Time­keep­ing in­stru­ments be­fore elec­tronic gad­gets

The Weekly Vista - - Opinion -

I sup­pose that for so long as there have been hu­man be­ings, we have been de­vis­ing ways of keep­ing track of time. Th­ese days we seem to have gone far to­ward re­ly­ing on elec­tronic in­stru­ments to tell us the time. I like to re­mem­ber that for long thou­sands of years peo­ple kept track of time with­out their elec­tronic gad­gets. As the his­tory of hu­man­ity goes, elec­tron­ics is a very new thing, hardly a hun­dred years out of the thou­sands and thou­sands of years that passed be­fore the ap­pear­ance of elec­tronic in­stru­ments like ra­dios, and be­fore the wide­spread avail­abil­ity of elec­tric­ity. Time­keep­ing is a very old thing; and to me there is fas­ci­na­tion in think­ing of ways peo­ple have counted time in the years gone by.

My own life be­gan be­fore the avail­abil­ity of elec­tric­ity in our ru­ral ar­eas. Un­til I was 5 years old, we didn’t have elec­tric lights, or elec­tric ap­pli­ances, or any­thing elec­tric, un­less you counted our bat­tery-pow­ered ra­dio. Our old ra­dio was our first elec­tronic unit, if you al­low that the old-fash­ioned vacuum tubes were elec­tronic. That was well be­fore the tran­sis­tor age which made pos­si­ble to­day’s minia­tur­iza­tion and so­phis­ti­ca­tion of elec­tronic units. Our clocks were all wind-up clocks, coil­spring pow­ered, ex­cept for the great grand­fa­ther clocks which some fam­i­lies had in their homes. The grand­fa­ther clocks were usu­ally pow­ered by weights on chains. Nearly all the time pieces that we were fa­mil­iar with back then were of the tick-tock va­ri­ety, and the tick­ing and tock­ing sounds came from the work­ing of the mech­a­nism which made the clock a clock.

As they ticked and tocked, the tick­ing-tock­ing mech­a­nism was con­trol­ling and reg­u­lat­ing the gears of the clock, mea­sur­ing out the time and dis­play­ing the time on a dial face with “hands” which served as point­ers to the hour and minute. Some of our old clocks were very or­nate, with finely crafted cab­i­nets and pre­cisely en­gi­neered gear work. Many of the large clocks, both the great grand­fa­ther clocks and some of the large wall clocks, had a swing­ing pen­du­lum which by its swing­ing move­ments con­trolled the rate of tick­ing and tock­ing, and main­tained the accuracy of the clock’s time­keep­ing, all the while pro­vid­ing an in­ter­est­ing visual ef­fect.

I’m try­ing to imag­ine the time be­fore time­pieces of any sort, when hu­man be­ings would be think­ing about the pass­ing of time and mea­sur­ing time by

cer­tain means. I would sup­pose that as hu­man be­ings ac­quired strong con­scious ra­tio­nal­ity and mem­ory, they would be­gin notic­ing cer­tain reg­u­lar­i­ties about the world they were liv­ing in, events with no­tice­ably sim­i­lar time frames. One of the most ob­vi­ous would be the al­ter­na­tion of day and night, a time of light and a time of dark­ness, a reg­u­lar pat­tern which con­tin­u­ously re-oc­curred. An­other no­tice­able oc­cur­rence would be the reg­u­lar pass­ing of sea­sons, a sea­son of green­ing and growth, a sea­son of heat, a mod­er­at­ing sea­son when grains ma­tured, and the colder sea­son of win­ter when much of the green growth dis­ap­pears for a time, only to re­turn as the cy­cle starts over again. Some ob­servers of the sky would notice that the sun takes dif­fer­ent paths across the sky dur­ing cer­tain sea­sons. Then some as­tute ob­server would notice that as the sun passes over­head,

the shad­ows move and change in pre­dictable and timed ways.

I’m sup­pos­ing that the tim­ing of pe­ri­ods of the day by mea­sur­ing the shad­ows cast by the sun would have been the be­gin­ning of rather pre­cise mea­sure­ments of time in hours and min­utes. Sun­di­als, in var­i­ous forms, are right fas­ci­nat­ing to me. To­day, of course, sun­di­als are treated more as in­ter­est­ing art forms or sculp­tures than as func­tion­ing time­keep­ers, but they are fas­ci­nat­ing none­the­less. Then, an­other fas­ci­nat­ing in­ven­tion from way back would be the hour­glass. An hour­glass in­volves run­ning fine­grained sand through a very small open­ing in a glass tube so that the sand drains from the top to the bot­tom of the hour­glass in a cer­tain amount of time. I would sup­pose that you could also form a crude time­keeper by fix­ing a con­tainer of wa­ter with a small hole so that the wa­ter drips slowly, emp­ty­ing the con­tainer while “mea­sur­ing” a pe­riod of time.

My first watch, about the time I was 10 years old, was a pocket watch, an Ingraham-Bilt­more. It sold for $1. It was a rather cheap watch, and I had to re­set its time ev­ery few days by lis­ten­ing to the time on the ra­dio, but I was proud to have it. Back then, men’s clothes of­ten were fash­ioned to ac­com­mo­date a pocket watch. The bib of farmer’s blue over­alls or car­pen­ters’ and train­men’s striped over­alls were de­signed to hold a pocket watch at­tached to a chain or cord. Denim blue jeans usu­ally had a watch pocket in con­junc­tion with the right-hand front pocket. I notice that even though men to­day rarely carry pocket watches, sev­eral pairs of my pants still fea­ture a pouch for a pocket watch inside the right front pant pocket. A fine pocket watch was once a prized and trea­sured pos­ses­sion.

Ed­i­tor’s note: Jerry Ni­chols, a na­tive of Pea Ridge, is an award-win­ning colum­nist, a re­tired Methodist min­is­ter with a pas­sion for his­tory. He is vice pres­i­dent of the Pea Ridge His­tor­i­cal So­ci­ety. The opin­ions ex­pressed are those of the au­thor. He can be con­tacted by e-mail at joe369@cen­tu­ry­tel.net, or call 621-1621.

JERRY NI­CHOLS

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