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, except the bathrooms and closets. The pendulum clock that hangs in our kitchen has been in our possession for more than fifty years.
I’m especially fascinated by old clocks and captivated by the concept of time. Anna Marie and I have traveled to Greenwich, outside London, and viewed the Shepherd Gate Clock at the Royal Observatory. I’ve 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 had become a clockmaker and an official studier of time, I would have been called a “horologist.” The word clock comes from the Celtic words clagan and clocca, which mean “bell.” If a device doesn’t have a bell or a chime, it’s simply called a “timepiece” or “watch.” For millennia, devices such as the sundial, the candle clock, the hourglass, and the ancient water clock were all used to precisely measure units of time during any given day. 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’re doing. You can’t see 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 deathbed 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. Saint 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 as a “ ‘distention’ of the mind . . . by which we simultaneously grasp the past in memory, the present by attention, and the future by expectation.”
In ancient Greece, philosophers like Epicurius believed that time and space were infinite, and the universe had no beginning. By contrast, monotheistic faiths, such as Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, have traditionally believed that God alone is infinite and that he created a finite universe in which time had a distinct beginning. In medieval times, philosophers and theologians also argued that the universe was finite, and time originated when the universe began.
So people either believed that time was part of the basic framework of a finite universe, and that events happened in a sequence that could be measured in some way, or they believed that time, like the universe, was infinite, nonsequential, and couldn’t be measured. That’s about as clear as mud, isn’t it?
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 light 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 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 historic clocks as I traveled the world. I’m totally enraptured by Big Ben along the river Thames in London.
Another intriguing clock is the the Salisbury Cathedral clock, built in 1386, which is said to be the oldest surviving clock in the world that mechanically strikes the hours (which means it operates by weights and doesn’t have hands or a dial). I also learned a bit about pendulum clocks. Apparently, Galileo was one of the first scientists to come up with the pendulum concept, but Christiaan Huygens is credited with inventing the first pendulum-regulated clock in 1656. He also determined the precise pendulum length required for a clock to make a one-second movement.
Spring-driven clocks came on the scene in France during the fifteenth century. Then, in the eighteenth century, on November 17, 1797, the first clock patent was awarded to Eli Terry, who ushered in the era of clock making in America. Early in the nineteenth century, Terry was the first clockmaker in America to develop mass production and interchangeable clock parts.
About twenty years before the American Civil War, Alexander Bain, a Scottish clock maker, invented and patented the electric clock. By the twentieth century, technological advances paved the way for the invention of timepieces without any mechanical clock parts at all. These types of clocks keep time by different means, including tuning forks, quartz crystals, or atoms. Since the 1960s, the frequency of a cesium atom—9,192,631,770 oscillations per second—became the international unit of time.
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 Einstein was saying that since this phenomenon called time seems to exist for the convenience of humankind, it certainly stands to reason that the most significance connected to it lies with the hearts and behavior of individuals. Each person has exactly the same number of hours and minutes in each 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 won’t fully maximize it.
There’s a clock on the wall, and it’s ticking down the time you have left till you’re dust in the ground. How you love the people with the time you have determines if you’re judged 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 in saying, “If only I had known, I should have become a watchmaker.”