Keeping Time

September 2000

My mother gave me my first watch when I went to Kenmore Junior High. Between classes, as I clung to the walls like a lab mouse, I continually scratched and scuffed the plastic crystal on the hall lockers. By the eighth grade, I couldn’t see the hands anymore. But every classroom had a big clock with hands that jerked two or three minutes at a time and bells rang to herd us to the next class. You really couldn’t escape time in junior high.

My next watch, about 10 years later, was a Christmas gift from my first father-in-law. It was a Mickey Mouse, and probably his way of easing me into responsibility. I wore it for a few months and told time aloud by saying, “Mickey’s little hand is on the…” I’m not sure if I was any more prompt, but I enjoyed the stir that Mickey created whenever I eased back my cuff.

One morning, the red vinyl band broke and I set the watch down on my dresser. My first father-in-law’s daughter said, “Oh, can I borrow that?” and lost it before she got to her first class. So I divorced her and refused to wear a watch for 25 years.

But when I took a new job two years ago, it required a lot of travel. After the first year, I grew weary of not having a clue about what time it was in airports, where the time is concealed so you won’t stew over how late your flight is.

Of course I went to Skaneateles Jewelry. It’s within walking distance and one of the employees is a black Labrador Retriever named Peanut. I have never enjoyed jewelry stores; they do not sell books, beer, Cheetos or liverwurst — the things that make life worth living — but Peanut’s presence compensates for this, and not just because he agrees that zesty meats would be a winning add-on to their current product offerings. (“No, I don’t want a diamond ring, but some German ring bologna would be grand.”)

For my life’s third watch, I wanted something simple, but fun. With a nod from Peanut, I chose a Swiss Army Cavalry Officer’s watch, with glowing hands & dots so you can share the time with your horse during nighttime alpine maneuvers. (“Yes, it is past midnight, Edelweiss, but this is war!”)

Another neat feature is a square date window that sits where the 3 ought to be. Of course, on the third of each month, the 3 is where it ought to be. But the rest of the month, the window shows the date alone, unless it’s exactly 15 minutes past the hour, in which case it’s covered by the minute hand and you have to wait for 16 minutes past or ask the officer on the next horse. There are also little red numbers 13 and up so you can call out the time in military fashion. (“It’s 1800 hours, Edelweiss. On to Bern and a warm stable!”)

Abbie sees my watch as one more step down into old age and conformity, but it comes in handy. I especially like it when it reassures me that I am not late, and hence will not be scolded.

Of course, mechanical time is artificial and my newly found confidence is based on a shared delusion. High noon, by the sun, wanders from place to place, season to season; our mechanical time is almost never in harmony with it. (The Romans stole their first sundials but didn’t know how to set them up correctly. It was said that Rome’s sundials gave as many different answers as did its politicians.)

The Asian cultures first used bells to begin worship and the early Christian church picked up on the tradition. In monasteries, where worship occurred early and often, there was a need for ever more reliable clocks to mark the hours of worship and for tolling bells to summon the worshipers.

Workers in neighboring fields and towns began to tell time by the bells, until (around 1325) secular rulers realized how much power the church was exercising over government and commerce, and decided to take charge of keeping time. At the same time, the invention of the mechanical clock, with its consequent improvement in accuracy, presented the authorities with new opportunities for regimentation and control.

The first public, mechanical clocks mimicked the sundial with a single hour hand pretending to be the shadow. (If clocks had been invented south of the Equator, they’d run in the opposite direction.) In 1577, the minute hand was added by a Swiss clock maker, Jost Burgi (who also invented logarithms thus ringing down the curtain on my understanding of mathematics in the 11th grade), and was incorporated into a clock Burgi made for astronomer Tycho Brahe who had a need for more accuracy as he charted the heavens.

Clocks became increasingly more accurate, but every town still had its own time, set by the sun at noon. Not a problem until the pace of travel quickened and British mail coach drivers, who set their watches in London, found themselves farther and farther out of synch with local time as they rode farther and farther west.

The speed of travel by rail made the situation even more difficult. Some railroad station clocks were given two minute-hands — one to show local time and one the time in London. By 1848, however, most British railways were operating on the time set by the Royal Observatory at Greenwich — Greenwich Mean Time/GMT. In 1852, the Astronomer Royal began transmitting the time to electric clocks in railway stations and government offices, and the whole country became one time zone.

In the sprawling U.S., the problem was more dramatic. Circa 1850, there were approximately 80 different railway timetables in use, all based on local times of the railroads’ headquarters. You could arrive early for a connecting train, find that it was leaving late, but already you’d missed it. (Not unlike flying into Philadelphia today.)

In 1869, four time zones for rail travel were proposed by a railroad man named George Dowd; civic pride delayed acceptance in many towns, but in 1883, the railroads of the U.S. and Canada instituted Standard Time. And for most people, time was now accepted as something man-made, mathematical and uniform.

But there were foot-draggers. The city of Detroit refused to abide by Central Standard Time until 1905. The U.S. government didn’t legalize the new time zones until 1918. In 1944, a very peeved George Woodcock authored “The Tyranny of the Clock,” an anarchist rejection of mechanical time, noting, “The clock turns time from a process of nature into a commodity that can be measured and bought and sold like soap or sultanas.” And on the world stage, Liberia held out against GMT until 1972.

If you want to know what time it is in Skaneateles, I can glance at my wrist and tell you with confidence. Generally, it’s time for a walk, a nap, a beer or a movie.

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