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Man of the Hour

Master horologist John Metcalfe keeps on ticking

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On September 11, 2001, an Associated Press photographer captured stunned Wall Street workers witnessing the collapse of the south tower of the WorldTradeCenter. It is a moment in time, 9:59 A.M., and one of utter panic; most of those in the photograph are running for their lives. One man, however, doesn't move. He is John Metcalfe, who owns a tiny clock-repair shop around the corner from the trade center, on Beekman Street. He continues to look up at history unraveling before his eyes.

Sitting in a café a block from the sorrowful pit that is the twin towers site today, Metcalfe recalled that terrible moment. "One minute we could see the fires glowing deep within the building and great sheets of its skin peeling away and drifting down to earth like autumn leaves," he said. "Then the tower seemed to fall everywhere and nowhere at once and disappear into dust."

That a horologist, a master of antique clock restoration, would be idling in New York City's financial district that morning amid thousands of notoriously time-urgent money-changers might strike some as odd, unless they take the long view. "There was a period a couple of hundred years ago when clock-repair shops were everywhere in Lower Manhattan," Metcalfe said. "They serviced the chronometers aboard sailing ships docked in New York. I'm simply here where it all started."

Metcalfe has been one of New York's premier clock mechanics for the past 11 of his 48 years. His fascination with timepieces—technically, a timepiece tells time, a clock strikes a bell or a chime—began when, as a 10-year-old boy, he unearthed a busted alarm clock in his grandmother's garden shed in North London. He took it apart and inside found his life's calling. He received a technical degree in clock repair, did a stint at the BritishMuseum's Ilbert Collection in the Department of Medieval and Later Antiquities and taught clock repair at night. "Each student brought a clock to class," he said. "I dismantled it down to its smallest component, and the student would spend the semester putting it back together."

Eleven years ago he decided to hang a shingle in Manhattan, a city long on exquisite timepieces and short on people who know the oddball mechanics of how they work. Today, collectors and institutions such as New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art bring Metcalfe their rarest treasures. He disassembles each one at an elf's workbench using age-old hand tools—a bow-driven drill; delicate tweezers—while scores of clocks around the room chime the passing hours and the mighty computers of the world's financial giants whir in the tall buildings outside.

Standing at one of the bookshelves in his cluttered sixth-floor workshop, called Antiquarian Horologist, Metcalfe smiled and lightly tapped the side of a small ornate table clock. "This one is making a fuss just now," he said. "French, 1820s. Quite a gothic confection." He is youthful and small boned, and with his necktie done up properly even on the hottest days, he has the look of a Victorian poet.

He moved around the high-ceilinged room, its floor creaking, and stopped at a clock hanging on the wall. It was round with a long-stemmed case housing a pendulum. "This is a banjo clock. American. Mass-produced, 1890s. Cheap and cheerful. Stops mysteriously at 20 past." Across the way was a German clock missing its bell and hands. "This one dates to 1550," he said. "It's a wonder it's survived." Just then, bells and chimes all around the workshop lightly marked the quarter-hour. Ting ting ting. Clang clang. Ding ding ding.

"You know, there's really very little new in clocks," Metcalfe went on. Pingping ping. "For example, you know that clock they sell at Kmart that displays the time on the ceiling of your bedroom? That's an Italian Renaissance idea! It had an oil lamp inside that projected the time through cutouts. Amazing."

As social critic Lewis Mumford noted in a 1934 essay, "The Monastery and the Clock," humankind hummed along for eons allowing the seasons to mark time. He speculated that it wasn't until the seventh century, when Pope Sabinianus decreed that monks observe seven periods of daily prayers, that the imperative arose to keep track of the hours. By the 13th century, the tyrannical mechanical clock was synchronizing humanity's deeds. Centuries later, the day was further broken down into minutes, minutes into seconds. "Time-keeping passed into time-serving and time-accounting and time-rationing," Mumford wrote. "Eternity ceased gradually to serve as the measure and focus of human actions."

Time, German philosopher Immanuel Kant observed, "is a subjective condition." One can't see it or touch it, yet it exists. What was needed was a device to accurately measure it.

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