Time out

Mudge clock

Time is running out on my two-month sojourn in the UK. The weeks have flown by, and between traveling around and visiting with friends old and new, my days have been very full indeed.

the ball clock

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.

zero to sixty

Bizarre as our culture’s obsession with measuring time may be, there’s no denying that timepieces can be beautiful things.

kitschy cow clock

Though some, of course, are merely kitschy,

skull and dog watches

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,

clock and its entrails

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.

clock gears

I couldn’t help wondering whether there had been any technological transfer between early clocks and Renaissance instruments of torture.

watch case

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.

clock in motion

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.

wheels within wheel

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.

and let thy feet

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.

14 Replies to “Time out”

  1. Dave, Looking back, I think that in childhood, those summer hours ARE as long as the rest of the year, as measured in mosquito bites, days at the beach, and sticky substances on the palms of the hands and bare feet. Endless nights of stars and fireflies too.

  2. Did you encounter an example of a “brave clock that went with bullets” that Pepys mentioned on July 28? If so, did you take a picture?

  3. This was such a lovely day, and the clocks so compelling – as your photos have captured.Take care, Dave, bon voyage and don’t stay offline too long.

    1. Thanks, Jean! It was great to be able to visit museums in the company of two people whose slow pace and lengthy attention spans match my own. I hope we get to do much more of it in years to come.

  4. Wonderful post & photos. Easy to see why clocks remain such abiding metaphors.
    My husband has his grandmother’s wall clock, and for 30 years we have the tick-tock AND the “bong” (Westminster chimes, in this case). I ought to ask my now-adult children if the everpresent clock noise had any effect on them.
    Ah, jet lag…best of luck with that!

    1. Fortunately jet lag is not nearly as bad going in this direction. But I do feel urges to sleep at odd hours. And I must say I’m happy to be back at this latitude, with the sun behaving the way I’m used to for this time of year.

      1. Speaking of suns behaving badly, you ever do the southern hemisphere? It’s worth it for the stars, but that sun thing is just confusing.

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