Time again

A total solar eclipse briefly darkened a swath of equatorial Africa on November 3, but I wasn't there to watch it. Instead I found myself in Pasadena, California, at a conference devoted to the origin, evolution, and future of public time. Most of the nearly three hundred "Time for Everyone" participants identified themselves as clock collectors -- not only of antique clocks and wrist- or pocket watches, but also of tower clocks and even atomic clocks. Although I'm not a collector, I was happy to listen to three days of discussion counting the various ways society has devised to derive and distribute the hour.

So many speakers from the 1993 Longitude Symposium (held in Cambridge, Massachusetts) reappeared at "Time for Everyone" that the event, for me, had the feel of a family reunion.

An enviable collection of masterworks by the preeminent seventeenth-century English maker Thomas Tompion traveled to America for the occasion, courtesy of its present owner, the inventor John C. Taylor of the Isle of Man. Unfortunately, a trickle-down effect of the government shut-down kept three of the Tompions in the protective custody of U.S. customs. The decorative cases of these timepieces contain tortoise shell, now considered contraband. The fact that the clocks were created in the 1600s -- long before the country, let alone its ban on such products, existed -- should have freed them for inclusion in the exhibition, except that no official was available to sign the proper papers.