Not Just for Telling Time

`CLOCKS," said some sage whose name seems mislaid somehow in the sands of time, "should be put in their place: a drawer."

I know what he meant. Why are we so keen to display clocks on every available wall, to perch them on every shelf, to sport them, in watch form, on our wrists? We don't hang rulers on the living-room wall or place them with elegant design-consciousness on our mantel pieces. Or tape measures. When we need to measure something, we fetch such tools from wherever they are kept - or were last dropped. We use them and then put them away.

But clocks we make much more of. We insist on them being prominent, unmistakable features of homes, offices, and public places. The only place clocks are kept hidden away are in stores. That is because these emporia do not want their customers to realize how much time they are spending therein along with their money.

I've just counted the number of clocks in our not over-large house. We have a dozen. And that's not counting watches, or timers that switch numerous lights on and off, or the digital clocks on the CD player, on the video, on the microwave, and in the car. And just in case we should ever forget the time, we can always switch on the TV, where newscasters are ready every hour on the hour to tell us which hour they're on. We can also phone what used to be named the "Speaking Clock" and is now, as sponsored b y a manufacturer of timepieces, known as the "Accurist Timeline."

Should I suspect that we are obsessed with time? Or just with clocks?

I'm not certain. It does appear to be true, though, that clocks per se are not necessarily a sign of the importance we give to time. There are people who take an idiosyncratic delight in keeping their clocks wrong. Too slow. Or too fast. Or just plain keeping them when they don't work at all. To certain poets, clocks have been noticed because they don't tell the time. That's true, anyway, of Rupert Brooke's poem of longing, "The Old Vicarage, Grantchester." In it he asks, with a memorable emphasis on the

appeal of time stopped: "Stands the church clock at ten to three?/ And is there honey still for tea?"

Playwright Eugene O'Neill wrote: "Age and time are but timidities of thought." And Tagore made this deep observation: "Time is a wealth of change, but the clock in its parody makes it mere change and no wealth."

There are, however, other opinions on the matter. The author of a new book about clocks, Philip Collins, suggests that "most people actually don't have the time to think much about time." But his amusing book immediately contradicts any notion that clocks are nothing more than useful instruments of order in people's lives. Instead he presents "a collection of clocks ... reflecting the fads, cultural icons, and technology aimed at clock enthusiasts of previous generations."

His book spans the decades from 1879 to 1969 with a procession of collectible clocks. The general impression is that manufacturers have inventively recognized that most people do not want a clock to be a mere clock; they want it to be funny, funky, silly, sentimental, kitschy, beautiful, fashionable, fascinating, original, old-looking, prestigious, thought-provoking, or even instructive, over and above its obvious function. They feel instinctively, it seems, that time telling alone is not what a clock sh ould be for. If we have to have clocks, they seem to believe, let's at least make sure they aren't boring.

Many of the clocks featured in this book are "novelties." Some are definitely for children. There are cheap little plastic clocks for the kitchen, expensive jobs involving marble or burnished silver for visitors to notice in the main room, bedside inventions that "awake you gently with music." Oddly enough, there isn't a cuckoo clock in sight.

Actually, of course, in spite of several sleek designs once of cutting-edge modernity and now epitomes of "periods," of the '30s or '50s, the '20s or '40s, it is to the absurdities and fantasies the bemused reader is drawn.

Who can resist the early-bird clock with a bird that pulls on a reluctant worm 60 times a minute? (I can.) Or the goldfish-bowl clock? Or the God Bless America Clock with its revolving stars and stripes? Or the clock displaying a ship on the ocean and a changing background light from sunrise to sunset?

On top of these are such astonishments as a clock showing Bugs Bunny chewing on a carrot every other second, a showboat with a revolving paddlewheel, a clock set into a pretend tennis racket as if it were the ball, and an "Airliner" clock in gleaming aluminum, with tri-blade turning propellers and chrome landing gear.

One children's clock that borders on brilliance of conception, if not design, is a British clock from the 1940s. The hours are marked by milestones ("1 mile," "2 miles"). The minute hand is a hare and the hour hand is a tortoise. The inscription on the face explains:

The Tortoise creeps round once, how slow!

Twelve times as fast the Hare will go,

But watch the Tortoise, watch the Hare,

At twelve o'clock you'll find them - where?

Presumably a number of British children learned to tell the time on this clock, and some may still subliminally think of the minute hand as hare-shaped.

One delight to be encountered in thumbing through the array of clocks in this little but picture-packed book is the number of different kinds of materials used to make clocks. Catalin plastic and walnut Bakelite are my special favorites. I wish plastic today hadn't abandoned the quality and subtle color of such early kinds of this adaptable material. But there are also painted-metal, chrome, and copper cases. Brass or brass-plated trims were popular; pink urea plastic, mirrored glass, pot-metal show up i n a variety of clocks. Neon to light up clocks was used with considerable imagination, no matter that this meant a wind-up clock also had to be plugged into the wall.

So-called mystery clocks were, Mr. Collins tells us, produced during the '50s in an enormous range of designs. The most popular, he claims, was "the Golden House Mystery Clock," illustrated in the book. The puzzle it poses is (as Mr. Collins puts it): "How are the hour and minute hands activated when they appear suspended in thin air?"

To find the answer buy (or borrow) this amusing book and turn to Page 82. It won't take up much of your precious time.

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