People do a lot of clock watching at a museum in Pennsylvania Tick-tock: It's not exactly time in a bottle at the Watch and Clock Museum.

February 05, 1996|By Robert A. Erlandson | Robert A. Erlandson,SUN STAFF

COLUMBIA, PA. — COLUMBIA, Pa.-- We sing "As Time Goes By," "Turn Back the Hands of Time" and "Till the End of Time." We joke that we have time on our hands, that it "flies" when we're having fun and "drags" when we're not.

But it's all in our minds. Time just keeps its inexorable path, leaving us to find ways of measuring and recording it that we can understand and use.

This has led to the science of horology, the study of time and the timepieces that have had a complex and fascinating role in cultural, sociological and industrial history.

"Tempus Vitam Regit" -- Time Rules Life -- proclaims the motto of the 37,000-member National Association of Watch and Clock Collectors. True enough. We all regulate our lives according to various timekeeping devices, and some of the country's best are part of the association's Watch and Clock Museum collections.

Between York and Lancaster, about an hour's drive from Baltimore, the museum has more than 9,000 examples of time measurement ranging from a replica of a 5,000-year-old Egyptian pot that measured water dripping at a steady pace to atomic clocks capable of dividing "time" into microscopic parts.

Over time, accuracy and artisanship converged to the point where some timepieces merit the title masterpiece.

During America's Golden Age of clockmaking in the 18th century, David Rittenhouse, Joseph Ellicott, Peter Stretch, Simon Willard and Eli Terry combined mechanical advances with magnificent wooden cases in some of the finest longcase clocks ever produced. Fifteen of these works, several never before shown publicly, are on display until March 30 at the Watch and Clock Museum.

"These are probably the finest examples by the best-known and best makers of that era," says the association's executive director, Thomas J. Bartels. "Each clock brings its movement, its case or both to the exhibit."

Two of the 15 clocks were made by Joseph Ellicott, who worked in Buckingham, Pa., before moving to Maryland in 1774 and forming the compound of mills that became Ellicott City.

Ellicott's four-sided astronomical clock, 9 feet tall and made to stand in the center of a room, exemplifies all the best in such an instrument. Still in the family, the clock built in 1769 is maintained in excellent condition. The front dial shows time and a calendar. On one side is an orrery dial tracing the movements of the moon and planets while displaying days of the week, years and hours. The opposite dial is engraved with the 24 song titles that play hourly or every three hours. The fourth side's glass panel shows the mechanism.

The exhibit, which took more than three years to assemble from public and private sources, includes one Baltimore clock, made in 1795 by Charles Tinges. Its importance lies in the magnificent mahogany case, inlaid with grape clusters and the graduated bell flowers that were the mark of Baltimore craftsmen of that period.

The watch and clock collector's association was founded here in 1943, a few miles from Lancaster's famous Hamilton Watch Company. Its Watch and Clock Museum opened in 1977 and has expanded twice to accommodate 15,000 annual visitors and a growing collection, which represents examples in timekeeping from the early 17th century to the present.

The museum's large collection of longcase, or grandfather, clocks, is balanced with strong collections of German musical clocks; wrist and pocket watches of every type imaginable; tower clocks, 19th-century French clocks and American clocks from 1780 to 1880, including banjo clocks, which are considered the first truly American style of clock case. And novelty clocks use such things as steel balls and running water to tell time.

The most popular exhibit is Stephen Engle's huge Monumental Clock with its marvelous automata. Mr. Bartels rescued it from oblivion and members of the watch and clock collector's association restored it in a year.

Engle, an inventor-dentist from Luzerne County, Pa., worked from 1857 to 1877 on the clock, which became the prototype for other monumental clocks.

In its carved and gilded case, the clock has eight separate movements that tell time and chart planetary movements, power the organ and operate 48 moving figures.

"The Engle clock is definitely the most popular exhibit," says Mr. Bartels. "People love this, especially the children. I've seen people sit in front of the clock for hours just listening and watching the different things that happen."

Watch and Clock Museum

Where: 415 Poplar St., Columbia, Pa. 17512

When: 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday; noon-4 p.m. Sundays (May to December)

Admission: $3; discounts to senior citizens and children

Call: (717) 684-8261

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