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The 2013 Ward Francillon Time Symposium:

A "Time Blowing" Experience by Robert Gary


     The brochure promised: “Time for Everyone is a unique opportunity to learn about the origins, evolution, and future of public time from some of the foremost authorities in multiple branches of time measurement." That has to be the understatement of the year! The guest list was both impressive and intimidating: a Nobel Laureate in physics; the Chief of the Time and Frequency Division of the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology; the Senior Curator of Horology at the Royal Museum at Greenwich, London; professors from the CalTech faculty, Baylor University, and other renowned universities; famous authors of horological texts, to name only a few. Even the venue was intimidating, the California Institute of Technology—the famous CalTech, home of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (the JPL).

     As I stepped onto the CalTech campus for the first time, I feared that the “brain-o-meter” would detect my presence and activate force fields to halt my forward progress, as the general alarm, “Inferior intelligence quotient detected. Inferior intelligence quotient detected” blared across the campus. My fears were baseless because no such device exists, and the faculty, staff, and students went out of their way to welcome and assist all attendees.

     The presentations covered diverse and fascinating topics concerning time: measuring it across centuries, across biological species, across space, even across atoms, in addition to how the human brain comprehends and processes time, and how humans measured time in different historical eras. Each of the speakers had an amazing ability to convey extremely complex information in a manner that even the most uninitiated could understand and enjoy.

     Dr. Lynn Rothschild, an evolutionary biologist/astrobiologist with the Ames Research Center, explained how different species evolved over time and, with easily understood graphics, just how long life’s time period on earth actually is.

 Rothschild WEB

 Waterwheel-escapement WEB    There were discussions on tower clocks (turret clocks, as Chris McKay called them in his presentation); discussions on American-made clocks and how their low selling prices brought timepieces to the common man around the industrialized world; and a presentation about how society measured time accurately over the centuries between 1650 and 1900. Chris McKay took us on a virtual tour of the most magnificent turret clocks in the United Kingdom, including the double-frame, brass, three-train Smith turret clock of 1777 housed in the Osborne House on the Isle of Wight. This movement has a unique waterwheel escapement.

     Guest speakers were Dava Sobel, author of Longitude and Galileo’s Daughter, among other books, and Anthony Turner, author of books on antique scientific instruments. Presentations on time were given by representatives from such illustrious institutions as the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles, the Science Museum, London, England, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, Boulder, CO, and the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, England, among many others.

     In addition to antique clocks and watches, the most modern of atomic clocks was discussed by at least three of the renowned speakers. Dr. Thomas O’Brian, of the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Boulder, CO, delved into the making and uses of the most accurate clocks ever made. The most accurate clock at the moment will be off by no more than one second per 300 billion years, but further improvements in the technology are expected. Tom Van Baak, a precision clock enthusiast, described taking his children on a drive up Mount Rainier in a van full of atomic clocks so they could record the frequency difference between the elevation of his home and that of the mountain.

 OBrian WEB

     We experienced the presentations of these renowned experts and met them in person, one-on-one, at the reception and information exchange held on Friday evening. In addition to meeting and asking questions of the guest speakers, numerous participating institutions, such as the Antiquarian Horological Society; the British Horological Institute; the Musée Internationale d’Horologerie; the Worshipful Company of Clockmakers, London; and the Museum van het Nederlandse Uurwerk (the Dutch Clock and Watch Museum), had tables and representatives offering information about themselves and the programs and services they offered. In my conversations with several of the guest presenters, they each mentioned how highly impressed they were with the broad range of excellent symposium presentations. If they were impressed, think how impressed we attendees were!

     The crown jewel, the pièce de résistance, of the event was the exhibition of timepieces created by the renowned British clockmaker of the seventeenth century, Thomas Tompion. The exhibit was stunning and actually overwhelming to experience. This alone—the largest display in one location ever in North America of the work of this incredible clockmaker—was worth attending the Symposium. Shown in the exhibit are ornate clocks, tower clocks, and repeating pocket watches crafted for seventeenth-century aristocrats. The owner of the collection sought a fitting way to celebrate the 300th anniversary of the making of these British National Treasures. There was no better way than to exhibit his collection at the 2013 NAWCC Time for Everyone Ward Francillon Time Symposium in Pasadena, CA.

     The generosity of the collection’s owner did not stop with the Symposium. Following the closing ceremony of the Time Symposium, the exhibit was shipped to the National Watch & Clock Museum in Columbia, PA, for a limited two-month engagement. This second exhibit, called Majestic Time, was opened on November 22, 2013, and will run through January 19, 2014. NAWCC members and the general public may experience this incredible era in horological history by seeing the Tompion clocks.

Robert Gary received his MA from the University of Northern Colorado. He and his wife, Susan, owned and operated a business together for over 25 years before retiring this past January. They both have a background in marketing. Robert is a member of Ventura Chapter 190. He has written articles for local chapter newsletters and has had several articles published in The Bulletin. Robert began collecting about twenty years ago. He has recently been active in assisting the NAWCC in preserving old 35mm slide show/cassette tape programs by converting them into video productions. Robert's wife Susan is also an active member of Chapter 190. She received her MA from the University of Denver. Susan began collecting and repairing her newly acquired clocks about two years ago. She assists Robert in the converting of the slide show/cassette programs. In addition, both Susan and Robert videotaped all 19 hours of the presentations given at the 2013 Ward Francillon Time Symposium held in Pasadena in November. These will soon be available for lending to NAWCC members.

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