Time after time

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Thomas Jefferson’s Great Clock is, perhaps, not a good clock. The timepiece, which hangs in the Monticello entrance hall, has kept steady time, with some exceptions, since 1805. Roughly two weeks ago, the Great Clock—also called the Seven-day Clock, for its sets of cannonball weights that mark days of the week on a wall chart and descend into Jefferson’s cellar—stopped.

Jefferson, who remarked near his death that he felt “like an old watch,” designed the Great Clock (upper right), which has been in Monticello for more than 200 years.

“The clock is old and, since it does run, it needs periodic conservation work,” said Carrie Taylor, Monticello’s collections manager, at the time. The clock was designed by Jefferson himself, and crafted in Philadelphia by a man named Peter Spurck, an apprentice at a firm called Leslie and Price. It presented mechanical problems almost immediately (due, Jefferson wrote, to the “bungling manner in which [Spurck] had made it”).

Those problems haven’t changed, nor have the repairs. However, the caretaker has.

David Todd drove the 100-plus miles from Kilmarnock to Monticello and arrived after the last tour had ended. Todd, 69, is a horologist, a clockmaker formerly employed by the Smithsonian Institute. He once crafted a model of an automaton commissioned by a 16th-century Spanish king, and completely restored the Great Clock 15 years ago, but he had come back to repair it because, in his words, Jefferson “got ripped off on it.”

“Spurck didn’t do a particularly good job,” says Todd, during an interview that began at roughly 3:43pm. “Partly because of his own ineptitude, and partly because of Jefferson’s specifications —which showed he knew a lot about mechanics, but not quite enough about clocks.” By the time Todd left Monticello on Thursday, the clock was up and running again.

Much like Jefferson himself, Todd is obsessed with history and practicality in equal measure. He still has the first clock he received, from his parents; it is a German clock fitted with a gauge that tells him when it will rain. He repaired chronometers and binoculars in the British Army, then apprenticed for a clockmaker who happened to use tools more than a century out of date. 

“He used all the mechanical tools, hand tools, but they were all hand- or foot-powered,” says Todd. “Without knowing it at the time, I was learning the way things were done 100 years ago.”

 

Jefferson, says Todd, had a bit of a fixation on time. Guides at Monticello tell visitors that an obelisk clock at the foot of the president’s bed allowed him to wake and begin the day’s work when it caught the sunlight. He ordered a clock from Philadelphia horologist Thomas Voight in 1811, one accurate enough to time an eclipse. Todd says Jefferson used the Voight clock to set his stopwatch, by which he set the rest of the clocks in his home.

However, Todd says Jefferson’s interest in time may have begun at an earlier age. Jefferson was born April 2, 1743; in 1752, his birthday was bumped to April 13 as more countries moved to the Gregorian Calendar. If you take Todd at his word—and consider that Jefferson also recorded the temperature twice daily—then you might think Charlottesville’s most famous resident valued precision above all.

“The Thomas Voight clock kept time to [within] about a second a month, so it didn’t need much setting,” says Todd. “It was a very accurate clock.” And, so long as it stayed in working order, it set the others. 

Inevitably, clocks break down. Todd says the Great Clock is under a lot of pressure; the cannonball weights that literally make the clock tick weigh 18 pounds each, and number more than a dozen. There’s a poignancy to precision lost. When Jefferson was near death, he told his grandson that he felt “like an old watch, with a pinion worn out here and a wheel there, until it can go no longer.” Nor is the poignancy lost on Todd, who recites the line by heart.

 

Todd is currently building a clock of his own, with pieces fashioned at a blacksmith forge in Northumberland County, Virginia.

“The worst thing was cutting the teeth, because they all had to be cut with a saw and filed to shape,” he says. Todd composed the design in his head, and says he committed nothing to paper except for a few figures.

Todd’s father was also a craftsman, and made tools. His son currently makes many of the tools used by craftsmen at Colonial Williamsburg. “He’s actually much better than I at metal work and wood work,” says Todd. “Every piece of wood I touch turns to sawdust.”

It takes a man like Jefferson or like Todd to tirelessly pursue precision; the rest of us set our watches to their work. Todd, it turns out, does not have many clocks in his home, and says he does not collect clocks. “I really don’t get any joy at all going to an auction and spending an arm and a leg on a clock.”

Asked whether he considers himself punctual, Todd laughed. “You must be joking! Well, I was supposed to be here at 3pm.” The interview concluded at 4:26pm, give or take a few minutes.

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Time after time

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Hey Ace: Have you seen those peculiar timepieces —the ones with the animated sun and moon circling around the screen—that have been popping up around the Downtown Mall? My little girl found a kid-sized version in one of the Virginia Discovery Museum play zones, and later I spotted another one in the Bank of America lobby, built into a grandfather clock. What’s the deal?—Chrono-Curious-in-Charlottesville
 
You know, Ace remembers seeing that whirly clock thingy at a First Friday art opening in BozArt Gallery, during his hunt for the evening’s finest hors d’oeuvres. Having stuffed his coat pockets with Lindt chocolate truffles and prosciutto squares, Ace slinked toward the door—only to find himself suddenly grabbed by the subtle glow of an LCD screen, and curiously transfixed by the circular motion of the heavenly bodies on display.
 
The mystery apparatus is called a “Synclecron,” part of a series created in collaboration by local artist John Lynch and inventor Yale Landsberg. Lynch built and painted the cases of the three clocks on the Downtown Mall, which originally displayed at the Paramount Theatre in November 2009; Landsberg conceived of the mechanism itself, and wrote a program for it with the help of hardware guru Jeremy Pratts. In principle, the Synclecron juxtaposes standard time with a graphic depicting the natural cycles of day and night. At any given time, in other words, it’ll show you the position of the sun and moon as they’d appear to the observer, and also emits a corresponding level of ambient light. 
 
Why? In an e-mail, Landsberg detailed the potentially therapeutic effect of the clocks on the Circadian rhythms of the observer. By “resupplying” the human biological clock with visual information about natural time cycles—especially during winter or in an indoor work setting, when that information isn’t readily available—Landsberg says the Synclecron may help people overcome insomnia, chronic fatigue, symptoms of arthritis and a variety of other disorders. For this reason, in addition to the Mall series, Syncleron clocks also reside in the Alzheimer’s and dementia units of the Morningside and Our Lady of Peace assisted living centers in Charlottesville, among other places.
 
So does it work? Ace, whose biological processes might be beyond repair, hasn’t arrived at a verdict yet. But either way, it’s one of the prettiest placebos he’s ever seen.
 
You can ask Ace yourself. Intrepid investigative reporter Ace Atkins has been chasing readers’ leads for 21 years. If you have a question for Ace, e-mail it to ace@c-ville.com. 
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