Wednesday, November 7, 2012

The sound of clocks

Our movie discussion group met in a lovely home last month to watch Shadowlands, the 1994 film that stars Anthony Hopkins as C.S. Lewis and Debra Winger as Joy Davidman Gresham. There were a couple of charming old clocks in the room, and periodically during the movie these clocks would let loose with a series of cuckoos, bells and chimes. We all had to strain to hear what Jack (Lewis) and Joy were saying.

Why do old clocks make so much noise? In fact, it was their noise that was their reason for existing in the first place.

Early clocks were not very accurate, not nearly as reliable as a sundial, at least on a sunny day. But sundials could not tell monks when it was time to get up to pray or workers when it was time to go home. Mechanical clocks, with their cuckoos, bells and chimes, could. The earliest clocks didn't even have dials. You couldn't tell by just looking at them what time it was. You had to wait for them to sound.

In several languages, clocks got their names from the bells they rang. In Dutch, the word for bell is klok, in Danish it is klokke, in Swedish klocka and Norwegian klokka. The English borrowed this idea and came up with clock, even though English speakers call a bell something different.

Today we may not enjoy the sound of clocks while we're watching movies or trying to sleep, but a few centuries ago that noise had the ring of modern technology and was welcomed.

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