Inside the National Watch & Clock Museum

Featured Article,On the Road,Travel Destinations
December 29, 2013

Pennsylvania watch and clock museum exhibits the evolution of timekeeping.

A monumental clock is among the National Watch & Clock Museum's most entertaining timekeepers.
A monumental clock is among the National Watch & Clock Museum's most entertaining timekeepers.
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Clock-watching is encouraged at the National Watch & Clock Museum in Columbia, Pennsylvania, home to 13,000 timekeeping devices from around the world.

Opened in 1977 by the National Association of Watch and Clock Collectors, the museum chronicles man’s efforts to record the passage of time with technology from ancient sundials to contemporary atomic clocks.

“Time initially was measured in broad swaths—a time to plant and a time to harvest,” says museum director Noel Poirer, 42. “Then we began to try to measure and control it.”

Exhibits range from replicas of Far Eastern clocks that mark time with flowing water and burning incense, to American and European clocks and wristwatches powered by weights, springs and batteries.

Poirer notes that standardized time became necessary in the United States during the 1830s with the arrival of steam locomotives, which ran on single-line tracks and operated according to timetables to avoid collisions. To stay on schedule, engineers carried railroad-grade watches in their pockets.

Hundreds of these pocket watches are on display, along with other timekeeping treasures such as public tower clocks, automobile clocks and dozens of ornate tall-case clocks with brass pendulums. These timepieces became known as “grandfather clocks” after the popular 1876 song “Grandfather’s Clock” by Henry Clay Work.

The museum’s most entertaining timekeeper is the first-known American monumental clock, dubbed the “Eighth Wonder of the World.” Completed in 1878 by Stephen D. Engle, the 11-foot-tall and 8-foot-wide marvel features 48 movable figures, including Satan, Father Time and Continental soldiers, that parade to organ music. Engle exhibited the clock throughout the East.

Affordable Timepieces

Historically, only wealthy individuals could afford clocks. Mass production beginning in the 1850s made clocks and watches affordable for all. Before long, every man had time in his home and on his hands.