The Public Time Gallery

The Public Time Gallery is the newest gallery to be installed in the Museum. It includes an impressive collection of American-made public clocks as well as public clocks from around the world.

The phrase public time clocks refers to clocks that can be seen by anyone, as opposed to personal timepieces that are in someone’s home, office, or pocket, or worn on a wrist. Public time clocks are usually found in a building’s steeple or wall or on posts, so that the public can tell the time of day.

Also known as steeple, tower, turret (in England), pole, and street clocks, they were a necessity before people could afford their own clocks or watches. Before the 19th century, personal clocks and watches were very expensive to own.

The village tower clock was often located in the steeple of a church or courthouse. It not only allowed people to know what time it was, but it also allowed those who had personal clocks or watches to set the correct time. The gears behind the dial powered the hands that people could see from ground level. The bell that struck the hours alerted those not looking at the clock to know the hour. Typically, a clock’s bell could be heard for miles.

As you look around this gallery, you’ll see tower clocks of many sizes. Why the variation in size? The simple answer is that it takes a larger, more powerful clock to turn larger (longer) hands, and it takes a larger, more powerful strike mechanism to strike a larger bell. As an example, a very large and famous clock known as Big Ben is located in the Queen’s Tower, formerly Westminster Tower, in London. (Actually, Big Ben is the name of the bell, but people typically refer to the clock as Big Ben.) The hands are 24 feet long and there are four sets of them. The bell weighs 13 tons and the hammer that strikes the bell weighs 400 pounds! It takes a lot of energy to move a hammer of that size while continuing to power four sets of those big hands.

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