Clockwork, Why?

Why is there this fascination with clockwork?

My Grandfather Clock

I just finished reading a novel called The Clockwork Three.  In several stores this weekend I saw promotions for a book titled Clockwork Prince, which is apparently a sequel to something called Clockwork Angel.

Now, I haven’t read the latter works, but in The Clockwork Three “clockwork” provided only one third of the plot and not the most important part by far.  The book could have been titled The Green Violin or Hidden Holly Leaves with equal justification.  Obviously, someone figured that “clockwork” would sell the book best.

This year at Bubonicon (our local SF convention), clockwork was much in evidence.  What fascinated me was that most of the clockwork on display was completely non-functional.  Instead of being incorporated into working mechanisms, gears and cogwheels were scattered on the bodices of gowns, around the bands of hats, and glittered like metal snowflakes from a wide variety of jewelry.  I realize these fashion statements are part of the steampunk craze, but that doesn’t solve the larger question for me.

Why is something that used to symbolize functioning with perfect mechanical precision – as in the once common phrase “working like clockwork” – being proudly displayed as non-functional?  I’ve seen pictures of computer terminals and cell phones decorated with gears.  That seems crazy.

I have a grandfather clock of which I am very fond.  I don’t mind that it needs to be wound on a regular basis, nor that this winding involves my kneeling like a supplicant before a strange altar and gently moving heavy brass weights from the bottom to the top of the clock case.

However, when it comes to relying on something to get me up in the morning, I’m very happy we have a battery-powered atomic alarm clock.  It will do its job without my needing to remember to wind it.  A power outage won’t take it out (as in the electric alarm clocks popular in my younger days).  Heck, it even sets itself, which is a good thing, since I can never remember if we’re springing forward or falling back.

I am fascinated with the entire question of how time is measured.  I have an armillary sundial in my garden that can be set for daylight savings time or standard time.  I have a sundial ring I can wear on a necklace.  In addition to the aforementioned grandfather clock, I’ve owned my share of watches that needed to be wound.  I remember with great fondness an alarm clock I was given when I was in high school that had a loud tick that varied in pulse depending on whether or not I remembered to wind it.

For those of you who share my fascination with timekeeping and what it has meant to human society, I strongly recommend the book Time’s Pendulum by Jo Ellen Barnett.  It not only traces the development of various time keeping measurements but speculates as to when those developments made time subject to human whim, rather than human whim subject to time.

I’ve even written a novel – yet unsold – called Sundial Ring which deals with a place where time works very strangely indeed.

But I don’t get the clockwork craze…  Is it about predictability (like clockwork) or about something else entirely?  Why do the people who seem most fascinated by this trend want to carry it over to electronic devices that work better than clockwork ever did?

Can you figure this one out for me?

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7 Responses to “Clockwork, Why?”

  1. Peter Says:

    I think in a lot of cases it’s about predictability, but more in the sense of “Of course I’m an individualist nonconformist, can’t you tell by the uniform?” than the sense you meant.

    More generally, I think the appeal of a piece of functional clockwork (or at least a piece of clockwork that looks like it *should* be functional) is visual – if you open up the workings of an old-school pocket watch or a grandfather clock it’s obvious, even to a completely untrained eye, that the various whirring and clinking gears are *doing something*, even if you can’t follow quite what or why or how. If you pop off the back of a digital wristwatch or alarm clock all you see if a few square cm of silicon with some odd-shaped lumps here and there; absent some kind of background in electrical engineering, it’s very, very opaque.

  2. heteromeles Says:

    I agree with Peter, sort of. I’d also blame BoingBoing, which has been popularizing Steampunk for the last few years. And it does look cool, which is why people are wearing gears as fashion items, even as they yack on the iPhones.

    Why now? Partly it’s been a couple of decades since cyberpunk was big, so this is the punk of the disenfranchised. Partly I think it’s the idea of the oil running out. If we’re going to run civilization on coal, then we’re “going back” to the era of steam (if you don’t think about it too hard). Perhaps steampunk is sort of a vision of our future, the same way cyberpunk was supposed to be where we are now, twenty years on. Instead of mirrorshades and implants, we’ll have hand-cranked cell phones.

  3. Dominique Says:

    I think the fascination stems from what the pieces do. I would say that whether a clockwork piece is functional or not, they are always recognizable. They remind the onlooker of one of man’s great accomplishments of the Victorian era. The clock is the product of man’s mastering of time.

  4. Sue Says:

    I’ve always thought that gears were sort of music made solid. If you believe that the same part of the brain that is responsible for music is also responsible for math, then gears are the visual connection between them. The fact that so many things with gears in them make musical noises seems to support this feeling. Maybe an unconscious recognition of this connection explains why people use gears as decoration. How otherwise do you decorate tangible things with something as intangible as music?
    I’ve always been fascinated by the shapes one could make with Spirographs, those plastic gears put to the work of creating art with math, and whose beautiful creations always suggested music to me.

  5. Max Kaehn (@mithriltabby) Says:

    Clockwork looks fascinating because you can see the mechanisms in action; it’s much harder to see electronics doing the same thing, and even an internal combustion engine moves so quickly it’s a blur. Spreading nonfunctional gears around evokes that imagery without requiring that the decorator be a mechanical genius who is able to make a clockwork device that actually runs while spread out over an exposed surface.

  6. janelindskold Says:

    I didn’t mean to imply I don’t think clockwork is neat. I sincerely do!

    One of my favorite watches had all the gears visible through a clear panel in the back.

    However, I wouldn’t want to go back to a “steampunk” era, not even if we could manage to eliminate the smog and pollution. I have a hand-cranked flashlight and that takes enough work to use. I can’t imagine what a hand-cranked cellphone would demand!

  7. Paul Says:

    Perhaps the use of “clockwork” in titles goes back to the book (and the Kubrick movie), “A Clockwork Orange,” which was more about juvenile delinquents running wild than steampunk. It seemed that a lot of SF titles appropriated the term (Ron Goulart’s “Clockwork Pirates” comes to mind, at the other end of the spectrum). Maybe SF writers just think it’s a cool word, like western writers used to name every other character “Ringo” even though they had nothing to do with the actual person with that name.

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