Science & Nature

A master of the grandfather clock reveals time’s hidden history

A master of the grandfather clock reveals time's hidden history thumbnail

Published September 1, 2022

15 min read

New Freedom, PennsylvaniaThe hour struck three and the little shop of clocks erupted in sound, a chaotic chorus of chimes. No two sounded the same. There were tall grandfather clocks and tiny cuckoo clocks, dome-shaped anniversary clocks and caseless skeleton clocks. There was a small, battery-powered kitchen clock on the wall above the register, to tell the time. It was the only one that did not seem to make a sound.

Standing in the middle of it all was Theron “Jeff” Jeffery, a tall, gruff man with thick fingers and slick white hair. He has been fixing clocks for a living for more than 40 years. For 30 of those he’s been here, in his Ye Olde Clock Shoppe, along the side of a road in the rural town of New Freedom, Pennsylvania.

“You have to have several ingredients in one body to be a clockmaker,” Jeffery says, bent over his workbench, his eyes fixed on a verge escapement—a thin rod that clicks into a rotating crown-shaped wheel, at evenly-spaced intervals, to ensure that a clock ticks at a regular pace. This one needed replacing. “You have to have very good eyesight, to see what you’re doing. You have to have very good manual dexterity to work with the small parts. You have to have a very good understanding of—or at least an ability to understand—physics.”

Jeffery himself comes from a family of skilled tradesmen. One of his grandfathers was a master blacksmith; the other was a carpenter. His father was a military engineer with a background in physics. “It’s not a coincidence,” Jeffery says. “Here I am.”

In his more than four decades on the job, Jeffery has repaired thousands of clocks—from the common (grandfather clocks, cuckoo clocks) to the complex or strange (ships’ clocks, urn clocks). His work is largely analog, relying on gears, weights, and moving metal pieces. In boxes of old clock parts delivered to him by people cleaning out their homes, he has found relics of bygone eras: the original Slinky, a clay pipe, a handful of bullets from the Civil War.

His work forms part of an occasional National Geographic series featuring individuals who have become “Masters of their Craft:” A Pennsylvania clockmaker, a Colombian filigree jeweler, a sailor trained in the ancient tradition of Polynesian wayfinding. Wherever they may be, with or without public recognition, they are not only focused, learned experts, but often also repositories of culture and history, with insights into how we live.

Jeffery is a horologist: someone whose work deals with the measurement of time. His workspace sits at the entrance to a labyrinth of dusty backrooms stuffed with tools and machines and cabinets. On this afternoon in late June, there were curved glass covers, dial faces marked with roman numerals, and tall gold-colored pendulums. Jeffery opened and closed dozens of little drawers, showing springs, nuts, and screws—as well as hour- and minute-hands, thumb-sized wooden cuckoo birds, and metal gears of all kinds.

It is striking that most of a clockmaker’s work is spent focused on parts so small, in the service of something so big as keeping time. For a mechanical clock to function with any kind of accuracy, all of these tiny parts must work together in perfect synchronicity. And the ubiquity of these precision timekeeping devices has fundamentally revolutionized the way we work and live.

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“Just look around your house,” Jeffery says. Most of us have a clock on the stove, a clock on the microwave, a clock on the coffee maker. We keep clocks in our bedrooms, clocks on our wrists, clocks in our pockets. “Imagine a world where the average household only had one.”

Or none.

History of telling time

Until relatively recently, time in the non-clock world was delineated not by hours and minutes but by natural events. When people were hungry, they ate; when people were tired, they slept. Especially in rural areas, animals—like the crowing rooster or the croaking frog—helped move those processes along, as did the sun and the stars, when the skies were clear. Some early clocks also reflected these natural rhythms: sundials in Ancient Rome and Greece, for example, and water clocks in East Asia. But they were far from precise.

The ancient Egyptians were among the first to divide each day into 12 segments for daylight and 12 segments for dark. This meant that the “hours” lengthened or shortened with the seasons. In European cities—especially in colder, northern climates where the winter sun only shines for a few (often-cloudy) hours per day—more creative rules sometimes had to be established. In 14th century Paris, for instance, a tanner’s workday began when it was light enough to recognize a familiar face in the street, and ended once it was too dark to tell two similar-looking coins apart by sight.

Though Europe was far behind China and the Islamic world in terms of science and technological innovation during the Middle Ages, it is hardly surprising that the first mechanical clocks were invented there in the 14th century, writes David Landes in his landmark book on timekeeping, Revolution in Time. One big reason for the division of the day into equal, set hours was religion, Landes says. For Western practices of Christianity, prayer occurred in groups and at fixed times—time stamps that would come to be known as the “canonical hours”—marked by the ringing of monastic bells.

In Europe, the monastic bells increasingly regulated everyday activity in nearby cities and towns. Much of our modern clock nomenclature is rooted in these religious times, such as “noon” (from the Old English nōn, the ninth hour from sunrise) and “hour” (from the Old French hore, one-twelfth of a day). And if religion pushed the division of the day into even-spaced hours, it was work and business that brought about a need for further development and ubiquity of mechanical clocks—with ever-greater precision, and huge implications for everyday life.

