The world’s greatest collection of clocks is underneath a motel in Rockford, Illinois
I remember the first time I called the Time Museum in Rockford, Illinois. After a ring or two the phone was answered: “Clock Tower Resort. How may I direct your call?”
Resort? Had I dialed the wrong number? “Is this the Time Museum?” I asked hesitantly.
“One moment, sir,” the operator said, and my call was put through.
How could this be? How could the finest collection of timekeeping devices in the world be located in a motel? I recalled the many times I had driven past signs announcing the museum on Interstate 90 just east of Rockford. I ignored them at first, for even though I have collected a few clocks myself, I could not fathom a museum of stature being a roadside attraction. I imagined a Northern variation of the Southern “reptile garden,” which inevitably turns out to consist of a few tired turtles and alligators in tawdry surroundings by the side of the road. How wrong I was!
One enters the museum by passing the motel’s reception desk, crossing a balcony over the swimming pool, and descending a flight of stairs outside a two-story restaurant. Once inside, though, all evidence of those surroundings disappears. In the museum’s galleries rich green carpeting covers the floors, the walls are off-white cloth, and the cases and trim are of oiled walnut. Partially concealed spotlights illuminate the objects. The visitor’s most important impression is of the energy and vivacity of the place, for unlike many other clock museums, the Time Museum keeps a large part of its collection wound and running (though not all are set to the proper time). The gentle ticking and striking of bells from dozens of clocks animates the galleries. This is a home of living mechanisms.
The museum is arranged in two parallel gallery corridors, each approximately thirty feet across and somewhat more than a hundred feet long. These corridors are divided into a series of bays, creating exhibition areas each about the size of a large living room, filled with standing and hanging clocks and cases containing clocks and watches. Paintings, prints, and advertising materials pertaining to clocks and watches hang on the walls. The first range of galleries is organized in approximately chronological order, from the earliest efforts at human timekeeping—using the first and still the most important timekeepers, the sun, moon, and stars—to atomic clocks and Mickey Mouse watches. The second range of galleries documents significant national developments, technical and decorative, and includes an extensive collection of American clocks and watches.
The center areas of several of these bays have comfortable chairs clustered around low table cases that contain groupings of watches. It is an easy, comfortable place, unintimidating and even intimate. Most of the larger clocks are presented as they were intended to be seen, without ropes or other barriers. The museum’s trust in its visitors is returned in the respect with which almost all visitors treat these remarkable objects. The museum is immaculate, the clocks untouched.
Seth G. Atwood, now in his early seventies, is the creator and guiding force of the Time Museum. He grew up in Rockford and studied psychology and business in college. Atwood managed his family’s manufacturing and banking businesses until his retirement a few years ago but was so interested in technology, in how things worked, that many people mistook him for an engineer. Indeed, he has designed and built boats and cars, always looking for ways to make a product better and more efficient.
Atwood is modest about his achievement. He began to collect timekeepers only in 1968, with the idea of creating a small private collection of high-quality pieces. He says that the museum is located where it is “because I already owned the Clock Tower. I also thought that it was something of an inconvenience to people to have to go to a separate building, off by itself, to visit the museum. The closer you could bring it to the people, the easier it would be to visit.” This may be a museum by the side of the road, but any comparison to a roadside attraction stops there.
Seth Atwood holds a thought for a long time, and one of the thoughts he has held longest has been his fascination with the very concept of time and our continuing struggles with it. He quotes a saying from St. Augustine, which also appears in the museum’s guidebook: “What then is time? If no one asks me, I know; If someone asks me to explain, I know not.” Atwood observes: “ Time is a word that has many meanings and uses in our society, but it was a very elusive concept to me. Time was a concept that you couldn’t relate to your senses—sight, hearing, smell, touch, taste—in any way. I once counted thirty-one different uses of the word time in the dictionary, but there is no definition of the word there. Rather, the dictionary provides a descriptive series of phrases indicating how we use the word.”
As he explored the meanings and uses of the concept of time from philosophy to quantum mechanics, Atwood eventually began to think about collecting timekeeping objects. “I decided to try to collect a few items, artifacts that showed the development of time-finding and timekeeping devices as we normally use them to order our lives,” he says. “This is time’s primary usage, and I didn’t think that this would be a particularly large job. I had never collected anything —even stamps—and I didn’t want to collect a lot of pieces. I probably spent two or two and a half years reading about timekeepers and going to museums around the world while traveling on business. I met a few dealers and visited a few shops. I knew from the beginning, however, that if I was going to collect, I wanted to acquire pieces that were of quality.”
