Sunday, July 10, 2011

Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?

In 1826 Eli Terry installed a $200 clock in the town hall of New Haven, Connecticut.   All went well until townspeople noticed that the Terry clock was falling further and further behind the nearby Yale College clock.  At first the Terry clock lagged, gradually losing some 15 minutes.  Then it began to gain, eventually racing ahead of the Yale clock by 15 minutes before, over the course of weeks, gradually falling behind again. 

Broken?   Not likely.  Terry was arguably the most distinguished clockmaker in America and among the earliest practitioners of uniform, interchangeable parts.  Meanwhile, Yale’s clock had been designed by the talented Simeon Jocelyn, another favored son of Connecticut, and had been telling seemingly reliable time for years.

The difference—and it’s one we rarely consider today—is that Terry’s clock offered mean time—solid, consistent hours that reflected an average of the sun’s daily variation—while Jocelyn’s clock followed the sun itself.  As Michael O’Malley writes in his book, Keeping Watch: A History of American Time, the question among the puzzled New Haven community was not “what time is it,” but “what is time?”

Today, of course, we universally employ Terry’s “mean time” and say things like “the sun is lower in the sky at noontime than it was last month.”  But Jocelyn’s clock was tracking what observers, for very good reasons, called apparent time:  It squared perfectly with the sun.  In other words, whenever the sun was highest in the sky it was noontime, just as a sundial showed and as Jocelyn’s clock indicated.  As the sun rose or fell throughout the year, Jocelyn’s clock ingeniously followed it.

Since clocks were relatively rare in 1826, this was the first time many folks had thought much about the problem.  What all good citizens knew, however, was that God created time in Genesis, and it was His gift to the human race.   Tinkering with a strange concept like mean time was an artifice created by Eli Terry and the new world of mechanization.

We don’t dwell much on the cosmic significance of our watches today.  We take for granted that the Industrial Revolution, like Robin Hood, simply robbed the concept of apparent time from the farm, the sun dial, Genesis, and God and gave it to the factory whistle, the railroad, Frederick Winslow Taylor and David Allen.  We know today what true time is, and contrary to the crazy beliefs of our ancestors, it’s certainly not apparent time.  

As O’Malley writes, “clocks were first invented to tell time, to give a more reliable indication, on cloudy days or at night, of the passage of a quantity belonging to God. . .But in the act of telling time the clock tended to become the thing it represented—clocks became not imitations or transcripts of time, but time itself.”

Last month, the New York Times Metronome, a 62-foot-wide digital clock at One Union Square South, was finally fixed after telling the wrong time for most of a year.   Unlike Terry’s clock, reporter Matt Flegenheimer noted in a funny column, the Metronome was truly erratic, sometimes being 40 minutes slow and other times over seven hours fast.  Last New Year’s Eve, revelers counted-down time oblivious to the fact that they were off by 40 minutes.

Here, then, is one important way the Industrial Revolution has changed us.  When the Terry and Jocelyn clocks differed, a spirited public debate arose about how God wanted mankind to behave in his Kingdom.  People had the audacity to wonder how a clock could differ from the sun.

When New York City’s digital Metronome went wonky this last year, passersby simply decided it meant whatever happened to be on their minds—a sort of Rorschach test.  One believed it represented the acres of rain forest destroyed annually.  Another, daily carbon emissions.  Another the national debt.  Still others, a countdown to the end of the world.  One believed it was the number for pi (but could not explain why it kept changing).  Some believed the Metronome’s shenanigans coincided with happenings on the TV show Lost.  “They thought it was a secret code to keep the plane from crashing. . . .”

In 1826, when time went askew, God had a place at the table.  Today when time goes askew, it’s about a fictitious island on TV.

And we laugh at the myths of our quaint old ancestors.