Michelle Martin

Ticking of the clock

Wednesday, March 16, 2022

When I woke the morning after Daylight Savings Time went into effect, I didn’t have to stop and think what time it was.

I just picked up my phone, which showed that I only had an hour to get up and get ready for Mass, even though my body was telling me I had at least two hours, and really, I should roll over and go back to sleep for a while.

But once I did get up, there were several clocks to change: On the stove, and on the microwave, and, perhaps most important, on the coffee maker. Because when it comes to getting ready for school and work in the morning, everyone in the house knows it’s the coffee maker clock that counts.

All those clocks are plugged in or use battery power, or, in some cases, both. They reminded me, though, of something I haven’t seen for a while: a wind-up, fold-up travel alarm clock.

I think the first time I saw one was when my grandparents were visiting when I was a child. They traveled a bit, and my grandfather was — to put it mildly — a stickler for organization and time management. Of course, the little case in their luggage popped open into a small clock, complete with a knob to wind it and a bell to wake you.

I suppose the loud ticking sound it made would help some people sleep.

A quick online search found a couple of similar-looking new clocks, though they are battery operated, feature a loud beep instead of a bell for an alarm and don’t tick. EBay offered a few “vintage” ones, complete with bell and wind-up mechanism for $15 to $25, plus shipping.

I can’t but think that the change in technology signifies a change in the way we think of time. Time has always been immutable, of course, always moving forward hour by hour, day by day, year by year.

But it’s only in the past few generations that we have measured it so universally and so precisely, from a second to a millisecond to nanosecond and beyond. In the first century, when Jesus was alive, the day was measured by the sun. The Romans used sundials to divide each day (the time the sun was up) into 12 hours; in Chicago, that would make an hour in June roughly 30 minutes longer than an hour in December.

In the United States, time wasn’t standardized until 1883, when it needed to be to allow reliable railroad schedules. Now I can look at my phone and tell the time, to the second, anywhere in the world.

That’s helpful when we can send an email around the world nearly instantaneously and see and hear people on the other side of the globe in real time as easily as tapping the video call icons on our phones.

Sometimes, though, I wonder if we felt more connected to our days, more responsible for the use of the time granted us, when we had to wind our clocks every day, and fell asleep to the sound of the second ticking away.


  • family life