I was browsing a junk market, looking for an old clock. All I needed was a decent case for a mechanism I’ve had kicking around for years, so the clock didn’t need to be working. I thought I’d be able to pick one up quite cheaply, and the project would keep me out of mischief over the Christmas holidays, while I pondered my next literary adventure. Funny things though, old clocks; broken ones of the mechanical variety still fetch decent prices, while broken quartz ones don’t even make it to the the junk stall – they just end up as landfill.
Modern, consumer grade quartz clocks can look a bit cheap, tending to be housed in frail plastic cases. They do what they were designed to do, namely tell the time, and for a fiver you can chuck it out and buy another when you’re bored with it or it no longer matches your decor. In fact I’ve read recently that most of the consumer-grade stuff we buy is thrown away within a year – even if there’s nothing wrong with it. Society is just designed that way now – indeed the entire global economy relies upon it.
There were a few quartz clocks on the junk stalls, all looking pretty cheap to be honest, costing little and ticking away quite merrily, because unlike their mechanical brethren, there’s not much can go wrong with them. Meanwhile the mechanical ones sulked mostly in mute disgrace – missing pendulums, mangled balances, busted mainsprings and missing keys. They were out of my price range anyway – I’d set myself an arbitrary limit of a tenner. Some of them had good looking cases, but it would have felt wrong to push the budget only to throw the mechanism away and replace it with a battery one. Call me odd, but some things just aren’t right, and I’m not tooled up these days to tackle any of the number of ailments an old mechanical movement might be suffering from. Better to let someone else have the pleasure of that kind of project.
There was just one decent looking quartz clock, and at £8.00 it came in well under my budget. It bore a label that said it was busted, but it was a nice looking case and would probably do for what I wanted. When I picked it up though I felt this busted clock had more of a story to tell. It was heavy for a start, so it was higher end consumer grade. It spoke to me of brass and screws and a way of making things that’s nowadays reserved only for rich men’s things, because that way of making clocks is now just too expensive for the everyday mantle-piece. I’m not saying it was an undiscovered treasure – it was still a consumer grade clock, just from an era when we made things differently. Brass and screws also meant I could take it apart and tinker with it.
I didn’t know the brand, but it said it was English and this dated it considerably because, without being cynical, we’ve not made consumer stuff here for a long time now. How old was it? Well, the only clue was inside, where the ubiquitous little black- box battery movement told me it was of West German origin – so, in truth, it was a bit of a hybrid then, this old clock. West Germany also ceased to be on the eve of reunification in 1990, so the clock was at least twenty five years old. Solid state quartz mechanisms began appearing from about 1980 onwards, so at most it was thirty five years old – old, yes, but not exactly antique.
It was tarnished and a little sad looking, but brass plate polishes up like new and I reckoned I’d done okay for what I paid, though I must admit it didn’t sound like that when I was explaining to the Lady Graeme how I’d been out and bought a broken clock. Anyway, I dug out my tool kit and stripped it down. Sure enough, I discovered generous gauge brass plate and screws – nothing glued, so it all came apart like a flat pack kit. For good measure, I popped open the black box mechanism. Usually there’s not much to see with solid state electronics – at least nothing that makes a visual kind of sense to a mechanical engineer – but this one had a curious electromagnetic actuator that gave the gear train a kick every second, only it wasn’t kicking right because it’s designed to run with the actuator in the six o’clock position, and someone had fixed the mechanism with it pointing to three o’clock. I sorted that out and off it went. Suddenly we had a runner!
So, I spent a happy afternoon with metal polish and an entire roll of kitchen-wipes, polishing the muck from those brass plates and all the other bits and bobs – the machined columns, the turned feet and fixings and handle. They all came up like gold. When it was back together I had a clock worth a hundred pounds. Let’s say it’s about thirty years old – not a bad innings for a consumer item – but it was the manufacturing methods and the materials used in its construction that saved it from the junk bin, and which makes this old ticker among the last of its kind. This is a clock that will still be around in another thirty years, even if it goes wrong, because the quality of the case makes it worth fixing, and it’s easily fixable.
Consumer grade clocks aren’t made out of solid brass plate any more – not in England anyway. It’s not an expensive material, but it takes man-hours to machine and polish and tap and screw, which is why that kind of construction is nowadays reserved for the luxury market. Sure, you can still get higher end consumer grade clocks made of solid brass but they’re made where the hands that put them together are cheaper. It’s not that the necessary skills are scarce or difficult to learn. We have millions of kids now in dead-end burger flipping jobs who could easily be taught to make things this way again. But we don’t teach them, because even on minimum wage their hands are still too expensive, and the companies that made this sort of thing all downsized and moved up market, or went to the wall a quarter of a century ago, ran slap bang into an eastern tsunami of disposable technology coming the other way. That’s why we’ll never make a consumer grade clock like this in England this again.
I feel a curious affinity with this old clock. We both had our genesis in a bygone era, and although the world has moved on, and indeed looks upon us both these days as embarrassing hangers on from a long obsolete economic paradigm, we’re both still here, still ticking, doing what we were made to do. The clock tells the time, while I ponder both its meaning, and mine.