Thursday, May 2, 2013

Behind TIme


We thought Time was our natural inheritance, god-given and not subject to earthly tampering, but Time was the first to change. The clockmaker's wizardry looks intricate consisting of astronomical calculations and tedious tinkering with gears and escapements, teasing out tiny efficiencies and tuning verges to mimic the heavens and meter out our moments precisely. We scarcely understand or remember how the clockmakers came to possess and warp time, nor do we recall tattered circadian harmonies.

Clockmakers were in the Naugatuck Valley early, working in wood even before the first brass mill rolled metal, and it's hard to overestimate their influence. In 1801 Eli Terry registered the first United States patent for a clock mechanism. It was a clear sign of genius. The mechanism called, "an equation clock," modulated the flow of minutes to mimic sun time, perceptual time, time as it was given by the heavens. 

It was no simple thing to get a clunky machine to figure the tilt of the earth and the living flux of days as they varied in length; to get escapement and verge to lay down 86,400 moments in the ever-changing span between every sunrise and sunrise. Today such a clock would be an antique, always hopelessly wrong.  It measured old time, the time most people knew, but it would never have made Eli Terry famous or wealthy in the times ahead.

Most of Eli Terry's clocks were not equation clocks. They were ordinary clocks that beat in even moments. His clocks became famous because they made time cheap. In 1806 he accepted a contract to make 4000, wooden, 30 hour, shelf clocks in three years at $4 each. Creating a 30 hour, shelf clock in wood presented technical challenges, but skeptics laughed at the thought of producing any clock for $4, and nobody could make 4000 of them in three years when the most a single clockmaker could turn out in a year was under a dozen. Clocks were expensive tech toys for aristocrats, or they were purchased as a common community resource.

Terry formed a partnership with two young joiners and spent the first year designing the clock, and the systems and jigs to mass produce it. If parts could be uniformly made, much time could be saved in precision finishing. The partners spent the remaining two years refining methods, and producing the required number. Terry was mass producing time and delivering it to the masses; it was a milestone in mass production comparable to Henry Ford's a century later, but Terry had learned enough to know what to do next.

He sold his share of the business to his partners and took all he had learned about mass production and clocks and applied it to the design of a wholly new, made-for-mass-production, 30 hour, shelf clock, and in 1816 began manufacturing the first machine of any kind made from wholly interchangeable parts. By 1825 Terry held 5 distinct patents and his clock delivered time to the rest of us and dominated clockmaking for 25 years. In 1833 Terry retired wealthy from labors. He spent the next 22 years quietly making unique, fine, precision time pieces the old-fashioned way, fitting each wheel to it's place in a unique clockwork.

It was for Terry's partners, Seth Thomas, Sirus Hoadley, Chauncy Jerome and others to ramp up the production of Terry's clock and fix us firmly in the gears of clock time. Chauncey Jerome was an innovator, and after the railroads came through, he took Terry's methods and translated them for manufacturing clocks of stamped metal. He made time even less expensive and more accurate, and he was widely imitated. 

In 1813 Seth Thomas, another partner, went over the hill from the original Plymouth shop and began manufacturing Terry's clocks in the part of the Valley known then as Plymouth Hollow. His success was in making Terry's manufactured clocks look hand-crafted. Now everybody could dream of having a parlor, and Plymouth Hollow became Thomaston. Of influential clocks in public places, few can vie with the famous, four-sided clock that sets the pace in the center of Grand Central Station; it is a Seth Thomas clock. Although the Seth Thomas Co., continued making clocks up until 2001, they never made an electric clock.

When clocks were wooden they spent half their time in darkness; before the Civil War we had not lit night to resemble day, but we were already leaving Circadia. In 1850, we agreed to standard time zones so that railroads could make timetables, and more and more we needed clocks.  The hands of Seth Thomas's Grand Central clock still gracefully circle like planets orbiting a star, as we circle round the clock's faces toward our trains and planes and cars. How are we changed by glimpsing digital watches blinking our disconnected seconds as we wait for the train to move? How do our tools change us? 

And when we first stepped from Circadia, was there shock? How did the harmonies change as we began to dwell in a "well-tempered" world with rigid, 24-hour intervals? There is a curious incident, a marker in the history of human consciousness that relates; in 1826 citizens of New Haven were outraged when Eli Terry set his new clock into operation on the town Green? What feelings prompted their ire?

Eli Terry was a master at wooden tower clocks, and one was needed on the New Haven Green to mark time for the daily firing of the canon by which the residents of the town set their sun dials. The clock that Eli Terry provided had a complicated mechanism that operated two sets of dials. One of these dials was operated by Terry's equation mechanism that varied the length of hours throughout the year in order to provide the correct sun time.  The other dial offered the clock time we use today.  

The New Haven citizens protested - wanted nothing of new-fangled, clock time - wanted it gone. Heated words and esoteric arguments were exchanged in the local newspapers. Terry himself contributed anonymously to the exchanges, but Terry still owned the clock. He showed his spite by removing the equation mechanism leaving only warped, clock time. Of course, in reality the matter had already been settled. It was decided by the many clocks of Terry's design that were already mass-produced, inexpensive and chiming the hours in homes and parlors for a decade before the protest and a half century before the lights came on.

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