The Time Museum Collection

Caretaker of the World's Timepieces

The collection of the former Time Museum of Rockford, Il., is the most complete in the world to show the history of humankind's efforts to measure time's passage. The pieces are extraordinary in quality and most are one-of-a-kind. Assembled as a private collection, they are much more than a collection of beautiful clocks. They represent the documentation of time through the work of technological geniuses over the last 3,000 years. Nearly 1,500 pieces constitute this remarkable collection, amassed from around the world.

Seth G. Atwood, founder of The Time Museum, is fond of quoting 4th Century theologian St. Augustine: "What then is time? If no one asks me, I know; If someone asks me to explain, I know not." Drawing from his own exploration of the philosophical and scientific meanings of time, Atwood set out 31 years ago "to try to collect a few items, artifacts that showed the development of time-finding and time-keeping devices as we normally use them to order our lives," His guiding principles were to purchase objects only of the highest museum quality and which held important significance in the historical development of timekeeping. 

"There has never been another collection as comprehensive as his nor one comprising individual pieces of such caliber and importance," writes Justice W. Shepro, President of the American Section, Antiquarian Horological Society.

That this extraordinary collection is going to the city of Chicago to be displayed in the world-renowned Museum of Science and Industry is an honor to Atwood and his family.

The Time Museum operated since 1971 at The Clock Tower Resort and Conference Center, at the interchange of Interstate 90 and Business Route U.S. 20 in Rockford, Il. The museum was closed in March 1999, when United Realty Corp., a company owned by Atwood family interests, announced the sale of the resort and the museum space to Regency Plymouth Ventures Limited Properties, of Sioux Falls, S.D.

All photographs by Stephen Pitkin
© The Time Museum. (Above) Elephant automaton clock, Germany, 17th century #358. (Right) Complicated mechanical astronomical clock by 20th-century Norwegian, Rasmus Sornes #154.

Seth G. Atwood: industrialist, financier, public servant, collector

Atwood, 82, is a retired industrialist and financier from Rockford, Illinois He is a member of Rockford's pioneering Atwood family which in 1839 settled and built their homestead north of Rockford at what is now the popular Atwood Homestead Forest Preserve and Golf Course.

He attended Carleton College and graduated Phi Beta Kappa with a B.A. from Stanford University in 1938. After a year at the University of Wisconsin, he obtained an M.B.A. from Harvard University in 1940. He served from 1942-1946 as an officer in the U.S. Navy, achieving the rank of lieutenant commander.

Returning to Rockford, he joined his father Seth B. Atwood and uncle James T. Atwood in running Atwood Vacuum Machine Company, which they founded in 1909 to manufacture vacuum cleaners. By the 1920s, Atwood Vacuum had shifted from the manufacture of vacuum cleaners to door silencers for automobiles. Eventually the company made a complete line of auto body hardware with 2,200 employees and five plants in Canada and the United States. In 1953, Seth G. became president, when his father became chairman of the board. He also managed various family businesses involving banking, venture capital and real estate properties

In 1985, Atwood Vacuum Machine was sold to Anderson Industries, another Rockford interest.

Atwood has received various honorary awards and served numerous not-for-profit organizations, including past president of the International Young Presidents' Organization; Rockford Public Service Television Corporation, Rockford Rotary Club, Rockford Memorial Hospital Board of Trustees, Keith Country Day School, and Rockford Civic Orchestra. He is a past director of the Illinois Manufacturers' Association, Graduate School of Business at University of Chicago, Illinois State Chamber of Commerce, and the Second Congregational Church in Rockford, Illinois. He served on the Rockford Community Task Force submitting a report on local educational issues, and also served on the Rockford Public Schools Strategic Planning Committee. He is a fellow of the National Association of Watch and Clock Collectors, a founding member of the American Section of the Antiquarian Horological Society (England), a founding member of the International Society for the Study of Time, and a member of the Mount Pelerin Society.

Story of the clocks

If the clocks could talk, each piece in The Time Museum collection would have a fascinating story of how it came to be part of the world's greatest collection founded by Seth G. Atwood.