Common people first began learning arithmetic on a wide scale, Landes writes, in order to tell the time. Where the tolling of bells once marked the passing of time in particular cities and towns, soon clock towers allowed those measurements to be more exact; so too did private timekeeping devices (such as watches and house clocks) rise in popularity as laborers wanted to be sure that their superiors were not making them work more hours than they should.

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The ties between business, capitalism, and timekeeping became even stronger during the industrial revolution. The proliferation of long-distance railroads in the 19th century brought about time standardization, and time zones—in order to avoid collisions and other dangers on the tracks. And while time is nothing but a construction of humans, today it is easy to feel as though it dictates everything that we do.

Clockmaker’s haven

Just up the road from Ye Olde Clock Shoppe—along the Susquehanna River in nearby Lancaster County, Pennsylvania—sits the National Museum of Watches and Clocks. This museum of time is home to a collection of more than 14,000 items from around the world, including the chronometer that first helped sailors find longitude, and a clock that tells the time on Mars.

The 18th and 19th centuries saw a rise in the popularity of clockmaking in the still-nascent United States. “There were a lot of reputable clockmakers working in Pennsylvania,” says Rory McEvoy, a polite, bearded horologist from England and the museum’s new executive director. As he walked through the halls and showrooms of the museum, all the clocks ticking at once sounded like the pattering of raindrops on a tin roof.

Lancaster County and its surroundings has long been a clockmaker’s haven, positioned at the crossroads of influence from English migration to Philadelphia and German migration to the countryside (including the famous Pennsylvania Dutch), and not far from the industrial city of Reading, Pennsylvania.

“There was an explosion of innovation,” McEvoy says, explaining that younger apprentice clockmakers were largely freed from the more rigid ways of their teachers in Europe. “They weren’t just making clocks. They were diversifying.” The same timing technology was applied for other practical uses. Aaron Dodd Crane, a 19th-century clockmaker from New Jersey, developed a “self-rocking” baby cradle to lull children to sleep. Others developed roasting jacks that turned meat over the fire at even intervals. So, too, did some horologists take their most impressive clocks on tour—like the Engle Monumental Clock, an 11-foot-high palace clock on display at the museum, which was completed by Pennsylvanian clockmaker Stephen Decatur Engle in 1878 and marketed at fairs and festivals as the “Eighth Wonder of the World.”

Marking life

But here, in his small, one-man repair shop across the street from a Dollar General, Jeffery prefers to stick with what he knows. Today he pulled a wooden cuckoo clock down from the wall and opened the back to reveal a maze of chains, gears, bellows and whistles. He turned the hands with his fingers. Twelve o’clock. The bellows moved up and down. A little door in the front opened to reveal a small bird.

“The most fun part of my job is trying to reach back in time,” Jeffery says. With each repair, he tries to get inside the mind of the horologist before him, to understand how a particular device had been put together. But everyone works differently, and the challenge of repairing mechanical clocks—not electric or battery-powered, in other words—does not get old. “The conservative estimate is that there are more than five thousand different varieties of mechanical clocks,” he says.

Some people will put history notes inside the cases of each clock, detailing where it came from, who used to own it, how and why it was passed down through the generations. “As time moves on, you become old enough to realize that this marked life for somebody else, somebody before you,” says Bob Desrochers, a longtime Lancaster County horologist, looking longingly at a grandfather clock in his own shop. “And this marks life now.”

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But now that time is everywhere, we take it for granted. “The context is lost,” says Brittany Nicole Cox, an antiquarian horologist based in Washington state who often lectures on the significance of clocks and the people who work on them. “If you were a craftsman or you were the village clockmaker, your importance in that village was as much as that of a priest. You were the prized person in that town, you were the bringer of that technology,” she says. “Because of mass production and automation, we’ve really moved away from what tactile and tangible craft is.”

Cox is one of only a few female horologists to have ever gained widespread recognition in a field historically dominated by men. Old photographs of clock- and watch-making shops and factories show women working, but their names were almost never etched into the dials. “They’re just not acknowledged, they’re invisible,” Cox says. That is also changing, albeit slowly. “There are more women watchmakers going into school, but still not anywhere in proportion to men.”

There are still some horology schools in the United States, though most of them are now focused on watches rather than clocks, and are often sponsored by companies like Rolex that cannot afford to let the technicians die out. But many wonder aloud whether young people today will retain the same sense of reverence as generations’ past, since there are not as many of these older clocks around anymore. Certainly, it has meant that there are fewer clockmakers to do the repairs that remain, keeping people like Jeffery busy, yet largely unnoticed.

“When you come right down to it, time is still a man-made invention,” Jeffery says. “And that makes it flawed.” The repairman who has spent most days fixing time for others now hopes that one of his grandchildren will take an interest in his own life’s work, keep it going. None of them have yet. “Otherwise, what am I going to do with all of this?” And he trailed off, gesturing at his cluttered shop of ticking clocks.

Jordan Salama is a writer and the history reporting resident for National Geographic. His first book, Every Day the River Changes, was published in 2021. Follow him on Instagram.

Rebecca Hale is a staff photographer at National Geographic. Follow her on Instagram.

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