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The Museum of Time
Bob Brooke


Time is an elusive thing. It comes and goes incessantly, perhaps that’s why man invented clocks and watches—to control it. From the earliest sun dials to today’s digital timepieces, man has strived to keep track of time. But for all the timepieces in the world, time still slips away.

The National Watch and Clock Museum in the sleepy town of Columbia, Pennsylvania, preserves timepieces that have existed through time. Officially opened in 1977 with less than 1,000 items, its collection has grown to over 12,000. Here, you’ll find the largest and most comprehensive horological collection in North America, including a large collection of 19th-century American clocks and watches. But the museum also displays an array of early English tallcase clocks, Asian timepieces, and timekeeping devices from Germany, France, the Netherlands, and Russia. Its exhibits take you on a chronological tour through the entire history of timekeeping.

Your journey through time begins as you walk through a narrow gallery filled with examples of the best timekeeping devices in history. At the end of the passageway stands a sun dial, one of the first.

Beyond in an assortment of galleries, you’ll find everything from the basic technologies of the mechanical timekeeper, such as the pendulum, and a large and varied exhibit on many types of clock escapement to fine examples of American-made tall case clocks, commonly known as “grandfather clocks."

The museum has devoted several galleries to a comprehensive exhibit on American watches. Here, you’ll learn about the machinery used in watch manufacturing. Other highlights include an exhibit of the pioneering automated machinery developed by the American Waltham Watch Company, allowing for the first time to mass-produce watches using interchangeable parts, plus a large selection of American pocket watches.

Early Mechanical Timepieces
The first gallery after the sundials shows a diorama of an 18th-century clockmaker’s work area. The standard clock produced in the colonies during the 18th century was a brass-movement tallcase clock. It took a seven-year apprenticeship to learn all the skills necessary to make these clocks. The clockmaker back then was a one-man operation. He did everything.

As clockmakers became more numerous and specialized skills more diverse, clocks were more and more frequently the product of collective labor. A brass and lead founder cast parts of the movement, pendulum, and the weights. A bell founder cast the resonant tone into the metal. A brazier made the sheet metal of the dial. A die maker cut the screws; a spring maker produced the springs that allowed the lever in the movement to perform; and a blacksmith made iron fasteners like nails and pins.

Even the most self-sufficient clockmakers rarely did their own casework as cabinetmaking was a separate craft. Cabinetmakers constructed cases in size, fashion, and ornamentation to suit the buyer and his pocketbook. You’ll admire all the beautiful clock cases along the walls.

The Beginnings of the American Clockmaking Industry
The industry received a much-needed boost with the introduction in 1839 of an inexpensive brass movement shelf clock by Chauncey Jerome of Bristol, Connecticut. The next couple of galleries display a dazzling assortment of 19th-century shelf and wall clocks. Here you’ll a collection of imported cuckoo clocks, some bigger than you ever imagined, with relief carvings of rabbits and squirrels and such. The so-called “Hunter” clocks are the most elaborate.

On a far wall is a display of hauntingly beautiful Morbier clocks. These unique clocks—also called “Wag-on-the-Wall” clocks had large, ornate brass, paddle-like pendulums and could be hung on the wall without a case. Cases for them were usually made by coffin makers, thus the name Morbier, which means death in French.

It wasn’t until the development of less expensive coiled springs in the 1860s that spring clocks became popular. These clocks could be made much smaller since long cases for weights weren’t necessary.

By the end of the Civil War, many clock companies went out of business, leaving seven major ones--- Ansonia Clock Company, New haven Clock Company, Seth Thomas Clock Company, the Waterbury Clock Company, the William L. Gilbert Clock Company, and the E.N. Welch Manufacturing Company. Examples of clocks from all of these companies are on display.

You’ll also see elaborate frame clocks and clocks with reversed painted doors. One of the most popular clocks in the early 19th century was the banjo clock.

The Creation of Standard Time
Nothing in timepiece history is more significant than the creation of Standard Time. In 1830, only 23 miles of railroad track existed the entire United States. Fifty years later there were over 100,000. When the railroads stretched west, a serious problem arose. Towns across the country set their clocks by Noon local time. But each town experienced Noon at a different time. Something had to be done to coordinate the railroad timetables. The solution was to create time zones across the U.S. An exhibit shows you exactly how that was accomplished.