As it is, Atwood tells the stories, and one of his favorites is about the acquisition of his first watch, a quarter-repeater made around 1697 by Thomas Tompion, one of England's most distinguished clockmakers, entombed at Westminster Abbey. After studying the subject for several years, Atwood learned that the watch would be coming up for sale. Understanding that this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity because of the rarity of the watch, Atwood had instructed Robert Foulkes, a British estate appraiser and secretary of the Antiquarian Horological Society who has since died, to pay whatever was necessary to buy the Tompion watch. The bidding went higher than ever before for an English watch, and Foulkes delayed in calling Atwood back in the United States to announce the dubious honor. In the interim, the underbidder for the Tompion called Atwood to ask if he'd sell the watch to him. Atwood declined, even though the caller kept upping his ante, until he offered twice what Atwood's proxy had paid. When Foulkes finally called with what he thought was embarrassing information, Atwood comforted him with the fact that he'd already had the opportunity to double his money.

After telling this story Atwood smiles and comments that building the collection was a fascinating experience. He enjoyed the challenge of learning about the history of science as well as the history of decorative arts. But what he most treasures from his monumental endeavor are the friendships which developed out of this common interest shared with people from all walks of life from all over the world.

(Above) Iron Movement Standing Clock with Tokugawa Family Crest by unknown maker, Japan, circa 1780. This unusually large standing clock (yaguradokei) was presented by the tenth Shogun, Ieharu Tokugawa, as a gift to his relative Munechika Tokugawa, who was the ninth governor of Owari-Han (Nagoya). This clock stood in the entrance to his official residence. The iron movement is of 30-hour duration with double foliot and verge escapements. The lacquered pyramid stand is decorated on the back with the design of three-petalled pavlownia blossoms which is the crest of the Tokugawa family. The front is decorated with carp, carved in low bas relief and inlaid with mother-of-pearl lily buds and kelp #3112.

Significant developments in time measurement

From a 3,000-year-year-old Chinese sundial to quartz wristwatches and atomic clocks, The Time Museum collection tracks the technological developments that have made time measurement ever more precise. The collection represents the shift from reliance on celestial bodies to the more precise, regular movements of mechanical devices in determining time. Ultimately, the minute vibrations of atomic particles have set the contemporary standard for accurate time measurement.

The history of time measurement is easily divided into categories of pre-mechanical and mechanical instruments. The earliest methods of timekeeping were based on observation of the cycles of the sun, the moon and the stars.

A Roman sundial, complete to the original gnomon which casts the shadow, was preserved in the lava and ashes of the A.D. 79 eruption of Mt. Vesuvius. Other pre-mechanical clocks in the collection include clocks that keep time by the steady dripping of water or by the measurement of a burning candle. Astrolabes, the name meaning "star-taker," could be used for taking the altitude measurements of the sun or stars to determine time but these fascinating calculating instruments were also used by early surveyors, builders and astronomers.

(Above) Astronomical and world time clock by Christian Gebhard, Germany, 1895. Massive clock (10 ft. high by 10 ft. wide) weighing 6,000 pounds and including 15,000 parts was built by Christian Gebhard, a professor of Mathematics and Astronomy. The most entertaining feature of the clock is the striking apparatus which features a different performance of the automata for each quarter of the hour, en elaborate procession of the twelve Disciples at noon, and a trumpeter who appears once a year at midnight on New Year's Eve #D1039.

Early mechanical clocks

A half-scale model in the collection shows the Chinese Su Sung water clock of 1088, which used a water-powered driving mechanism. It predates by centuries the oscillating controller of European mechanical clocks.

A reproduction of the astronomical clock by Richard of Wallingford (1327-35) shows one of the earliest European mechanical clocks. It employed a verge escapement, the earliest form of escapement, which is the device governing the release of power from a clock's weight or mainspring. The original Wallingford, destroyed long ago, was a weight-driven tower clock in an English monastery. Its astronomical indicators were complex, and were considered more important than the mere hourly striking of a bell. It didn't even have a dial to indicate time.

(Right) South German striking clock with automata, c. 1750 #334.

More portable clocks

The introduction of the coiled spring as a power source for clocks in the 1500s made it possible to carry a timekeeper on one's person. Although they ran for short periods of time and required a sundial to find the correct time to reset them, the watches were objects of curiosity and prestige.

