Saturday, February 26, 2011

Question of the Day: Why Do Clocks Run Clockwise?

We have the Italians to thank for the invention of the mechanical clock in the 13th century which followed the use of other contraptions for time telling. Candle clocks for instance, were sticks of incense that burned at a fairly consistent rate of speed providing a rudimentary style of telling time. Egyptians calculated time with water clocks. A stone vessel filled with water dripped drop by drop into one of twelve columns with calibrations correlating to the hours. How complicated. "Junior, you need to be home at 4 hash marks on column three. Got it?" How would Junior tote around a stone vessel filled with water not to mention the 12 columns?

Another method of time telling was the gnomon. This is the gizmo inside St. Sulpice of DaVinci Code fame. Sunlight entered through the tiny hole in the window and measured the hour of the day along the brass line in the floor reaching to the obelisk. Using this method would give new meaning to the phrase watching the clock.

I love this one. It's the first public clock in France dating from 1370. Most of the original public mechanical clocks in Europe were in towers in or near the church as the greatest need for knowing the time had to do with attending services and moveable feasts.

So that gets us to the question. Why clockwise? Especially when we run track counter-clockwise. Don't tell those horses at Churchill Downs to run the other direction. Mass hysteria will ensue. The earth's rotation on its axis allows for the shadows from the sun to move across a sun dial in a clockwise fashion. The hands of a clock were made to mimic that movement.

That reminds me of a clock story. Of course it does. This is my grandmother's cuckoo clock that she won in a raffle during the depression. First, I can't imagine my frugal grandmother spending money on a raffle ticket unless it was for some church activity and then I can't imagine that either because playing a game of chance at the Dutch Reformed Church just doesn't gee-haw with what I know about them. Anyway, my siblings and I always loved the soothing sound of the swinging pendulum at Gramma's house. And then just like clockwork, the little bird would hop out and bring great joy and laughter to all who heard his happy arrival. Here I am! Gramma would let us under strict supervision pull the pine cone weighted chains that reset the weight driven mechanism. Every night she caught the pendulum and put it to rest so that we and the little bird could sleep soundly.

My mother carefully boxed up this treasure and took it home with her when she closed up my grandparents' home. That poor little bird was caged up in the clock in a box in the basement for years. We'd beg Mom to get that clock out where another generation could enjoy the happy announcement of the passing of time. All to no avail. Gramma's cuckoo clock became a fixation for us. Who would end up the proud owner of what was really one of the few cherished heirlooms? (After all, I did get the plastic hot dog shaped condiment dispenser.) We asked if we could draw straws for the clock. Could we put names in a hat? How about guessing a number between one and 4 million? Can someone just have the clock and enjoy it? Pa-lease?

And then a few years ago one of my sisters and I got to talking with my dad about the clock. He said, "You know, I think _________ has that clock." What? We nearly jumped off the deck in distress that the clock had been passed on without some sort of family meeting. (Family meetings give new meaning to the term "nuclear family." That's why we never had any.) My sister and I couldn't believe that we'd been left in the dust. Just like the clock, we were pretty wound up. But after a night's rest we both calmed down and more or less let it go. Then lo and behold, Sister found the clock box downstairs. Step by step we toted that thing up the stairs, our feet and the box heavy with the guilt of our crummy attitudes. By the time we reached the top of the stairs the strangest thing happened to me. I didn't want the clock any more. It wasn't a sour grapes kind of thing. I just didn't want and need the clock like I thought I had all those years. It now hangs proudly in Sister's living room. I'm really glad she has it. And I'm shaking my head that the heirloom item for us is a cuckoo. How appropriate.

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