A Look at American Watchmaking
Although a few colonists brought watchmaking skills, tools, and materials from Europe as early as the late 17th century, most of them sold and repaired imported watches rather than make new ones. The American watchmaking industry began with Thomas Harland of Norwich, Connecticut, who made the first American watch in the 1770s..

But it wasn’t until Aaron L. Dennison and Edward Howard successfully produced watches by machine in the 1840s that the industry got fully underway. With Howard's support, Dennison began developing the necessary machinery in 1849, and only a few years later was having success with a 36-hour watch. Their firm, the Boston Watch Company, eventually became the Waltham Watch Company. Exhibits and dioramas show how automation transformed the watch industry.

One of the most fascinating exhibits is a reproduction of a Victorian clock and watch shop, complete with counter displays and a fully equipped watch bench, which hasn’t change much today. Beautifully crafted pocket watches line the display cases. And display advertisements for Waltham and Waterbury Watches sit atop the counters. High above is a display of fancy Victorian kitchen clocks.

The Marine Chronometers Gallery
John Harrison discovered a practical method of finding longitude with his prizewinning chronometer in 1759, but his complex and delicate design couldn’t be reproduced cheaply enough to make it practical.
Armold and Earnshaw were the first to show that quality sea clocks could be produced in quantity, and by the end of the 18th century, standard movements were being produced by cottage industry methods in England. Eventually, England became the world leader in marine chronometers. A small display of 18th and 19th-century chronometers shows the fine craftsmanship that went into making them.

Clocks in Motion
During the 19th century, as more and more people began to travel by carriage, they needed timepieces that could travel with them. One such timepiece was the carriage clock, whose remarkably shockproof movement was perfected by the French watchmaker Abraham Louis Brequet in the late 18th century.
Superb examples show just how luxurious they could be.

Clocks as Entertainment
Although the primary purpose of clocks is to tell time, it isn’t necessarily the only purpose. Many clocks have been designed to dazzle, entertain, and advertise products and services. The fronts of the doors of wall clocks were a space that filled a need. It allowed businesses to display an ad that could be viewed by many people. Most of the clocks on display would have hung in shops, restaurants, banks, and other businesses where many people could see them.

Watches could also be used for entertainment. It wasn’t until the mid-20th century that character watches became popular. With the advent of television, watches featuring characters from popular T.V. shows appeared in stores. Watch displays featuring Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, Hopalong Cassidy—all western T.V. heroes—are as fascinating as the watches, themselves.

The Eighth Wonder of the World
The Engle Clock, a monumental clock made over two decades by Stephen D. Engle of Hazelton, Pennsylvania, is by far the museum’s premier exhibit. The purpose of this large, complicated, and painstakingly handcrafted clock wasn’t so much to tell time as it was to awe and entertain. Between 1875 and 1900, more than two dozen such creations toured the United States and Europe, amusing and amazing crowds. Philadelphia entrepreneurs Captain and Mrs. Jacob Reid called Engle's clock "The Eighth Wonder of the World." They exhibited the clock throughout the Eastern U.S., charging 25- and 15-cent admissions for adults and children, respectively.

This towering mechanical clock toured over 70 years until it disappeared after a 1951 showing at the Ohio State Fair. Members of the National Association of Watch and Clock Collectors spent years searching for it and after tracking it down were able to acquire it in 1988. Museum staff and volunteers spent hours and hours restoring it to its original working condition.

The clock's eclectic gathering of moving figures include Jesus Christ, the twelve Apostles, the three Marys, Satan, Father Time, the three Ages of Man, Death, Justice, Orpheus, and Linus. A depiction of Continental soldiers marching past Molly Pitcher on their way to the Battle of Monmouth adds a distinctly American dimension to the clock. A figure of Stephen Engle himself functions as an animated signature of the clock's maker. You can watch this amazing clock in action during designated “show” times throughout the day.

The museum is quite large, so allow at least two to three hours to fully take in all it has to offer.

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