Things change. Time moves on. But even time’s march has been altered. The keeper of time has had a spatial reorientation. Clocks were once mostly round and the hands of time circled a face much like the earth circles the sun. Clocks had meaning implied by their design, and their marking of time had a beat or rhythm just as the passing days do. The clock face was sometimes anthropomorphic: a friendly face to greet you when you came home, a touchstone when you were expecting company or had a deadline to meet, an authoritarian presence watching from on high in the classroom or ticking down the final minutes at work. Almost always round, sometimes square.
Clocks were made into pieces of furniture, decorated in every style, handcrafted and machine-made, geared, weighted and sprung. They became art objects and people kept them around even after their function ceased. They made sounds, played music, had dancing figures and animals festooning their facades. The grandfather clock was a serious investment and it set a tone for a household of how serious time is, beautiful and serious with deep and throaty tones and shiny brass pendulum weights. There was the clock hanging in the kitchen of your parents’ house, the one that left an age spot on the wall when you removed it and which had so many associations with family, food and how time seemed so infinite then. Now you look at it hanging in your own house and its demeanor has changed – now it is a collectible.
Some clocks were hand-wound with special keys, giving you the sense that you had some control over time – an anniversary clock, say, or a seven-day mantel style. My grandmother’s wind-up from the 1920s had such a loud tick that it was a constant reminder of the passing of time; there was no way to avoid its audible countdown. Later, many more clocks were electric and usually silent except for an occasional hum. Clocks are all around me, some from family members, and which are like family members; others because they spoke to me in intimate tones about needing a home, again.
But now, in the digital age, clocks have become machines, as in Olympic trials: merely accurate numbering tools. Their displays are in cyphers, whether in the early form of rotating flaps in mechanical-digital displays or, now, in LED and LCD with their seven segments of light mixed and matched to show the full spectrum of time configurations as binary numbers, much like a cheerleading squad spelling out their team’s name with their body parts. The seven-segments system of time-telling sounds as perfunctory and bloodless as it is. Maybe the digital display is more accurate, although I wonder, in a contest with a perfectly attuned Swiss movement, who the real time-keeper would be. And the thing is, who cares? The time isn’t the real issue here. It is the sense of time. Clocks, analog clocks, give a sense of time as well as keep time. Why would we want to lose that? Do we think that if we make it a manageable set of numbers that we can control it better? Good luck.
A few years ago I had a work-study student, an architecture major, who had never learned to read an analog clock. Her digital wristwatch stopped and she needed to keep track of her work hours. Up on the wall was a battery clock with face and hands, and she couldn’t decipher it. To her, it was an artifact of the past, an archeological relic with a field of circularly placed numbers that had no meaning. After my initial shock, I began to realize the scope of loss in not having a connection to “real” clocks – the metaphorical, spatial (and this, a future architect!), cosmological sense of clocks, not to mention their rich history, mechanical prowess and diverse artistic merit. There are worlds in clocks. Yes, they are timepieces (maybe in two senses now), but they have presence and placeness in their unique combination of form and function. They hum and tick and whirr as they loop around continuously in their circular pattern; some of them chime and please the listener.
Think about it, the friendly clocks in fairy tales or nursery rhymes as opposed to the ominous “24” digital bot interface. Oh sure, there are a few digital clocks in my life. It is hard to avoid their flat gaze. As long as the friendlier-faced clocks remain and tell more than just time, it makes the time ticking away more palatable and more tangible. Give me a pretty face any day. And the fact is, no matter how endearing they are, they are still constant reminders of the dwindling days, just as the hourglass showed us in The Wizard of Oz. There is no pretense in an attractive analog clock, just something more than a cold countdown. They represent the dance of time; instead, their digital conquistadors confer a flat and empty number sequence: an LCD display is removed from the patterns of time. Analog clocks still have that ancient connection to sundials and real time. Even if they don’t save us from the ravages, our time spent will be more engaging with an illusion of timelessness. Tick-tock.