Early in his research Atwood came upon G. H. Baillie’s Watchmakers and Clockmakers of the World , which was first published in 1929. The first volume lists some 35,000 clockmakers before 1825; it became Atwood’s guidebook, the bedrock of the collection. “I sat down with Baillie’s book,” he recalls, “and picked out the names of every single maker Baillie called eminent or famous. I was also interested in what certain makers on Baillie’s list had added to the technology of clockmaking. I made a huge list—it turned out to be a lot more pieces than I ever thought about collecting—and I tried to boil it down. I couldn’t.”
Shortly after compiling the list, Atwood had the good fortune to meet the late Robert Foulkes, a British estate appraiser and secretary of the Antiquarian Horological Society. Atwood remembers Foulkes looking over his list and snorting, “There isn’t a chance in the world that you will ever get a fraction of this lot.” Still, he took time to review it, pointing out errors or inaccuracies and, says Atwood, “helping me to whittle the list down—but we didn’t whittle it down very far.”
Then one day Foulkes took Atwood to look at timepieces being catalogued for a sale at Sotheby’s, the London auction house. The most important piece in the sale was a Thomas Tompion repeating watch. Tompion (1639-1713), one of the most distinguished names on Atwood’s list, was trained as a farrier and eventually made his way to London to become one of England’s greatest clockmakers. This Tompion watch, an exceptionally fine and rare example made just before 1700, came with a mechanism that struck a gong inside the case, sounding the hour and the nearest quarter when the pendant was depressed. Atwood authorized Foulkes to buy the watch at auction, told him to pay whatever was necessary, and returned to the United States.
Hours after the sale, with no word yet from England, Atwood received a phone call from the second-highest bidder, another American. He said that Atwood had bought the Tompion piece—for the highest price ever paid for an English watch—and please, could he buy it from him? Atwood declined, and the man kept raising the price until he offered twice what Atwood had paid. The answer was still no. When Foulkes finally called, a bit embarrassed at having bid so much for the watch, Atwood said that it was no problem; he had already been offered twice the auction price.
Gradually the collection developed, following the two rules Atwood had established at the outset: the objects had to be museum quality and had to be important to the historical development of timekeeping. Atwood wasn’t interested just in beautiful clocks, although he recognized that important clocks were often beautiful. He also wasn’t interested in developing a collection devoted to certain historic periods or national styles or specific types of clocks. This was to be a documentation of time—time given substance through an assemblage of timekeeping objects, not simply a collection of clocks.
At first there was no thought of developing a museum; it was a private collection. But circumstances dictated otherwise, as Patricia Atwood, daughter-in-law of the founder and a historian in charge of the day-to-day operations of the museum, explains. Because Atwood had made no effort to disguise his identity when assembling the collection, word about it spread widely, particularly in Europe. Visitors came to see it, and Atwood did his best to accommodate them. Then one Christmas Eve, with the family gathering for a holiday dinner, a call came through to the Atwoods’ home in Rockford.
A European visitor announced that he had come to town expressly for the purpose of seeing the collection. Might he come over immediately? That was the last straw. A few months later, in 1970, the Time Museum was established at the family-owned motor inn with about 100 clocks, watches, and other objects on view. About 3,000 visitors came that first year. Today the Time Museum exhibits more than 1,000 time finders and timekeepers, along with related ephemera and memorabilia, and receives about 50,000 visitors annually.
The first instrument to greet a visitor to the museum is the Sørnes clock (built 1958-64), the most complicated astronomical clock ever made. It is appropriate that the Sørnes clock is first, because it is a contemporary reminder of what many of us have forgotten—that time, no matter how accurately or beautifully it may be presented on our wrist, is first and foremost humanity’s reconciliation of the movements of the spheres. The sun regulates our lives, and our most precise timing devices are adjusted to stay in synchronization with astronomical events.
Rasmus Sørnes (1893-1967) understood this and made a clock that not only keeps track of hours, days, and months and corrects for quad- rennial leap years but even takes into account the fact that years divisible by 100 have no extra day (unless they are divisible by 400). That is just one of the complex motions of this clock, which also predicts solar eclipses and plots the motions of all the planets around the sun. Perhaps the most hopeful component of this instrument is a sphere that tracks the precession of the earth’s axis, a cycle requiring 24,800 years to complete.
