There we sat, four of us in the ballroom, in silence, except that it wasn’t silent. There was a quiet but penetrating voice in our midst, and it had something more compelling to say than any of us. We would not interrupt. So we were silent. And listened. The room was filled with a sound. It was a mechanical clock built in 1907 in Connecticut, the kind you have to wind with a key.
I found it in an antique mall in Hudson, New York, sitting tilted on a chair, neglected and dirty, its face yellowed with age and a thick patina of dust filling the crevices of the wood. I offered $75, and the merchant took it. It came with a key, which is rather unusual. I had no idea whether it actually worked.
We took it back to the Stone House at the American Institute for Economic Research, and put it on the mantle in the ballroom. There are two places in which to insert the key: the left hole, which turns right, and the right hole, which turns left. We had to stop speaking to hear it, and then the lovely sound began. It had come to life, speaking for the first time in perhaps decades.
There are plenty of electric clocks that affect a ticking sound. This is completely different. The sound is generated by a physical action inside, and the wooden box operates like an acoustic amplifier same as a violin or guitar. There are two sounds per second, one higher than the other. They seem almost like pitches, and my ear puts them about a third apart, though I’m not sure whether I’m imagining that or not.
All ticks sound the same, but they are not. Each sound is unique because it occurs in a different slice of time in the forward trajectory of history. But then the mystery strikes you. Is not the clock itself creating the very time linearity that causes each tick to become unique? How can this clock both create and inhabit the same perceived forward motion of history in what would otherwise remain an abstraction? It’s unclear intellectually, but physically we experience it. We believe it is true because we hear it. The machine is providing evidence to our senses.
It’s the sound of progress. Humankind only heard this sound in the late 13th century for the first time. It was a foreshadowing of the material progress that would sweep Europe a century later, but there was terrible darkness before the dawn. In 1350, perhaps half of Europe’s population was wiped out by the black plague. It was the last horror of the Middle Ages. Then sanitation improved. Travel became safer. The skylines of the city came to be dotted by cathedrals. Painting became beautiful. Music improved. Mechanical inventions were spreading. And speaking. Singing.
The medieval clock, its chime once ringing over cities of danger and death, became the soundtrack to progress, chronicling the gradual end of feudalism and the advent of capitalism that would spread prosperity to the average person. So too did clock ownership increase. Every town needed one. Every large estate. It was a living symbol that humankind had improved its capacity to track the motion of time, for now history was in motion, creating events worth tracking.
By the 19th century, average people could gain access to material goods once reserved for the elites. Mirrors. Fancy clothing. Books. And clocks. In the United States, Connecticut became the center of production.
In 1850 Connecticut clockmakers produced 511,000 clocks, with Bristol producing more than any other city in the state, making it the leading clock-producing center in the country. The increase in production spurred production of clock components including weights, bells, dials, painted tablets, and springs by small manufacturers. The presence of many small spring manufacturers in Central Connecticut today is an outgrowth of that phenomenon. Women often worked at home painting dials and tablets.
Then came watches, as the inevitable stage in the inexorable trend toward the individuation of technology. First town, then community, then home, and then the wrist.
With electricity came increased accuracy and efficiency, but there was a cost: the absence of the mystical magic of that endlessly intriguing tick-tock sound that quietly reverberates through space and time.
I now recall it because my father’s mother loved that sound. I now realize that this is why her home always felt to me as a child to be especially warm and comforting: she had a mechanical clock in every room. There was a mantle clock for the fireplace, a cuckoo clock for the dining room, a table clock for the living room, and a grandfather clock in the hallway that dominated them all.
I could barely sleep… or maybe I slept better than ever. I recall hearing a tremendous racket every hour, and waking to see my grandmother add another blanket to my bed. God how she loved me. How I loved her. The clocks gave me a sound to animate that love, an audible memory as powerful as perfume, so that when I just heard it again, I could recall her warm embrace, her smile, and those last days when she cried that her son, my father, had died before she had passed from this world to the next.
The forward motion of time, Kierkegaard called it, is something we intuit but don’t fully understand. It is stable, or so we believe, no matter how often we hear Henri Bergson claim it is not. It roots us, gives us a sense of direction, allows us to track our progress, and draws attention to the thing we do not like to think about: the end of days. They will end. They did for my father, his mother, and they will for me.
And so what do we do with this thing we call time? We make the best of it. We make it matter. How much? As much as we can comprehend. The mechanical clock, by dividing the thing we call the second into two parts, tick and tock, allows us to discern that our life is limited, that we cannot waste it, that the clock will go on long after we too pass from this world.
All these truths are embedded in this wooden box that operates without our volition. And yet once per day we must stick that key in and turn it. Only then can we experience the magic. In the end, it happens only because we, with human hands, make it happen. So it is with the narrative of history itself, forever making itself available for us to control but never finally adapting to our liking.
This little box sat lonely on a chair, its face yellowed, its functionality neglected by every buyer, given life through the commercial exchange, and finally brought to our audible senses through a turn of the key. Both history and the future come to life.