Technologically, they were accurate to within about 15 minutes every 24 hours. The fusee and the stackfreed were two devices invented to equalize the force of the coiled spring as it unwound and to improve its timekeeping.

(Above) French spherical watch which strikes the hours, made in Blois circa 1550 probably by Jacques de la Garde. On the gilt case of this watch a map shows the continents of Africa and South America reasonably accurately, but America and Russia are joined into one continent #760.

The Pendulum

Between 1640 and 1675, the pendulum and the balance spring were successfully applied to clocks and watches. They significantly improved accuracy, to within one minute every 24 hours, and they influenced the design of mechanical timekeepers. There is uncertainty about the origin of the pendulum's application to timekeeping, but there is speculation that Leonardo da Vinci in the late 15th century, Benvenuto della Volpaia, a famous instrument maker in the early 16th century, and Galileo and his son Vincenzio in the first half of the 17th century, designed pendulum applications or actually constructed models of pendulum clocks. Also, there is evidence that Johann Philipp Treffler, who is represented in the collection, may have completed a pendulum clock in 1656.

But the earliest actual surviving pendulum clocks are those made in 1657 by Salomon Coster, designed by fellow Dutchman and scientist Christiaan Huygens. Housed in a small black wooden box, this is one of the collection's plainest clocks, but it is one of the most significant because of the pendulum. This clock is one of only seven Coster pendulum clocks known to have survived.

Use of the pendulum spread quickly, and English makers soon launched the golden age of British clockmaking, employing the pendulum escapement in ever-more-accurate and elegant longcase clocks. Longcases in the collection by William Clement, Henry Jones, Joseph Williamson, Joseph Knibb and Thomas Tompion are the definitive pieces in accurate timekeeping in the late 17th century.

On land and sea John Harrison

Another of England's great makers of the era, John Harrison, is represented by an extremely rare and early longcase regulator of 1726, the only surviving example of his work outside England. (A regulator clock simply means one used as a standard for setting others.) Harrison, a carpenter by trade, made the movement of his longcase almost entirely of lignum vitae and oak, and he claimed it was accurate to within one second per month. Harrison's nickname is "Longitude Harrison," for the dogged determination he demonstrated over several decades to develop a timepiece precise enough to determine longitude at sea.

It was a problem that daunted navigators of the day, and its solution meant hegemony of the high seas. In 1714 the British Parliament offered a 20,000-pound prize to the inventor of an instrument that could determine longitude within 30 miles. In 1728, Harrison began building the first of four marine clocks that would eventually win him most of the prize.

The original clocks are now at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, England, but a gleaming reproduction of his first model, the H-1, is part of The Time Museum collection. Large, with four dials and two swing balances, the clock was designed as a prototype but proved itself at sea, overcoming the unique challenges of marine timekeeping: movement, humidity and temperature variations. Harrison invented the temperature- compensating gridiron pendulum, made of two different alloys whose expansion and contraction cancel each other out, and his clock also uses moving, counterbalanced low-friction bearings.

His accurate clocks allowed the ship's navigator to always have the exact time back at Greenwich. Then, by using the sun or stars overhead to calculate the local time of the ship, the degree of longitude could be determined easily. Because the earth revolves 360 degrees every 24 hours, it moves 15 degrees each hour. Therefore, if the ship's clock shows 2 o'clock and the local ship time is noon, the ship's position is 30 degrees west of Greenwich, its point of departure.

Harrison's success inspired other makers, and a number of their sea clocks, called chronometers, represent an important chapter in The Time Museum's story of timekeeping.

(Above) Reconstruction of "H-1" by John Harrison. Original was made in England by John Harrison, ca. 1735. Harrison's famous clock was successful in overcoming some of the problems of keeping accurate time at sea #2368.

The French Connection

Involved in the challenge to find longitude, the French applied improved accuracy to some of the most beautiful clocks and watches ever made. Their dominance from 1770 to 1840 influenced clockmaking and watchmaking in Switzerland, Austria, Italy, Spain and the Scandinavian countries.

The French Revolution led to a brief attempt to reorganize the calendar by renaming the months and to restructure the hours based on the decimal system. Confusing to most people, decimal time was abolished after a short time, but The Time Museum Collection features a few rare examples of decimal clocks and watches, including an elegant gold watch by Lallemand from 1793.