Sørnes was a Norwegian farmer’s son who worked as a technician at a radio station. He was not a clockmaker by trade, but he was fascinated by astronomy and by precision. He made four astronomical clocks over a thirty-year period, of which the masterpiece at Rockford is by far the most complicated. He created this marvel, which required extensive knowledge of astronomy and mathematics, as a retirement project, working on it steadily for six years. It is one of the most recent examples of the sort of dedication that has led through the centuries to the creation of many other incredible timekeeping masterpieces, a number of which are represented in this collection.
Other objects in the first area represent pre-mechanical or early mechanical timekeepers. The museum’s few reproductions are concentrated here. These include a half-scale model of the Chinese Su Sung water clock of 1088, which used a water-powered step controller, prefiguring by centuries the oscillating controller of mechanical clocks. While the astronomical clock of Richard of Wallingford (built 1327-35) and the exceedingly complex heptagonal “astrarium” astronomical clock of Giovanni de’Dondi of Padua (built 1346-64) are also reconstructions (but remarkable objects in their own right), other cases hold original pre-Christian Chinese and Roman sundials. The Roman sundial, complete even to the original gnomon, was preserved by being buried in the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in A.D. 79. Other pre-mechanical objects are concentrated here, including astrolabes and nocturnals, for finding time from the sun and stars. A bit beyond is a group of French and German mechanical timepieces of the sixteenth century that documents the development of the coiled steel spring to provide power.
Another case contains small ivory and gilt brass sundials of the same period. These were the pocket timepieces of the day, for while mechanical clocks were available, they could not easily be transported. One of the most beautiful of these objects is a “compendium” created about 1556 by Christophorus Schisler of Augsburg. Schisler was one of the greatest mathematicians and instrument makers of the day, and his compendium, an essential item for the well-equipped traveler, includes a sundial, a compass, a level, a polar projection of the Northern Hemisphere, a map of much of Europe, a latitude table for thirty-five towns (which is necessary to use the sundial effectively), a nocturnal, and a lunar volvelle for determining the phase of the moon. All this hardware and information folds up into an object no larger than a woman’s compact.
One of the museum’s plainest clocks is one of the most important historically. It was built by Salomon Coster, a Dutch maker, in 1657. It is one of the very earliest examples of a clock equipped with a pendulum escapement, which the Dutch scientist Christiaan Huygens first patented and applied to timekeeping in late 1656. The pendulum was a great advance over the verge-and-foliot escapement. In that mechanism the toothed escape wheel oscillated a vertical shaft, which supported a horizontal bar from which two weights were suspended. The speed of the clock was controlled by moving the weights along the bar. The farther from the center shaft they were placed, the slower the clock ran.
The pendulum escapement reduced friction and mechanical drag, permitting much more accurate regulation. Huygens assigned the rights to his patent to Coster in 1657 and worked with him to develop a practical timekeeper using it. The Time Museum’s example is one of only seven Coster pendulum clocks known to have survived, and it may be the earliest.
Use of the pendulum spread rapidly, and its precision encouraged ambitious clockmakers to refine and improve their movements to achieve ever-greater accuracy. Seated in a comfortable chair in the center of a Time Museum gallery, one may look at a number of late-seventeenth-century clocks by English makers who were quick to adopt the new type of escapement. This was the beginning of the golden age of British clockmaking, and three severe and elegant long-case clocks by William Clement (1670), Joseph Knibb (1680), and Thomas Tompion (1693) still keep time to the minute. These clocks are installed in a bay with a fine French clock from about 1675, thought to be the earliest French long-pendulum clock in existence. Its case is magnificently baroque, the fluid outline given further animation by rich inlays of tortoiseshell, wood, and metal. Its flamboyance, contrasted with the dark and precisely rectilinear British timekeepers, makes a silent comment on taste in decorative arts on either side of the English Channel at the time.
Another of England’s greatest makers of the era, John Harrison (1693-1776), is represented by an extremely rare and early long-case regulator clock of 1726, the only surviving example of his art outside England. (A regulator clock simply means one used as a standard for setting others.) Like Tompion, Harrison had begun his career in a skilled trade, carpentry. So it may not be surprising that the movement of this clock is made almost entirely of lignum vitae and oak. Harrison claimed that it was accurate to one second per month.
