April 09, 2020

It’s about time On Saturday night, honor tradition and turn your clocks BACK an hour

Spring forward, fall back.

That’s the phrase that helps us to remember what to do with our clocks when we change from standard time to daylight-saving time and back again each year. Officially, at 2 o’clock tomorrow morning we need to turn the clocks back an hour as daylight-saving time comes to a close and we return to standard time for Maine’s long, dark winter. Most of us, of course, will turn back our clocks before we turn in for the night, savoring an extra hour’s sleep.

Alexander Phillips of Bar Harbor knows all about the practicalities and philosophy of keeping time. This clockmaker has spent nearly four decades turning clocks back in autumn and forward in the spring. One of the clocks he now cares for is the lollipop-shaped clock that has stood some 18 feet tall in Bar Harbor ever since it was installed in 1896. Now run by electricity, this clock was originally a mechanical clock that ran by means of weights, pendulums and pulleys.

“I can see why you call this a ‘lollipop clock,'” Philips said while unlocking the door set in the wrought-iron base of his town’s timepiece. While demonstrating how he moves a rod he calls a pin to adjust the clock’s hands, Phillips added, “Clocks like this that are set on a post and have two dials [or faces on which hands and numbers are shown] set back to back are actually known as ‘street clocks.'” Of course, some street clocks – such as the one in Bath and the new reproduction street clock in Ellsworth – have four faces.

Phillips said clocks of this type were made beginning around 1830 when there were lots of foundries to produce the massive cast iron casings that were needed to house the clocks’ workings. In New England, E. Howard of Boston and Seth Thomas of Connecticut were the big names in the clock business. The Bar Harbor clock was made by E Howard. The Bath clock, which was manufactured by Seth Thomas in 1911, was restored completely in 2002 by Balzer Family Clock Works of Freeport. That company’s president, Linda Balzer, points out that, except for the light that illuminates the face, the Bath clock has never been electrified. Rick Balzer, another family member who works for the company, says it remains a rare mechanical marvel.

During the 19th century, “street clocks became the centerpieces of towns,” Philips said. “Every locality that could afford it had one.” Major cities might have several of them. For instance, Bath’s street clock originally stood in front of the Boston American newspaper offices in Boston, according to Carl McCabe of Bath, who winds the clock every Monday. The clock was moved to Bath in 1915.

In their heyday, many street clocks were installed by town fathers. Quite a few were also set up – particularly by banks and jewelry stores – to advertise businesses.

According to Peter Rioux, owner of Peter Rioux Clock Service in Winterport, many village clocks were also set in church steeples. “Most of these tower clocks were purchased by the town,” Rioux said. Regarding town timepieces at least, “there was no separation of church and state back then,” he added. According to McCabe, the steeple of the First Baptist Church in Bath holds another clock installed by the city in 1853.

Coincidentally, during the same century when street clocks cropped up all over America, a number of important events occurred in the standardization of timekeeping. The rise of railroads made accurate and standardized measurement of time crucial, not only to provide scheduling of passenger and freight services, but to ensure that collisions did not occur. In addition, the advent of rapid communication by telegraph, made it essential to know that a message sent from one place would arrive at another at a moment when the recipient’s business would be open.

In England, a “mean time” agreed on as an average time for a large region or time zone was used by The Great Western Railway beginning in 1840. This was called “railroad time” at first but came to be called standard time.

This worked in England, but according to David Prerau, author of “Seize the Daylight: The Curious and Contentious Story of Daylight Saving Time” (Thunder’s Mouth Press), “the use of a single national railroad time was not feasible” in a country as large as ours. “By 1872, there were more than 70 railroad ‘time zones’ in the United States,” he writes. Train passengers traveling from Maine to California typically adjusted their watches 20 times en route.

Earlier, in 1869, Charles F. Dowd of Saratoga Springs, N.Y., envisioned a “System of National Time” that divided our nation into four time zones and was adopted in 1872. Further adjustments to standard time and time zones were made, until in 1883 standard time was instituted nationwide.

It was not until 1916 that the British acted on an idea envisioned by Benjamin Franklin in the 18th century and put forward seriously by London architect and builder William Willett in about 1906, to move clocks forward in the spring to cause people to wake up and get the most out of each day’s light. The English called this “British Summer Time.”

Despite a few years of lobbying by clothing manufacturers and others – chiefly to make factory workers more productive – the United States did not establish what we called daylight-saving time until 1918, after we had entered World War I. Even then, some states resisted it. To this day, Arizona and Hawaii remain on standard time year-round, according to Prerau.

More recently, energy conservation issues have caused Congress to pass a law that will extend daylight-saving time several weeks in 2007. Rick Balzer remarked wryly, “That means all those electrified town clocks will be in trouble, since they are set to change at the usual dates in spring and fall.”

He’s jubilant about the mechanical clockworks he still restores and produces. “There will be no problem with them,” he crowed.

Rosemary Herbert can be reached at rosemaryherbert@rcn.com.

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