BY IAN HAMILTON
In these latter days, we are no longer concerned with how things work. Nor of how they developed: their raison d'être. We are increasingly concerned only that they satisfy our perceived wants.
Modern clocks and watches do not readily allow us (as lay persons) to understand how they work. We change the battery when our watch stops. If the new battery does not cure the problem, we make a decision about the worth of the item. Generally this means we discard the timepiece and buy another.
Our modern world requires us, one way or another, to be cognisant of the time. The time till our next tea break, our dental appointment, that meeting with our tax-agent, the next episode of Neighbours. Tempus fugit indeed. Clocks owe their genesis to humankind's need to arrange its days, its seasons, its years. Initially, scheduling would have been easy: rise with the sun, work till it sets. Civilisation complicated this by requiring appointments: whether for Beltane or that visit to the dentist.
So clocks were invented to segment our days into manageable chunks. Sundials. Sand clocks. Water clocks. Stonehenge…
All of which worked according to their design, and according to the limitations of the materials available.
It was exploration that changed everything. The top of the world is the North Pole (the Arctic). The other end is Antarctica. So? Well. When our forefathers set off in their little boats on discovery tours, there arose a problem. They could work out north and south (latitude)—more or less. For example, the Vikings used lodestones (a magnetic stone suspended on a string) to find the New World. This sort of technology provided some idea of your position north or south of the equator but was not a great deal of use if you were interested in matters east or west. North and South America would be pretty hard to miss—just sail west and you eventually crash into one or the other (apologies to Columbus). But a Spanish fleet attempting the west-east passage from Peru to establish a colony in the Philippines met a disastrous end. They were simply unable to find the islands they sought. They found the right latitude, roughly, and went west and west and west. Soon they were reduced to boiling the leather sheathings on the masts for some kind of sustenance. The expedition leader met his death on a beach, hoping to trade with the natives but ending up as dinner. The remnants of this great enterprise somehow found their way to an extremely unfriendly Dutch Java. Only a scant few returned to Europe alive.
Knowing the accurate time became vital, to allow us to calculate longitude—where we are east or west on the earth’s surface. The first priority was to designate a north/south “starting” line (meridian) for longitude, from pole to pole. The sun never sets on the British Empire so this hypothetical line is still drawn, unsurprisingly, right through the Observatory at Greenwich in London—becoming (equally unsurprisingly) the Greenwich Meridian (0 degrees). If you accept the idea that the world is round (or near enough), then whichever parallel of latitude on which you travel will represent so many degrees of longitude. The trouble is that meridians of longitude (unlike parallels of latitude) meet at the poles. They are not parallel. They taper—the distance between the longitude meridians changes, depending on your position. How then can you work out where you are in relation to the Greenwich meridian?
The answer lay in accurate timepieces. The earth revolves on its axis and conveniently completes one full rotation about every 24 hours. One rotation equals 360 degrees, so it would be theoretically possible to divide those degrees into time zones: 15 degrees every hour. This is only possible, however, if the time can be accurately measured. In England a huge reward was offered for an accurate timepiece. This, at a time when Spain and Portugal were busy dividing the world up between themselves. France was also on the prowl, as were those pesky Dutch.
Something we all might recognise as a clock was thus born. It had lots of gears and wheels and springs. Their simple complexity meant that these clocks were robust and, generally speaking, accurate. Clockmaker John Harrison, who developed those first chronometers, initially used clever combinations of material and mechanism to avoid the need for lubricants. Lubricants become thicker or thinner with temperature, causing a clock to run faster or slower as a result. Temperature also affects metal—metals expand and contract with temperature changes, changing the length of metal clock pendulums and thus the time it takes to complete its arc. Harrison pioneered the use of bimetallic strips—the use of two different metals (brass and steel) joined together so that each counteracted the expansion and contraction of the other. He also invented the caged roller bearing, an antifriction mechanism that can loosely be likened to rolling a block of stone along a series of logs. In later models his clever antifriction devices had to be sacrificed for size; lubricants were introduced. However, without these new clocks, Cook could not possibly have arrived at Tahiti for the transit of Venus. Nor indeed, would he ever have known where the HMS Endeavour was, exactly, except after he made landfall: not always happily.
Strange to think that nowadays the only conception most of us have about longitude relates to these same time zones, usually via phone calls beginning “what time is it there?”
My father died a few years ago. He had prostate cancer, which metastasized into his bones. He also suffered in the last couple of years from dementia. Phone calls to him became increasingly pointless. After his death, my brother (the executor) cleaned out Dad’s unit, as one of his duties. Among the jumble were a number of watches that my father had pulled to bits. Odd. Before my father had become an engineer, he had worked as an instrument maker. He was so at home with so much machinery, including clocks, and so capable.
My own love of clocks comes, I think, from inheriting my father’s innate desire to know how things work. It comes also from spending a number of years in the Royal Australian Navy as a Meteorological Observer/Navigator’s Yeoman. My duties aboard ship (among other things) were to look after the ship's chronometer and deck watches. For me, it was evident that the accuracy of the clocks was essential to our ability to navigate—to know where on earth our ship actually was.
Not so long ago I bought a clock movement on eBay. (The movement is the internal workings of a clock, rather than the case). It cost very little because, as the seller pointed out, it was not going and parts were probably not available. I disassembled the movement just for fun. Parts of it were rusted solid and I discovered both springs had snapped.
Eventually I had it all apart and had cleaned and oiled each part, repairing both springs by the simple expedient of shortening them. I realized some way into doing so that the movement and its component parts was a thing of immense beauty—gleaming brass, copper and steel; the intricate precision of the intermeshing cogs and wheels.
Via a process of patience and lunacy (and initially leaving out the complication of the springs) I managed to get it back together and began a long, somewhat spiritual journey into understanding why the movement was constructed the way it was. A convoluted way I suppose, of retracing my steps to my opening thought: that we are no longer encouraged or expected to understand how things work.
Which is not, of course, to suggest that nobody knows anything about anything. Simply that increasingly we tend to know little, discrete bits about some things—the underlying assumption being that things are just too complicated for any real kind of overview. The so-called Renaissance man(or woman) is very much thinner on this modern ground.
In my opinion what has arisen is a kind of new religion: we need to have faith that scientists, designers, economists (governments?) will know what is right for us (and provide it). Older style religions like Christianity utilized the same principle: have faith—God knows what He is up to. We don’t have to worry overmuch about it. Nor need we take responsibility.
Playing with an old clock movement means taking on a kind of responsibility—at least it does if you want it to go again. My movement did go (does go). Trying to understand why it does unleashed a kind of deus ex machina—a ‘god’ that is a compendium of all the thought that went into the movement itself, and of the materials from which it is made.
It also provided a kind of reassurance, if you like, linking me back to all those who have gone before. It rekindled memories of being a small boy at my grandparents’ house, in the quiet gloom of their front room—the only sound the measured tick of the grandfather clock against the wall, like a heartbeat. Surely nothing untoward could occur in such a place?
I like to think that was why my father dismantled all his watches and clocks. In the disorder of his dementia I think perhaps he was seeking in vain for the beauty, the structure and order they suggested—looking for some reassurance withheld from him through the cruel reality of his failing brain.
Ian Hamilton is a man of many 'faces'. Unfortunately there isn't the page space to 'clock' through them all, but don't be 'alarmed', he can be contacted any 'time' at email@example.com.