In 1713 Parliament offered a £20,000 prize for a timepiece precise enough to permit the calculation of longitude at sea to within thirty miles. In 1728 Harrison began building the first of four marine clocks that would eventually win him most of the prize, which was doled out piecemeal over more than a decade by a reluctant Parliament. (The accomplishment earned Harrison the nickname “Longitude Harrison.”) The original clocks are now at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, England, but a reproduction of the first one is in Rockford. It is an ungainly but splendid instrument, with four dials and two huge swinging balances. The clock was designed as a prototype, but it proved itself at sea, solving several of the biggest problems with shipboard timekeepers: the motion of the ship and variations in temperature, gravity, and humidity. Harrison invented the temperature-compensating gridiron pendulum, made of two different alloys whose thermal expansion and contraction cancel each other out, and his clock also uses moving counterbalanced low-friction bearings. It is one of the most animated timekeepers in the collection.
Other, no less remarkable clocks are found in the first range of galleries. The history and development of marine chronometers over two centuries, from Thomas Mudge’s clock of 1777 to a modern Patek Philippe quartz chronometer, fills two cases. A group of alarm clocks, including a German table clock and bell of 1550, devices that struck matches or lit candles at the appointed hour, and a Westclox “Waralarm” from World War II with a pressed-paper case, document humanity’s struggle to get up on time.
Another anonymous triumph of clockmaking, though without the seriousness of purpose of the Harrison clocks, is the museum’s “minute striker,” a tall-case clock built around 1790. It has ten dials. The central one tells the time, while those surrounding it record the day of the week (and its planetary signs), the phase of the moon, the date, the month, the season of the year, the position in the four-year leap-year cycle, and the times of sunrise and sunset. The twelve signs of the zodiac are indicated on an arc dial that surmounts the rest. As if that were not enough, the clock strikes the time every minute on four separate bells. It might be a nice companion for the insomniac, but its busy madness keeps most visitors more than aware of their surroundings.
The final bays of this historical overview are devoted in part to the development of the electric clock. It starts with the “earth battery” clock of Alexander Bain, built about 1845, which is perhaps the first clock to draw power from a battery—in this case, one that uses metal plates buried in the earth. The survey finishes with the hulking cases of hydrogen maser and cesium atomic clocks. These latter timepieces are not elegant; Atwood has remarked that “y°u can hardly love a hydrogen maser clock, but you must stand in awe of what it does.” Yet just a few feet away is an absolute treatise in elegance, a remarkable collection of watches by Abraham Louis Breguet (17471823) and his family firm. Breguet, who was born in Switzerland but worked most of his life in Paris, has been describedas the finest watchmaker ever. A case is devoted to his extremely refined and very French watches, which were often marked by unusual movements and dials whose constituents are organized in a highly individual way. Perhaps the most unusual Breguet in the museum’s collection is the pendule sympathique , one of seven clock/watch combinations built by Breguet and his associates. It was constructed in 1835 for the Duc d’Orléans, son of King Louis Philippe of France. The clock and its companion watch, which was mounted in place of a finial above the main dial, work in harmony with each other. The watch was used in normal fashion during the day and then placed in its holder at night. At 3:00 A.M. three tiny pins extended from the clock and slid into sockets in the watch. One pin verified that the watch was in its holder, the second one wound it, and the third one set the watch to the proper time.
A turn to the right, and one enters the second range of galleries, what the museum’s staff describes as the decorative side. The term is used to differentiate it from the chronological organization of the first suite; the clocks in this area are not just ornamental. There are some extraordinarily complicated timekeepers here, along with clocks with musical movements and multiple pendulums. There are also several bays devoted to national groupings, most notably those of French, Japanese, and American makers.
The entrance to these galleries is guarded by one of the museum’s happiest constructions, “Gambrinus,” a German automaton clock made in Augsburg about 1600. Gambrinus was a mythical king noted for his gluttony who was said to be the first brewer of beer. This fat fellow, his head crowned with a beer barrel, wears the clock’s dial on the front of his pendulous stomach.
It is almost lost in a riot of gilt brass trimmings, but presumably at the parties over which he presided few were interested in the time. At grand banquets the clock would be placed at one end of the table and hitched to a cart of sweets or fruit for the guests. Every hour, as the clock struck the time, Gambrinus would quaff his beer, smack his lips, and roll his eyes. The elephants drawing his chariot reared their heads, and the charioteer urged them on, the whole device slowly making its way down the banquet table as the party wore on.
