Time flies when you’re having fun…
Winter Wind Down
In December, I attended the ‘Winter Wind Down’ tour at the British Horological Institute (BHI) Museum, led by the Museum Manager Eleanor Baumber. There was a festive feel, with a chill in the air and the house decorated for Christmas, as we had a tour of the ground floor. Many of the clocks have to be wound regularly, as periodically they lose or gain time. During the build up to the start of the tour, and then the first 10 minutes, the chorus of various clocks chiming on “their” hour entertained us.
The BHI was originally located in London and began collecting clocks, watches, photos and timepieces in 1858. The collection was moved to its current location Upton Hall, a Grade 2 Listed building, in 1971.
The first clock we were introduced to was a fascinatingly designed clock where the seconds were measured by a ball bearing on a zig-zag track. One attendee of the tour had a personal connection to this clock, as he remembered his father constructing a clock of the same design when he was a child. I find it fascinating the memories exhibition objects can evoke and connections and conversations that develop, not just for individuals but also groups, as we all became engrossed in this gentleman’s story.
Located in the Grand Hall is one of the oldest clocks in the Museum collection, dating back to the mid-1650s. It is described as a Lantern Clock, as it would have originally hung on a wall. Adaptations have been made to this clock, with a wall bracket attachment and pendulum fitted later. This design of clock wasn’t known for accuracy, requiring winding three times a day and only having one hand to record hours. Eleanor explained the difficulty of finding genuine early timepieces, as so many of them were forged.
The pocket watch belonging to Captain Scott, which was used on his fateful trip to the Antarctic, is on display in the Watch Gallery. The cabin wall, of which a photo is on display featuring Scott and his pocket watch, has been recreated. The pocket watch was a vital piece of equipment, recording the length of time the group were outside, how long they slept and how long their fuel was burned for cooking and warmth, to ensure they didn’t waste resources or risk frost bite.
Certain clocks in long cases required winding every 8 days, with many households undertaking this task at the same time each week, traditionally on a Sunday. The weight would be wound to the top, and the act of gravity pulled the weight down to operate the clock mechanism, regulated by the pendulum swinging each second. On a Thursday, half way through the clocks running cycle, the weight would almost be the same level as the pendulum. At this moment the clock could become unstable, resulting in the pendulum and weight swinging together and swaying the whole case, or they could clash causing the clock to lose time or even stop. The perils of this clock design became known as “Thursday Syndrome”. This phrase and the potential loss of time caused by this clock reminded me of Arthur Dent in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, “it must be Thursday, I could never get the hang of Thursdays”.
The Speaking Clock was revolutionary when it was first used in 1936, operated by the General Post Office (GPO). Initially only one was produced, but following the outbreak of war in 1939, a second was produced and located in Liverpool. The reason for its creation as a chargeable service was due to the number of calls telephone operators were receiving requesting the exact time, taking resources and time away from their roles, for which the company wasn’t receiving any revenue for. In the early nineteenth century, Mail Coachmen were regularly asked for the time from London whilst delivering the post, a request that continued when the GPO took over the telephone exchange resulting in the Speaking Clock.
A competition was run to find the voice of the Speaking Clock, which was won by London Telephonist, Ethel Jane Cain. Her voice was recorded onto glass discs, similar to that of the dialogue and soundtracks attached to moving pictures at the time. When it was discovered that Ethel had a lisp, Chief Laboratory Technician Eugene Wender spent a year removing the specific frequency from the glass discs, eliminating the lisp from the announcement. There are three Speaking Clocks on site at the BHI Museum, with the fourth one still currently in use in London. Even in this day and age, where most people wear watches or have a smartphone, the Speaking Clock still receives on average 12 million calls a year (13 million calls were received during its first year of operation).
The Grand Hall
The final piece we were introduced to in the Grand Hall was a clock designed and constructed by the members of the BHI. Its futuristic, space age design with glass dome, metal structure and three pendulums, allows for the internal mechanisms to be visible and for the clock to tell the time from all over the world. The inclusion of three pendulums compensates for any vibrations or movement that may alter a pendulums swing. If this happens, the other two bring it back into alignment, keeping the clock ticking, with no loss of time.
This tour not only gave me an insight into the world of clocks and timepieces, it has also given me the impetus to research a Grandmother clock that I inherited. My mission is to discover the manufacturer, year of production and how long it has been in the family. Hopefully the BHI can point me in the right direction and uncover some interesting facts about this piece.
The next event at the BHI is their ‘Spring Forward’ Museum Open Day on Saturday 26th March, 10.00am-4.00pm.
Entry costs: £5.
For more information: http://bhi.co.uk/events/open-days/
By Anne-Marie Rooney, Resilience Syndicate Intern