A Grandfather Clock Master Reveals the Hidden History of Time

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Jeffery himself comes from a family of skilled craftsmen. One of his grandfathers was a master blacksmith; the other was a carpenter. His father was a military engineer with a background in physics. “It’s no coincidence,” says Jeffery. “I am here.”

In his more than four decades of work, Jeffery has repaired thousands of clocks, from the most common (grandfather clocks, cuckoo clocks) to the most complex or bizarre (ship clocks, urn clocks). His work is largely analog, relying on gears, weights and moving metal parts. In boxes of old timepieces given to him by people cleaning their homes, he found relics of bygone eras: the original Slinky, a clay pipe, a handful of Civil War bullets.

His work is part of an occasional National geographic series featuring individuals who have become “masters of their craft”: a watchmaker from Pennsylvania, a filigree jeweler from Colombia, a sailor trained in the ancient tradition of the Polynesian orientation. Wherever they are, with or without public recognition, they are not only specialist and scholarly experts, but often also repositories of culture and history, with insight into how we live.

Jeffery is a watchmaker: someone whose work involves the measurement of time. His workspace sits at the entrance to a maze of dusty back rooms filled with tools, machinery, and cabinets. On this late June afternoon, there were domed glass lids, dials marked with Roman numerals and large golden pendulums. Jeffery opened and closed dozens of small drawers, showing springs, nuts and screws, as well as hour and minute hands, thumb-sized wooden cuckoo clocks and metal gears of all kinds .

It is striking that most of a watchmaker’s work is concentrated on such small parts, in the service of something as big as keeping time. For a mechanical clock to work with any kind of precision, all of these little parts have to work together in perfect synchronicity. And the ubiquity of these precision timing devices has fundamentally revolutionized the way we work and live.

“Just look around you,” Jeffery says. Most of us have a clock on the stove, a clock on the microwave, a clock on the coffee maker. We keep clocks in our bedrooms, clocks on our wrists, clocks in our pockets. “Imagine a world where the average household only had one.”

Or none.

History of telling the time

Until relatively recently, time in the clockless world was not bounded by hours and minutes, but by natural events. When people were hungry, they ate; when people were tired, they slept. Especially in rural areas, animals – like the crowing rooster or the croaking frog – helped drive these processes forward, as did the sun and the stars, when the sky was clear. Some ancient clocks also reflected these natural rhythms: the sundials of ancient Rome and Greece, for example, and the water clocks of East Asia. But they were far from precise.

The ancient Egyptians were among the first to divide each day into 12 segments for daylight and 12 segments for darkness. This meant that the “hours” grew longer or shorter with the seasons. In European cities, especially in colder northern climates where the winter sun only shines for a few (often cloudy) hours a day, more creative rules have sometimes had to be established. In 14th-century Paris, for example, a tanner’s working day began when it was light enough to recognize a familiar face on the street and ended when it was too dark to distinguish two similar-looking pieces.

Although Europe was far behind China and the Islamic world in terms of scientific and technological innovation in the Middle Ages, it is not surprising that the first mechanical clocks were invented there in the 14th century, writes David Landes in his historical book on timing, Revolution in time. One of the main reasons for dividing the day into equal and fixed hours was religion, says Landes. For Western practices of Christianity, prayer took place in groups and at set times—time stamps that would be called the “canonical hours”—marked by the ringing of monastic bells.

In Europe, monastic bells increasingly regulated the daily activity of neighboring towns and villages. Much of our modern clock nomenclature is rooted in these religious times, such as “noon” (from Old English nōn, the ninth hour of sunrise) and “hour” (from Old French hore, a twelfth of a day). And if religion pushed the division of the day into regular hours, it was work and business that drove a need for the development and ubiquity of mechanical clocks – with ever greater precision and enormous implications for daily life.

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