Elizabeth Tower. Hopsy. The Time Eater. Big Ben. Rosalind. Around the world, in practically every culture, there is a clock with a crazy name attached. In the English language we give a clock a face and hands, and even though it has no legs, we accuse it of running faster than we can keep up with. And it doesn’t just stop with the clocks—multiple societies have anthropomorphized time itself, even if all of them (Old Man Time, Chronos, Zurvan) end up looking like old men with wrinkled faces and long white beards.
Whether we’re talking about Big Ben or Old Man Time, somewhere along the way, human beings have made time into something more than a simple force of the universe. It has become a kind of personality to us, a force that plays with us and interacts in our daily lives. This is hardly a surprise, considering; if time is humanized, it can perhaps be reasoned with. It becomes remotely credible, if we believe the words we use, to attempt to convince time to slow down or speed up, or perhaps cease all together. Many of us (at least I hope other people do this) take to talking to it, as if by staring at the clock and exclaiming, “That can’t be the time!” we will somehow convince the face to wince an apology, and the hands to rewind to give us an extra minute or two. Much of the human lifespan can be tracked in the uneasy, uncertain way that we deal with time. We like it, and we hate it; we rely on it, and we would also like to ignore it. We want to control it more than we do, and we want it to have less weight than it does.
This makes good timekeeping something of a tricky business. On the one hand, most of us want to know what time it is. Accuracy, dependability, and durability are the key words for any good clock, whether it be grandfather or cuckoo, on our wrists or on our walls, or in the dashboards of our cars. We constantly compare one source of time to another: the clock in the kitchen is three minutes fast (to get the kids out the door) and the alarm on the night stand is two minutes slow (to give the eyes a chance to open). In this age of technology, we long for precision and accuracy not just in the clocks on our cellphones and laptops, but also in the more familiar timepieces that we use from day to day.
Yet accuracy alone is not enough. For all our concerns with minutes and seconds, precision and accuracy, we still long for some kind of familiar face as we confront the reality of time. We search for familiarity in the timepieces that we keep. They become old friends to us, bits of history that we can relate to and even befriend as we come to see what time it is. Grandfather clocks, pocket watches, cuckoo clocks, sundials; we come to clocks and watches not just for information, but also for beauty, for memory, and perhaps even for a bit of comfort.
A good time piece, watch or clock, on your wrist or on your wall, fulfills both of these functions: It gives you accurate time and precise measurement, but it also gives you a beautiful thing, a funny thought. Perhaps even a familiar sense of being, if just for one second, in just the right place at the just right time.