first patent for a clock. Terry is known as the founder of the American clock-making industry. Starting in the U.S. in early decades of the 19th century, clocks were one of the first American items to be mass-produced and also to use interchangeable parts. About twenty years before the American Civil War, Alexander Bain, Scottish clockmaker, patented the electric clock. The development of electronics in the 20th century led to timepieces with no clockwork parts at all. Time in these cases is measured in several ways, such as by the vibration of a tuning fork, the behavior of quartz crystals, or the quantum vibrations of atoms. Currently, the international unit of time, the second, is defined in terms of radiation emitted by caesium atoms. 

Albert Einstein once said, "The release of atom power has changed everything except our way of thinking . . .the solution to this problem lies in the heart of mankind. If only I had known, I should have become a watchmaker." 

I believe that what Einstein was saying was that since this phenomenon called time seems to exist for the convenience of mankind, it certainly stands to reason that the most significance connected to it lies with the heart and behavior of individuals. Each person has exactly the same number of hours and minutes in every day. Wealthy people can’t buy more hours, and even the smartest scientist can’t invent more minutes. Try as you may, you can’t save time to spend it on another day. The dazzling concept of time reminds us to cherish all the individual moments, because they will never come again. If you don’t value yourself and those around you, you won’t value your time. Until you begin to value your time you will not fully maximize it.

            There’s a clock on the wall and it’s ticking down; the time you have left ‘til
            you’re dust in the ground. How you love the people with the time you’ve got
            determines if you are judged as worthy or not.

William Penn said, “Time is what we want most, but what we use worst.” Had I understood that fully, even at a younger age, I probably would have joined Albert Einstein: “If only I had known, I should have become a watchmaker.”