Some thoughts about Time and Clocks

Clock Clock Clock Hour Hand Minute Hand

I'm often asked to explain how I came to be doing this - I find it hard to give a succinct and satisfactory answer. This page is an attempt at an answer; I hope to add to it periodically, I imagine I'll go way off topic and I'm sure it won't be succinct.

The quick answer is that I've enjoyed making things since my earliest years. In 1980s I made a few clocks from published plans and kits and made a wooden clock to my own design for the first time in the early 1990s. Early last decade I decided to focus on clock making.

That doesn't begin to explain, though. I remember wanting to work for myself pretty much as soon as I left school, and I wanted to make things of the highest possible quality. I've visited craft galleries and fairs for as long as I can remember, coming away inspired and uplifted. I gradually realised that I was doing market research, that I would at some point set up a craft practice and I was looking for my niche. In the 1980s there seemed to be automata in every gallery - delightful mechanical toys whose intricate mechanisms would entertain at the turn of a handle. I found these fascinating but ultimately unsatisfying, realising that they would spend most of their time simply sitting on a shelf, immobile; only coming to life when picked up. Perhaps motorised and battery operated? No - quickly trivial, possibly irritating. Clocks would be interesting - they do have a purpose, and actually need to be constantly in motion.

There also came a point where I realised that I had put a limit on the quality of the things I was making. I had experimented with glass, metal, plastics, wood and electronics, and I had made lamps, mirrors, boxes, furniture and amplifiers and so on. I would make one or two items of a particular type then move on to something else. I came to accept that although I had produced some good objects, little was exceptional. I decided to stop playing and settle to one form and material and see where that process would lead.

As I continue to make clocks it continues to make more sense to me - not just a clock mechanism itself but also why it is important to make clocks like these.

I've come to feel that we have an unhealthy relationship with clocks. Generally, we glance at a clock to find out if we are late; it is comparatively rare that the clock tells us we have more time than we thought. There is, seemingly inevitably, a level of stress involved in consulting a clock. It reminds us that time is running out.

There's a clock in my central heating, one in my microwave, one in my phone, my TV, my camera. There's a clock in my radio, and a radio in another clock. These are all incredibly accurate, exquisitely engineered and largely forgotten things. They sit there, counting out the nanoseconds, doing little jobs for me to enable me to cram more into my days. Which I must do, because time is running out. And time is money. And there's never enough time. And time is ticking.

But wait a moment..

This moment

This moment is the only one

Everyone is experiencing this moment.

Just this moment.

There is nothing going on yesterday, nobody is alive tomorrow, nobody alive one minute ago. We are all only alive now, experiencing now. Thinking about tomorrow, perhaps, reflecting on yesterday, but doing it now. In all the homes, offices, shops, on the streets, on planes, in cars, in the woods and the deserts, it's all going on now. All of it going on now. It's strangely quiet, though... A clock does tick, yes, but the spaces between the ticks are much longer, and they are quite silent.

Time isn't ticking, that's what clocks do and we made the clocks. It's up to us to choose to focus on the sound or on the silence.

I'm fascinated by our perception of time. We all know that it flies when we're having fun and drags over watched pots and over paint. It seems that we can't trust our internal clock as much as we trust a mechanical one - our perception is subjective, the clock is absolute. But remember the old cassette player? It played slower as the batteries ran down and you were soon aware that the music sounded wrong. Try listening to a piece of music while watching paint dry - does it really sound any different?

The way we perceive sound, and for that matter the way we perceive light are utterly bound up with time. If our internal clock happened to be running a little slow, then the music would seem faster, the notes all higher in pitch. Colour would be a little bluer. There is certainly an aspect of our internal timekeeping that we can trust, then - the part that keeps the colours and the notes the same, whatever our state of mind.

I heard a lovely thought recently: time would seem very different to a tree. Every day would be one single breath. Inhaling during the day and exhaling at night, one of our years a single day. Getting ready for bed in the autumn. I've no idea if trees have anything that we would think of as 'experience', but the idea does hint at the wide variety of possible timescales.

Another interesting idea: there is a fixed number of heartbeats in a lifetime. Mouse or elephant, doesn't matter, you get one billion heartbeats. Cat or human, one billion. Could this number have any bearing on the perception of time? Is a cat experiencing time seven times quicker than me? I doubt it, to be honest, even though the cat does have fine reflexes and can move much faster than I can - if it were so, the mice (4 year lifespan) would never get caught, because the cat (12 year lifespan) experiences time three times slower; the mice would dodge easily.

So what is it that decides the speed that we experience time passing? I heard someone say it was the speed of light that defines it, but try as I might I can't make sense of that (it was a prominent scientist on In Our Time, I think - I'll find out which edition and post a link here). One thing science says that I can almost grasp is that time is a relative phenomenon - if I travel quickly both the clock and my perception of time passing will slow down; the clock will only show this when it's compared with one that didn't move, it will have looked fine to me. This doesn't say anything about why I perceive time to flow at the speed it does, though. Why does a day seem to take as long as it does? I find myself wondering if evolution played a part.

I searched wikipedia for 'senses' and reached an excellent page that lists far more than the traditional five, yet doesn't include a sense of time - it links to a page that does, however; this explains that the sense of time is different to other senses because there is no clear input such as photons or sound waves. Evidently, our senses evolved to be very useful on a planet with this much light and colour, sensitive to sounds of the kind that surround us and tastes that sustain these bodies. What of time? Does a day feel as long as it does because we evolved on a planet with days this long? Would our sense of time be different if we had evolved on a planet that spins ten times faster, for instance? The question is this, really: do we perceive the passage of time exactly the same as the rest of the universe, or is it a local convenience?

More to come. I'd love feedback on this, if you've got this far and are moved to get in touch.