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Side Streets: Time change a timeless experience at Pioneers Museum

March 12, 2014 Updated: March 12, 2014 at 4:41 pm
photo - The original directions for the 90-year-old clocks are framed and hung in the tower of the Pioneers Museum on Monday, March 10, 2014. (The Gazette/Jerilee Bennett)
The original directions for the 90-year-old clocks are framed and hung in the tower of the Pioneers Museum on Monday, March 10, 2014. (The Gazette/Jerilee Bennett) 

If you are like me - and for everyone's sake let's hope not - then you struggle to get all your clocks changed twice a year when daylight saving time forces us to spring forward or fall back.

In my case it's a matter of holding the "time set" and "hour" buttons down simultaneously on my cheap plastic wristwatch. But somehow it takes me several attempts to get the stove, microwave, car radios and bedroom alarm clocks all changed.

Luckily I don't have to worry about a clock as complicated as the unique antique that runs the huge four-sided clock in the 158 1/2-foot-tall tower of the Colorado Springs Pioneers Museum.

It's a confusing assortment of various size brass gears and pulleys and arms attached to wheels and cylinders and bicycle chains and cables.

Unlike me, museum director Matt Mayberry, seems to understand how all the wheels and gears and pulleys and things work and agreed to take me behind the "No Admittance" sign and let me watch him change the time Monday after daylight saving time struck once again.

It was quite an adventure, actually, as we exited the steel cage elevator and walked in the dark through the fourth-floor storage labyrinth of the museum.

We stopped briefly to step out onto the museum roof to get a closer view of the exterior of the 10-foot-tall clock faces.

Then we resumed our climb. The whole place looked like the set of a Hitchcock movie as we climbed a steel staircase inside the red-brick tower to reach the level where the clock machinery stands.

The heart of the clock, made by the famous E. Howard & Co. of Boston, looks like an ancient Singer sewing machine on steroids. It's an impressive four-legged black steel beast with lots of places where you could do some serious damage to your fingers if you put them in the wrong place.

(It's actually the second clock to grace the tower. The first, installed when the building opened in 1903 as the El Paso County Courthouse, worked about as well as my plastic wristwatch and was replaced in 1913 with this Howard beauty.)

A long steel rod stretches from each of the four faces, uniting at a central gear directly above the clockworks.

Below, the assorted wheels and pulleys and gears transfer power from an electric motor up and out to the clock's hands.

Of course, we were watching the hands move from the inside, peering at shadows on the milky glass face of the clocks.

Pretty cool!

To change the time, Mayberry pulled a pin and rotated a gear and did a couple other things I didn't quite understand and, voila the hands moved forward an hour causing an arm to lurch, a cable to jerk and the huge bell above us to ring eight times.

I noticed an assembly of old steel rods and some cranks and gears piled in the corner and under the clockworks and asked Mayberry about them. One was a long pendulum.

"It used to hang from the clockwork and swing back and forth through a hole in the floor into the room below," Mayberry said. "The clock ran on a water-pressure system. Weights stretched out on either side of the clock and hung down below, too."

He pointed to long, narrow wooden channels that stretched through the floor and to the ceiling above us.

"Around the 1950s, the pendulum crashed to the floor below," Mayberry said. "I guess they got tired of fixing it and converted to an electric system."

No longer did they have to worry about the pendulum crashing or having to crank the clock or worry about the weight hanging.

Actually, Mayberry would like to restore the clock to its original power source and re-hang the pendulum.

I hope it happens. I love the idea of a community clock, even if everyone has Greenwich Mean Time at their fingertips in their smartphones.

I love the history behind the clock in the courthouse tower in the center of the town square.

"This clock dates to a time when individual clocks were much less reliable and people needed a centralized way of keeping time," Mayberry said. "Especially in a railroad town. In fact, railroads usually were the official timekeeper of a city."

I read a great history of time in "American History Revised" by Seymour Morris Jr. In it, Morris recalled how confusing time was 150 years ago. Instead of four local time zones - Eastern, Central, Mountain and Pacific - there were hundreds of local times. In Michigan, for example, traveling east to west meant changing your watch 20 times, Morris wrote.

That's why the community clock, on a courthouse or church steeple or business, was so important.

"Throughout cities and villages, the correct time was the time according to the clock on the church steeple," Morris wrote. "People walked by daily and calibrated their watches to it."

In cities, it was common for a large ball on top of a tall building to drop at straight-up noon - as occurs each New Years Eve in Times Square.

"In large cities like Chicago or Kansas City, the number of people watching every day was in the thousands," Morris wrote.

But local timekeeping didn't allow railroads to run on time, prompting them to simplify timekeeping by setting up their own timetables.

Finally, the railroads held a "general time convention" and agreed to standardize time by dividing the nation into four zones. Railroads implemented the policy on Nov. 18, 1883, and all railroad clocks were synchronized. By 1918, Congress made it official by adopting the Standard Time Act, making railroad time mandatory everywhere, Morris wrote.

Even though I have a clock on my phone, in my cars, computers and virtually everywhere, I still find myself glancing at the Pioneers Museum clock tower for the time.

For me, it's probably out of nostalgia.

And because I broke my wristwatch trying to set the darn thing.


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