The section devoted to Japan is unusual among American museums because few Japanese clocks, particularly of the quality seen here, have made their way to the United States. One of the most unusual clocks in this group, and one of the largest single-purpose timepieces in the collection, is a late-eighteenth-century clock, the gift of Ieharu Tokugawa, tenth shogun of Japan, to a relative. It stands nearly eight feet tall on a lacquered base decorated in low relief with carp, swirls of kelp, and lily buds of inlaid mother-of-pearl. The iron movement has a verge-andfoliot escapement, used much longer in Japan than elsewhere because it could more easily be adjusted to control the clock’s speed (in that era Japan used temporal hours, in which the length of the hours of daylight and darkness changed with the seasons. This required changing the running speed of the clock or moving the hour markers on the dial every few days).
The final gallery bays contain American clocks and watches, the largest group in the museum. Seth Atwood speaks about them with clearly divided feelings. “America made two contributions to the development of timekeeping. One was an advance, the other was to be deplored—and they were both the same thing. What America did caused the death knell of handcrafted, customized clocks. On the happy side of the coin, Americans evolved the system of mass production of interchangeable parts so that timekeeping devices became available at a reasonable price to anyone. This was our contribution—but it gave the ax to hand craft.”
The “American system” of mass production, developed in the nineteenth century, allowed the creation of large quantities of identical products made of interchangeable parts that were well built and inexpensive. The system either drove craftsmen from the market or forced them to manufacture their products the new way. The American system was substantially perfected in the factory of the American Waltham Watch Company, and its timepieces are well documented in this collection. Just as the Pennsylvania and New York Central railroads dominated the American economy in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries only to disappear, so did Waltham and the Elgin National Watch Company dominate American watchmaking for decades. They too have disappeared, leaving behind only their names, which are stamped on inexpensive Swiss watches. A comprehensive record of the achievements of their products is preserved in the Time Museum, along with that of many other American makers, including the Rockford Watch Company, a local firm.
If the emphasis among the museum’s American pieces is on mass production, there are still a number of one-of-akind American clocks in the collection, none more beautiful to my eye than one created by Oliver Marsh in 1870. Marsh was a jeweler in Newark, New Jersey, and later in Binghamton, New York. His clock is a double-dial movement of solid bronze with thirty ruby and sapphire jewels. One of the dials tells the hours, minutes, and seconds; the other provides that information and adds the date, month, and day. The movement is so well constructed that it keeps time to within a few seconds a year. The dials of this clock suggest triumphal medallions supported on two white marble columns. In another age a construction like this might have been crafted to honor a well-fought battle or reigning monarch. Marsh’s clock honors accuracy and craftsmanship.
I looked at Oliver Marsh’s clock from one of those comfortable chairs fronting a table case. Its contents are important to this history of time, for it is filled with Ingersoll watches, one of the most famous brands of “dollar watches” that made time available to everyone. It is a tribute to the museum that it gives so much space to this humble assemblage, but it’s historically appropriate that it has done so, for this is an important expression of populist time, and populist time has won the day. We may crave a Rolex or Patek Philippe on our wrist, but what we most probably wear is a quartz watch made by someone whose name we can’t quite remember.
Many have called the Time Museum the finest institution of its kind in the world. Certainly the breadth of the collection, and the number of historically important and splendidly decorative timepieces found here, would support such a view. Yet what may make it the best in the world for me is the care and respect these instruments receive. John Shallcross, the museum’s conservator, tends the sometimes finicky machines with love. The museum may not have space to expand on the many issues involved in keeping time—from economic to technological—that are raised in these galleries, but it is a prime resource for the objects themselves. Fine catalogues documenting specialized areas of the collection are steadily making their way into print.
Seth Atwood is modest, but always direct, about the museum he has built. I put a meandering question to him regarding the higher purposes of the museum as a tool for the edification of humankind. He cut through it. “It’s simpler than that,” he said. “I’m well aware of the temporal nature of material things in the scope of time—billions of years of time. I had the chance to collect these pieces, to preserve them and bring them together. I got a lot more out of it than most people can imagine in terms of spreading my interests, expanding my knowledge, meeting people, and traveling. I don’t take any pride of authorship in these objects. I didn’t make any of them. They were made by others, and I am highly indebted to others, good friends from around the world. Without that friendship and help, why, we wouldn’t have what is here today. I’m glad we can share it.”