This past weekend, Rachel, our friend Jean Morris and I visited the British Museum, and were especially taken by the displays of clocks and watches.
Bizarre as our culture’s obsession with measuring time may be, there’s no denying that timepieces can be beautiful things.
Though some, of course, are merely kitschy,
and some, like this watch in the shape of a skull, are down-right frightening. Though I suppose there’s something to be said for having one’s timepiece function as a memento mori. (Does the dog watch measure time in dog-years, I wonder?)
As Rachel pointed out, the aesthetic contrast between the intricate workings of a clock and the often quite crude-looking pendulums can be very pleasing,
to say nothing of the contrast between the polished, implacable exteriors of the clocks and their busy entrails, exposed for the exhibit as they usually wouldn’t have been when they were in use.
I couldn’t help wondering whether there had been any technological transfer between early clocks and Renaissance instruments of torture.
Somewhere I read that people in the Middle Ages, before clocks came along, didn’t think of hours as uniform, interchangeable units. Because they divided daylight into the same number of hours regardless of the time of year, day-time hours were considerably longer in the summer than in the winter. The wee hours before dawn were wee indeed!
When I was a kid, an hour seemed like a vast stretch of time. And in my youthful imagination, the wheel of the year was shaped like an oval, with the three months that we had off school for summer vacation equivalent in length to the whole rest of the year—wishful thinking, I guess.
We only had one old-fashioned clock with a pendulum in the house and my dad removed the part that made it go bong, so for me, time is something that merely ticks. It helps that my mental clock has always been pretty accurate, to the extent that I can reliably wake myself up five or ten minutes before an alarm goes off.
But that also means that I find jet-lag especially disorienting. So it will probably be at least another week before I get caught up with Pepys again, not to mention all the other online commitments that I’ve let slide this summer.
For some reason, even composing simple blog posts like this one takes much longer than it used to—perhaps an indication that my mental gears just don’t turn as quickly as they once did. As with the earliest clocks, I seem to be perpetually losing time.