About Time

The Apple Watch is much in the news lately as a new-fangled way to tell time, keep appointments, track exercise, and communicate in the manner of Dick Tracy. We wonder what the clockmakers of old would think of this. 

The idea occurs because today, August 19, is Seth Thomas’s birthday. He was born 230 years ago in Wolcott, Connecticut. The name "Seth Thomas" imparts the kind of stolidity that only old New England could. He was a master carpenter before he got into the clock-making business, which made him famous as well as a fortune. 

Nobody could have foretold either fame or fortune in 1807, though, when Eli Terry brought Thomas and another craftsman named Silas Hoadley into his shop to fashion wooden movements for grandfather clocks.  Though they shrewdly constructed machine works to produce uniform (and presumably interchangeable) movements in bulk, the clocks were still expensive propositions and could have been dismissed as a costly toy for a people who measured time differently than we do.

A few years back, we were working on a book that in part explained how people marked time in the foggy mists of the republic aborning, before clocks were a part of daily life but were about to become so. To celebrate Seth Thomas’s birthday, we revisit a time before there was time as we know it. Join us in recalling those years as a way of reminding ourselves that progress is not always improvement.  

Imagine a place where there was no “time” as we now know it. Such a place would be, even in our imaginations, so alien to our sense of routine, so exotic in comparison to the schedules of modern life, that it would be difficult to picture and even more difficult to understand. Yet such a place does not exist only in the realm of imagination. It is not a product of fiction or fantasy. It actually existed in the relatively near reach of our own history. The early republic of the revolutionary generation’s waning days and the industrial capitalists’ infant ones was without time as we know it.

That’s not to say that the people of the early republic didn’t have ways of measuring the passing of their lives. For the most part they were a farming people who seasonally adjusted the considerable labor and little leisure that filled their days.  For as long as anyone could remember, it had been that way. Spring planting, summer cultivation, fall harvest, and winter chores dictated people’s existence. And there was a sameness about it all with one day pretty much melding into the indistinguishable next. Colonial New England’s Puritan heritage prevented the celebration of holy days, even Christmas, but farmers strictly observed Sunday as a day of rest, which helped to order a week in which one day seemed much like another. Sunday helped to sort the other days into their proper places.

But in measuring hours, our forebears remained happily imprecise. Watches were rare, expensive, and cumbersome, and if they weren’t cumbersome they were fragile. Even people who carried watches had at best imperfect mechanical novelties that kept time eccentrically. The mantel clock was better, but it was a luxury at the dawn of the 19th century until Eli Terry, Seth Thomas, and Silas Hoadley anticipated mass production with interchangeable parts. Over the years Thomas’s “scroll and pillar” mantel clocks became fixtures throughout the country, but they were still a formidable expense. An average clock would set you back about $15, but in 1800 that was quite a sum of money, the equivalent of more than $200 today. 

So how did people live without clocks? For farmers, the sun was their clock. Predawn signaled the start of the day, and the sun’s traverse of the sky directed the course of work. Varying tasks from milking to collecting eggs to tilling to weeding and reaping all fell into allotted spans measured not by clocks but by the chore itself and the shadows cast while completing it. Sunset closed the workday on the farm, and activities after dark were brief and bedtimes early. Candles were expensive and a fire hazard.

In towns and villages, the sun held sway as well, even after prosperous communities installed clocks in courthouse towers. These clocks were notoriously irregular timekeepers and required frequent, sometimes daily adjustments. Not only did they gain or lose noticeable increments of time each week but they also had to be brought into accordance with the master timekeeper, the sun. Clocks had to account for seasonal changes to make “noon” occur in the middle of the day. Since noon by the clock was expected to match the sun’s zenith in the sky, apparent or natural time dictated the settings of clock time in every locality. Even if the courthouse clock was a precise instrument, its town’s “time of day” was different from another’s.

Sundial at Mount Vernon.

Sundials, like this one at Mount Vernon, had to be adjusted often, but so did mechanical clocks.

People who lived in towns were only a few steps from a rural setting, but in terms of time, they lived differently from their farmer neighbors. City life imposed a different discipline for timekeeping because the interdependence of markets, courts, theaters, and businesses required people to coordinate their activities with a semblance of precision. Gathering at an appointed time, no matter how roughly figured it was, required a more exact sense of where the day was. Even so, a community knew it was marking time unique to its locality, and people accommodated those from other places accordingly. Appointments were usually made for a day rather than an hour because distance was not measured in miles but gauged by the time it took to cover it. A destination was so many days’ ride or walk from where one started. 

The people living under such a system were neither physically discomfited nor confused by it. Clocks and watches we're not mysteries. They were devices that provided ways of marking time, but they were not really Time itself, any more than a portrait was the actual person being depicted. 

And although their hours were not rapidly paced or measured by a universal standard, they were not empty. On the broad canvas of the national experience, profoundly important events moved with magisterial deliberateness. The Constitution ushered in a new government, merchants struggled coped with uncertain markets, farmers watched the skies and tilled the ground, pioneers pulled up stakes and trudged toward the western wilderness. All of this passed minute to minute, hour to hour, in the long span of years of risk, fear, and hope. The men and women living through these events did not see them as marking the end of historically significant chapters or starting new important eras. They were merely part of the stuff of their lives, frequently pushed to the margins of more personal experiences, rarely occupying center stage for them as these events do in our historical memory.

As the sun rose and set on their seasons of birth, youth, planting, reaping, enfeeblement, and death, those Americans cried over their sorrows, laughed over their joys, despaired over their failures, and took comfort in the affection of their families and the kindness of their friends. Later times would listen to the cadenced tick of mechanical clocks, the precise click of quarts movements, or gaze upon increasingly sophisticated and accurate devices to mark the divisions of their days. We have these tools to sustain the sensation that time is fleeting, but for Americans of two centuries ago, there was something else, possibly something better. In a world without watches, the heart is a clock of sorts. 

© David S. Heidler 2017