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Man of the Hour

Master horologist John Metcalfe keeps on ticking

"That's where the portable coil spring came in, the real breakthrough," Metcalfe said, pawing through a box of old winding keys. "The spring provided the energy. The trick was to wind up the spring and then allow the energy to escape little by little in tiny increments over the course of a day or a week, by means of a device called an 'escapement,' a mechanism that interrupts the turning of the clock's wheels at regular intervals. That's the ticktock ticktock sound. The Germans, the French, the Italians, the Dutch, the Americans, the British each developed their own idiosyncratic way—sometimes breathtakingly simple, sometimes needlessly complex—of doing the same thing. But the source behind the spring is always the same. It's you! You had to remember to wind the clock."

Some came to view clocks as art, others as science, but everybody claimed them as status symbols. "By the Renaissance you begin to see portraits where a clock appears behind the subject," Metcalfe said. "It was a memento mori and a way of showing off that time meant something to you and that—God forbid—you weren't on an agrarian calendar like some peasant."

And entire towns wanted the glory. "Every village longed for a clock in the town square," said Metcalfe, opening his arms to the tall windows in his workshop. "It made a statement to visitors about what a sophisticated place they were entering." By the early Renaissance, particularly in the Low Countries, clocks were designed with tubular bells and glass windows and mechanical figures popping out of trapdoors. "Keeping time became almost secondary to the amusement."

And someone had to keep them all running. Until the installation of an electric winch in 1912, at least two men worked five to six hours three times a week to wind London's Big Ben. "That's a huge responsibility," said Metcalfe. Which is why, he said, he turned down the offer several years ago to become Clock Master of the City of New York, a job that demands making sure that municipal clock towers in neighborhoods like Bowling Green and City Hall keep exact time. "New York! Imagine! It's one thing to forget to wind your watch, but to keep time for everybody else? No thanks. Besides, I'm not keen on heights. Or pigeon guano."

Small antique clocks provide just the right scale for Metcalfe, and the job of mending them comes with responsibility enough. "When people hand me their clocks," he said, "many of them plead, 'Please look after my baby.'" Which is why, in the week following 9/11, he paced the police line waiting to get back into his workshop. How had one and a half million tons of debris falling two short blocks away affected all those babies in his care?

"When I finally got back into my shop, the windows were closed, but still, a fine layer of dust—what I've come to think of as 'finely ground zero'—covered everything in a ghostly kind of way," said Metcalfe, standing at a sunlit window, the Woolworth Building looming behind him. Below on the street, tourists studied maps in their quest for the Five Points, the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, the old Fraunces Tavern where Gen. George Washington, departing for a short-lived private life, bade farewell to his officers on December 4, 1783.

And the clocks—were they all running? "Oh yes," he said. "Some were even running that weren't working when I left. People often come to me with a clock that hasn't worked for years, and by the time they arrive at my door it's ticking. Why? Because the jolt of the cab ride has unstuck an old spring. On September 11, the clocks in here felt the crash of the falling buildings. And they came to life."

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