The most famous and influential of all French makers was Abraham-Louis Breguet, whose invention of the tourbillon improved accuracy, and whose beautiful designs made his pieces prized among kings. One exquisite watch is a ring alarm watch with a small pin that pricked the finger. Another is the beautiful montre à tact (blind man's watch). On its outer edge sit pearls to mark the hours, with larger pearls on the quarter hours. A diamond-set arrow rotates and enables the wearer to find the time by touch. The Breguet house in Paris still manufactures watches and keeps an extensive record of every piece it has ever produced.

(Above) Orrery Clock by Raingo à Paris, c. 1820-1824, shows the motion of earth and moon. This is one of only 8 known orreries by Raingo. Of the others, one was acquired originally by King George IV and is located in the royal library at Windsor Castle. Others can be found in the Glasgow Art Gallery; Conservatoire des Arts et Métiers, Paris; Palais de Cinquentenaire, Brussels; and the Royal Collection in Madrid #92.

Made in America

Meanwhile, Eli Terry in Connecticut had just completed a three-year contract in 1810 to produce 4,000 clock movements. To accomplish this, he developed a technique to produce interchangeable parts for each clock. Soon, clocks became affordable to the common citizen, mass-produced clocks and watches were on their way, and the American System of Manufactures using interchangeable parts was born. Industry would never be the same.

The spread of the railroads in Europe and America led to the need for a standardized time to replace each town keeping its own time with a regulator clock and sundial. The United States established time zones in 1883, and in 1884, the global system of 24 time zones was adopted. The standardization of time created an explosion in the demand for accurate timekeepers, particularly railroad pocket watches. The United States became the leader in production of these watches in the last quarter of the 19th century. The Time Museum collection contains important examples from almost every 19th century American watch manufacturing company, including watches made in Chicago, Springfield, Elgin, Peoria, Freeport and Rockford.

(Above) Pocket watch by E. Howard and Co., Roxbury, Massachusetts, c. 1857 #786.

Electricity and more

Apart from mass production, the most significant technical development of the 1800s was the application of electricity to clocks. One of Scottish clockmaker Alexander Bain's battery-powered clocks, from about 1840, is an example of this pioneering work. His research was the precursor to present-day FAX machine technology.

The use of wristwatches gained in popularity during World War I because of their practicality, and they gradually replaced the pocket watch as the standard portable timekeeper.

In 1928 at Bell Telephone Laboratories in New York, Warren A. Marrison developed the first quartz-crystal clock. The escapement and pendulum concept was replaced by the measurement of a standard frequency of the vibration of a quartz crystal. By the end of World War II, quartz-crystal clocks were accurate to one second in 30 years, and became the standard for time measurement until the arrival of the atomic clock.

A French firm developed the first battery-powered wristwatch, but the U.S. Hamilton Watch Company was the first to put it into production. The quartz-crystal wristwatch, developed in Switzerland by 1967, was produced by the Japanese Seiko company in 1968.

Cesium 133 atomic clocks, developed to calibrate quartz-crystal clocks and to be a frequency standard, became capable in the 1950s and 1960s of maintaining accuracy to within one second in 3,000 years. Therefore, in 1967, the atomic second was internationally adopted as the fundamental unit of time measurement. The standard time throughout the world, Coordinated Universal Time, is still based upon the Greenwich Meridian, and is obtained by averaging the time from about 250 atomic clocks stationed throughout the world.

More accurate clocks, including the hydrogen maser invented in 1959 in the United States, are used in specialized scientific applications, most notably for experiments in outer space.

Clearly, the development of timekeeping devices has been influenced by the demands of astronomy, physics, and navigation. Timekeepers, likewise, have affected the course of the history of science and technology. Fashion, the decorative arts, as well as mass production, transportation and war have also influenced their appearance. The collection of The Time Museum opens the mind to a never-ending exploration of science, technology, the notion of time and its history in many cultures.

(Above) Three 20th-century clocks: H-10 hydrogen maser developed by Robert Vessot, Center for Astrophysics, Harvard College Observatory, c. 1975 #3229. Atomichron, model 1001 made by Atomichron National Co., c. 1965 #197; Center primary frequency standard, class C-21-Hld quartz crystal, 1955 #1027.