The grandfather clock – a new home and a redesign

We have a new member of the family. That is not actually true, but it feels like that, as there is a certain “presence” in the house. The tall, looming figure in our hall is a grandfather clock, which ticks away all day and solemnly chimes every hour, on the hour …

Anyone who knows me might ask the obvious question: why would I want this ancient time-piece, when I have many, much more efficient and convenient ways to tell the time? Well, the answer is that I did not acquire the clock – it sort of found us. It has been in my wife’s family for many years – maybe a century or more – and needed a new home. So, it is staying with us – for a while anyway.

clockThe first problem was transportation. The clock was installed at my mother-in-law’s house, which is about 15 minutes drive from us. Regardless of the size of the clock [it is taller than me], you cannot just pick it up and shove into the back of a car. At least, you cannot do that and expect it to still work again. It needs more delicate handling. We considered finding a professional to do the job, but then I had an idea. I had met a guy at the Repair Cafe, Alex, who repairs clocks [amongst other things]. I sought his advice.

Alex explained carefully what was required, but I was still nervous that I would destroy a family heirloom. I asked him if he would come along and assist me with making the move. He readily agreed and we went to start the process. He showed me how to lift off the top part of the case, unhook the weights [there are two: one for the clock and the other for the chime], disconnect the pendulum and lift out the clock mechanism. We carefully packed everything into my car and headed home, where we carefully reassembled the clock, which seemed to work with no problem – just a little bit of “debugging” was needed with the chime mechanism. Not only did Alex facilitate getting the job done, but he taught me enough to feel somewhat confident that I can do it alone next time. He would accept no payment and seemed very genuinely pleased to be able to help.

I have now lived with the clock for some weeks and have become used to walking past it numerous times every day. It does its job of telling the time quite well – it even has a seconds hand and shows the date. It has reminded me of something that I have never understood. What is it with Roman numerals? First, why do we use them at all, when they are awkward to understand and use and we have a much better system that we use everywhere else? I have even heard it suggested that a contributory factor to the decline of the Roman empire was the difficulty of doing any kind of mathematics or accounting with their number system. The other oddity is the number 4. The numbers 1-10 are normally written: I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII, VIII, IX, X. So, why, on clocks specifically, is 4 shown as “IIII” instead of “IV”?

The aspect of the clock that most concerned me was the chime. It is nothing fancy – it just chimes a “ding” for each hour. It has quite a pleasing tone and is not excessively loud. I can hear it from my office, but it is not so loud that it wakes me at night, even though I am a light sleeper. However, if I am awake during the night – as is frequently the case – and I hear the chimes, I am compelled to count them to find out what stupid time it is. This requires some concentration, which makes me wider awake. I am then wondering: did I miss one? Is it 5 o’clock or 6? So I have to look at another clock to confirm, by which time I am fully awake. Once I am awake, I am thinking and my thoughts turn to how I might improve the chimes. [I am an engineer, after all!]

I figured that, if the chimes struck in such a way that one could remember them, this would provide time to “decode” the chime into an actual time. My idea is quite simple. My clock would have two chimes of different tones/frequencies, which I will designate “ding” and “dong”. On each hour, the clock would strike a sequence of exactly four chimes, with a different combination for each hour, thus:

  • 1:00 – ding, ding, ding, dong
  • 2:00 – ding, ding, dong, ding
  • 3:00 – ding, ding, dong, dong
  • 4:00 – ding, dong, ding, ding
  • 5:00 – ding, dong, ding, dong
  • 6:00 – ding, dong, dong, ding
  • 7:00 – ding, dong, dong, dong
  • 8:00 – dong, ding, ding, ding
  • 9:00 – dong, ding, ding, dong
  • 10:00 – dong, ding, dong, ding
  • 11:00 – dong, ding, dong, dong
  • 12:00 – dong, dong, ding, ding

Any software engineer is likely to see the logic in these sequences, but that logic is unimportant – the key thing is that each hour sounds different. You can hear it and then “play it back” in your mind, if you need time to interpret it.

I explained this idea to a [bemused] friend and commented that I could make it even better by having five chimes instead of four and, thus, support the 24-hour clock. This brought to mind the opening line of a famous novel: “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” She suggested that I was over-thinking it and I think she may have a point …

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