Magazine article The Spectator

Finding Time

Magazine article The Spectator

Finding Time

Article excerpt

One of the greatest clockmakers of all time was the Englishman Thomas Tompion (1639-1713), whose ravishing Mostyn clock can be seen in the British Museum. One of his pieces is starring in a selling exhibition of the golden age of English clock-making at Rafferty & Walwyn in Kensington. The ebony striking bracket clock with an eight-day movement, along with clocks by John Knibb, William Beyer and others, will be a magnet to passionate clock collectors. It caught my attention because, though I like clocks, I have a strange relationship with time. I'm generally late for everything.

My husband says that the less time there is before we have to go out, the more activities I'll try to fit into it. If we're to leave home in ten minutes, I'll embark on a couple of lengthy phone calls, but if there's only five minutes to go I'll make a couple of calls, clean the oven and prune the roses.

My internal time is more attuned to the clocks in Salvador Dali's works than to these precision instruments by old masters.

Why do these clocks provoke such passion? It's not as if we need them to tell the time. LED screens blink from every electronic device, silently scrolling through their soulless measures. People have little use for watches or clocks because they've got mobiles, computers and PDAs.

So what is it? In terms of technological innovation, these early pieces were as astonishing as the iPhone unveiled by Steve Jobs at Apple a few weeks ago, but unlike the iPhone they were made for the use of only a handful of people, and decorated to suit a few interiors sumptuous beyond imagining. A better equivalent would be an iPhone featuring two integral Mars probes, moulded in platinum, set with the Cullinan diamond with a face by Lucian Freud.

Conceptually and mechanistically, it appears that the astrolabe was the antecedent of the clock. Astrolabes provided a reference of celestial positions and events, and could be used to find the time during day or night. Apollonius (c. 225 BC )and Ptolemy wrote about them, and Chaucer produced a loving treatise on them for his son Lewis. All this is way beyond my understanding, though I'm happy to discover that my internal clock may run on Solar Time (true time), which can vary from Co-ordinated Universal Time by up to 20 minutes. …

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