Best of Freshman Writing
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PSU – York
Adventures in Time
The National Watch and Clock Museum, located just off Route 30 in the small Pennsylvania town of Columbia, will educate and entertain. The museum is part of The National Association of Watch & Clock Collectors, Inc. (NAWCC). With 1,500 pieces on display and another 12,500 archived for research, it is difficult to fathom that this impressive collection started out as a private museum in the 1970s in the home of now NAWCC secretary, Earl Strickler. Back then the museum was used solely as a gathering place for NAWCC members and was not open to the public. When the collection grew too large to remain at Strickler’s home, it was transported to an 8,500 square foot gallery and opened to the public in 1977. The museum continued to grow, and the latest expansion was completed in 1999 with the addition of a new exhibit space and a two-story addition.
A beckoning tan and brown clock tower at the end of the parking lot leaves no doubt that you have reached your destination. The meticulously maintained main building, with its Greek-style architecture and white columns, impresses visitors even before they enter. Walking between the columns and entering through the red double doors brings you into an expansive, spotless lobby where museum staff members genuinely seem glad that you are there.
“People come here from all over the world—even New Jersey,” jokes one of the staff members who clearly enjoys his work. “Our [horology*] library is the best in North America,” he says with obvious pride. The library is open to the public and is accessed by clock makers from around the globe. A school of horology across the street from the main museum, also a part of the NAWCC, trains future clock-makers in a challenging 18-month long course.
Moving to the museum’s theater, your tour begins with a ten-minute film, “All the Time in the World,” which chronicles human progress at measuring the passage of time, from the simplest water-bowl clocks to the super-precision of atomic clocks. It is interesting, and a bit ironic, to note that the more proficient humans have become at tracking time, the more we have become a slave to it.
“Through this portal lies an adventure in time,” reads the sign above the entrance to the main exhibit hall. A pleasant surprise is that much of that adventure is auditory, as a gentle background of chimes, pings, beeps, and rings blend together surprisingly harmoniously, like some kind of New Age music. While moving throughout the exhibits, the sounds change subtly, as if one song is fading into another, and suddenly you realize that now you’re listening to “Percussion Symphony,” whereas just a moment ago it was “Melody of the Bells.”
Be sure to visit the Special Exhibit room located near the beginning of the self-guided tour. The current exhibit is the most delightful collection of junk-turned-clock. “Found Time” is a collection of timepieces handcrafted by Randall Cleaver, a 1981 Penn State graduate with a BFA in sculpture. Cleaver has a real knack for taking beer cans, bike chains, cookie tins and nondescript pieces of metal and turning them into works of art that will surely make you smile. “Flying Toaster” is a toaster-turned clock, complete with moving coffee-can wings. “Big Brother Time,” a doll’s eye-studded rotating globe of the world, is Dali-like in its weirdness. It takes awhile to realize that the random clicking noises are coming from the doll’s eyes as gravity causes them to open and shut during their lazy rotational trip. Above a doorway, an entire flock of coffee-can clock creatures pose in mid-flight. Cleaver’s creations become even more endearing with the addition of detailed explanations posted next to each one, relating the origin of his materials. (“The coffee cans are Café Du Monde coffee. It is the coffee I drink, and I buy them in Asian food markets. These are mostly from the Thai food market in Silver Spring, MD, but I have been saving them for years.”)
Past the precision regulators and standing impressively in a corner, the Engle clock is difficult to miss; that is, unless one mistakes it for a small building. Nicknamed “Eighth Wonder,” the 1,250-pound, almost twelve-foot high monumental clock took Stephen Decatur Engle of Hazleton, Pennsylvania 20 years to build.
“He finished it in 1877, unfortunately one year too late for the country’s centennial celebration,” a museum staff member tells the group of visitors gathered near the mammoth clock. With Engle’s permission, the clock traveled the Eastern United States with promoter Captain John Reid. The Eighth drew crowds wherever it went, and people eagerly paid 25 cents to see the clocks 48 figures, including Jesus and the twelve disciples, Father Time, Satan, and even Engle himself, appear at appointed times to parade, twirl, and entertain, and then disappear back into their appropriate hiding places . The clock vanished until around 1988 when it was located in a storage shed in upstate New York. At first the owner refused to part with it, but with some persistence, the museum was ultimately able to obtain this historically significant timepiece and bring it back to Pennsylvania for restoration.
Visitors as varied as the timepieces stroll through the museum. Young, old, professional business men and women, college students, each finds something they are uniquely attracted to.
“We’ve been meaning to come here for years,” a middle-aged woman admits, as her husband intently examines an exhibit on car clocks. “We only live a couple miles from here. I’m glad we finally made it. This is amazing!” Past the wristwatch display, a serious-looking gentleman inspects an exhibit on Lancaster’s Hamilton Watch Company.
“My grandfather worked there in the forties,” he says with a wistful smile and checks a company photo, hoping to find his grandfather’s face among the employees.
Most of the exhibits are understandably do-not-touch zones, but there is an Interactive Station where you can learn about clock-making and timepieces through hands-on experience. Watching sand slip through an hourglass and then pushing a button when you think 20 seconds have passed makes one realize just how impatient we have become in this fast-food, instant messaging, hurry-up world.
The tour ends at the museum gift shop, aptly named “Yours, Mine, and Hours,” which turns out to be a perfect place for picking up that unique gift. Toys, coffee mugs, handmade jewelry and of course clocks, occupy shelves next to books on horology of every technical level. You are sure to find some little time treasure to take with you.
Our fascination with time permeates our culture through books, films, and music. We want to know it, understand it, and control it. The National Watch and Clock Museum may not have all the answers, but it will certainly give you a new perspective when trying to understand that elusive fourth dimension we call time.
*horology—the science of measuring time, ed.
Cindy MacIntosh's essay appears here with her express written permission and cannot be reproduced in any manner or fashion without her express written permission.