Time Out

By Anne Vickman | Boston Home |

WHETHER CATCHING A flick in Coolidge Corner or depositing a check, our lives depend on the mechanization of time. It’s what got us from horse and carriage to Prius; from pencil and paper to iPhone; from the barter system to global banking.

And it turns out that tracking time is an old Boston tradition. Simon Willard, one of the country’s most innovative 18th-century clock makers, had a workshop on Washington Street in Roxbury; it was there that he built his signature longcase clocks, designed a version of the shelf clock, invented and patented both banjo and lighthouse clocks, and also improved upon the English clock jack—a mechanical device used to rotate meat over an open fireplace—by adding a system of weights that could drive the gears automatically. According to Robert Cheney, Skinner auction house’s director of science, technology, and clocks, Willard was the Henry Ford of his day. By outsourcing the components he couldn’t make himself, he significantly sped up production, and made a small fortune in the process.

Willard’s clocks, made entirely by hand using wood, brass, and steel components, were expensive, even for the time. They quickly became status symbols, bought by prominent Americans like Thomas Jefferson for institutions such as the University of Virginia and Harvard College. Today his clocks can be found inside the U.S. Capitol, on the front of the Old State House, and in Old South Church. Many command five-figure prices, and they’re coveted by collectors.

But Willard wasn’t the only clock maker to marry form with timekeeping function. A new generation of inspired horologists are alive and well, designing timepieces in every conceivable style—from riffs on the classic cuckoo to shape-shifting pieces made from silicone. “There are freeform clocks that are being made today that look like a wall sculpture, and you hardly recognize them as clocks,” says Cheney. “If you have a moving sculpture that’s also an accurate timekeeper, it gives you a new way to look at the passing of time. That’s a cool concept.”