Clocks Now and Then

by Don Friedman on July 12, 2016

 Prim clockwork of a wristwatch, watchmaking exhibition, Municipal Museum, Nove Mesto nad Metuji, Czech Republic Commonist.svg This file was uploaded with Commonist. Date2009 Source Own work (Own photo) Author Kozuch Attribution: Prim clockwork of a wristwatch, watchmaking exhibition, Municipal Museum, Nove Mesto nad Metuji, Czech Republic; Author Kozuch

First, a truly amazing thesis project from a design student: a wooden clock that writes the time. Bad jokes aside, the big difference between structural engineering and mechanical engineering is that structural engineers working on buildings assume the objects they study are not moving (static) or move slowly enough that the effects of movement can be simplified (quasi-static). Mechanical engineering inherently deals with moving objects, and the complexity of movement required to get a clock to write out the time boggles me.

But…

Let’s look at an older example. How about the Astronomical Clock on Old Town Square in Prague:


Attribution: Steve Collis from Melbourne, Australia Attribution: Steve Collis from Melbourne, Australia

That clock was built in two stages and was complete by 1490. It shows the time, the position of the sun, the phases of the moon, and the date, among other information. This clock was built more than 500 years ago, more than 300 years before the first serious attempts to standardize screw threads, less than 50 years after the first printing press was constructed, and so on. Not to diminish Suzuki Kango’s writing clock, but he has the benefit of working in the context of technology as new as laser-cut precision woodwork.

This topic is (surprise!) related to our work. The eighteenth-, nineteenth-, and early-twentieth-century buildings we work on were designed and built, for the most part, by very smart people using tools more primitive than those we use today. To put it bluntly, they had to be smarter than us to accomplish what they did. Part of work is to be smart enough to recognize what they were trying to do, not simply reacting to the seeming primitiveness of it.

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