Waiting at the American Clock Museum

by Nicolette Polek

Bristol, Connecticut, was once the clock-making capital of the world. Now it’s home to ESPN and a carousel horse collection. I sit alone, on a plush couch, in the great hall of the American Clock Museum, and wait for the hour to strike. Surrounding me are around forty-five grandfather clocks, positioned like guards. At 2 p.m., the clocks unfurl into a chorus of chime melodies, ending with a defining double-thrum in different keys.

The museum has notable acquisitions: braille clocks and clocks with blinking eyes, a clock that tells you the height of the tides, and a clock spring used to perfume handkerchiefs—feed the machine a penny and hold the cloth below a brass lion’s mouth as it spritzes apple blossom perfume. But the joy is in experiencing many creations of time happening all at once. The wash of seconds, voiced by hundreds of clocks, overpower even the sound of my footsteps as I walk from room to room.  I ask the docent if she finds it soothing. “This is the most peaceful place in the world,” she says. The sound resembles heartbeats, or soft applause.

Some parts of clock history, I discover, are heartbreaking, like the age of radium clocks and the girls who died for them. At night, people could wake up to see the glowing numbers of the clock face, painted in radioactive paint at the expense of factory girls who’d lick the tip of the paintbrush when the bristles began to separate. While the clock owners slept, the workers were mysteriously getting sick, jaws decomposing in their mouths, radium seeping from the work clothes into the family closet. A story of sacrifice, says an advertisement for a lecture at the museum.

My personal history with clocks involves a lot of disrepair and undoing. I have an atomic clock that sets itself according to satellites. When the batteries are low, it constantly scans for a signal with arms moving endlessly in circles. I had a broken clock that looked like a small temple. When I took out the batteries, the clock emitted an electronic chant melody and, terrified, I put it in the trash. My ex gave me a moving pyramid clock that neatly broke into sections when it fell off a shelf. I gifted my friend a “word clock” as a wedding present, along with a small horsetail broom. The clock arrived damaged, with all the words unhinged, so that they had to organize the words in correct order, which was in itself a different kind of wedding gift.

I continue through the museum. The ticktocks are unsynchronized. Some lag; others no longer operate. Even Jeff Bezos’s “Clock of the Long Now,” a clock intended to “inspire future-thinking,” with chime changes composed by Brian Eno, is set to expire. Some clocks of the past defined hours in ways that no longer exist, like the traditional Japanese timekeeping system of six hour days and nights whose duration morphed with the seasons. The Gregorian calendar is based on the sun; the Islamic Calendar is based on lunar cycles; and my calendar is frantically being assembled, like my low-battery atomic clock. It is hard to imagine, but even time itself, like everything else in our world, will succumb to decay and death. As with life, money, land, heirlooms, and other temporal gifts, time is to be stewarded well. The clock comes in handy, but only as a mere tool; a symbol, positioned at the opposite end of the infinite.

On Fridays, I attend Compline at a nearby chapel that belongs to a community of contemplative Dominican nuns. In the seven-part prayer system the Liturgy of the Hours, Compline is the final prayer service before one goes to sleep. The nuns, in their prayers, work to sanctify time, and in doing so interface with the eternal. At the end of my week, I sit with them—a wire grate and a gently parted black curtain separating us—as we give thanks for the day, even if it were to be our last. “The Lord grant us a peaceful night and a perfect end,” we pray. 

I exit the American Clock Museum just before it closes. When the clock is embedded in the context of my phone, it becomes another part of the worldly noise that weighs me down. “All philosophy,” Alexander Shmemman says, “is ultimately an attempt to solve the ‘problem of time.’” At night, I leave my phone buried in a drawer and turn the dial of my alarm clock, something that possesses hands and a face. Only love can lighten the dross of time. As I fall asleep, I imagine all time falling away, revealing the unending source of life itself.

Mirror selfie of Nicolette Polek on a wooden clock
Nicolette Polek is the author of Imaginary Museums. Her work has appeared in the Paris Review Daily, BOMB, New York Tyrant, The Atlantic, and elsewhere. She is the  recipient of a Rona Jaffe Writers’ Award and recently completed a masters at Yale Divinity School. Her debut novel, Bitter Water Opera, is forthcoming from Graywolf Press in 2024.