Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Stuff I Love #2: IBM Electric Clock



      It was a focal point in the school rooms of my youth. Spare and perfect and beautiful, from its sans-serif numbers, to the little black hash marks denoting the minutes, to that red second hand, which somehow pulled it all together. This was the top-of-the-line electric wall clock for decades, and all other brands were something less. Which leads us to the iconic "IBM," the name attached, not to some complex computer mainframe, but a simple electric motor pushing hands around a face, the most basic analog display. 
     Actually, not so simple—not just an individual clock plugged into a wall, but part of a complex master/slave timekeeping system where the individual clocks were controlled by a central timepiece, a coordination particularly essential in schools, where you couldn't have dozens of different classrooms beginning and ending at dozens of slightly differing times, all based on the varying time kept in each room. 
     If it seems odd to have an IBM clock, and it does, that's because we're swayed by recent history, "recent" meaning over the past 60 years. The business was founded in 1911 as the Computing-Tabulating-Recording Company, changing its name to the International Business Machines Corporation in 1924. Long before IBM dreamed of digital computers, it was selling factory timecard devices and clock systems, along with commercial scales, tabulators, plus meat and cheese slicers. 
      This particular clock was manufactured by the IBM Time Equipment Division, and was shipped, according to its serial number, in January, 1957, to the grey trapezoidal barge of the Chicago Sun-Times Building at 401 N. Wabash, which was about to open. It did its job without fail for 47 years. Then just before the building was torn down, in 2004, I had the foresight to rescue this clock from the fourth floor lunchroom. I had looked at it for 17 years, decided that we had a bond, and nobody else seemed to want it anyway.
     If you just have to have one, with no condemned newspaper building at hand to plunder, Schoolhouse Electric created a reproduction that you can buy for $235. Though it runs on a single C battery, which seems a flaw -- mine plugs into the wall, and I imagine that changing that battery would become a chore. You can buy the originals on eBay, probably for less, depending on the condition.  Some look pretty beat up. 
     Mine is fairly pristine.   It keeps nearly-perfect time. I have it hanging at eye level, just beyond my computer—which of course also would tell me the time,with utterly accurate atomic clock precision. But it just isn't the same. The IBM clock has a certain seriousness to it. This is a NORAD clock, the clock you would expect at the command center deep within Cheyenne Mountain, many of them in a row, set to various times around the globe: New York, London, Paris, Moscow, Tokyo. A Cold War clock. Yet, alongside its dignity, and its manifestation of the relentlessness and importance of time, the IBM clock is not without an element of joy, the release it promised long ago to all those youthful faces that looked up at it during tough long division classes. The escape that's coming, if only you do your work and wait. Now, of course, older, we'd hold it back more than we'd urge it forward, though we can do neither. Tempus fugit, as the Romans said. No stopping that. So we might as well watch time flee in as pure and aesthetic a form as possible.

12 comments:

  1. At my grade school the class rooms had mechanical pendulum clocks, I could see it swinging back and forth through a little window. The building was also heated with coal, ancient times.

    ReplyDelete
  2. My grade school (Philip Rogers, on N. Washtenaw) had these clocks. I remember we were fascinated and amused one time as our clock got reset from "central command" (probably after a DST change): the minute hand spinning at second hand speed.

    ReplyDelete
  3. That picture is a fascinating look at your desk. And that note regarding Steve Neal makes me very melancholy for his columns. You two were, by far, my favorite columnists back then.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Changing the C battery occasionally wouldn't be such a big deal, and buying the battery-run clock may be more practical considering all the storms we've had here lately resulting in loss of electrical power. That said, the plug-in aspect is part of the appeal of the original clock and is the one I would prefer.

    ReplyDelete
  5. My grade school, Hiram Belding (now it's said to be in Mayfair/Old Irving Park, but then we just called it the Northwest Side) had clocks that probably dated back to when the school was built in the late 1890s. The minute hand would ka-THUNK forward, after a slight backward hitch each time. I spent HOURS staring at those clocks, and I remember the whole room of students clutching our books at 3:14, one foot already pointed towards the door, ready to sprint to freedom as soon as we heard that last ka-THUNK. Good save, and good column, Neil. I hadn't thought of those clocks for years, but I find I can picture them perfectly even now.

    ReplyDelete
  6. @Scott ... you mean the sticker for the Marine Animal Disentanglement Hotline?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I am really curious as to why that hotline is one your wall.

      Have you been secretly freeing the Asian Carp from the electric fence in the Chicago River?

      Are you attempting to let loose the Seals from Lincoln park zoo so they can once again eat deep dish pizza?

      Or are you merely concerned that if you are ever turned into a giant tortoise by a Tribune columnist, and caught in a web, you will know what number to call?

      Delete
  7. I wonder if that classroom clock that ticked backwards in "Risky Business" was an IBM?

    ReplyDelete
  8. I picked up the sticker in a grocery store in Hyannis, thought it was cool, stuck it on the wall. Not that interesting really...

    ReplyDelete
  9. Aging is an inevitable process, that every element existing on this planet goes through. Like every living being has a limited life-span, so do our homes and the electrical essentials that we use within them.Jim Rohal

    ReplyDelete

Thanks for commenting. As soon as I vet your remarks, they'll be posted, assuming they aren't, you know, mean and crazy.