“Travels in Time” exhibit gives a brief lesson on the history of timekeeping

By Dan Rankin

The new exhibition at the Station Studios and Gallery is definitely worth your time.

On display in the exhibition “Travels in Time” is a sampling of the impressive timepiece collection of local artisan Reed Needles, who says he has been fascinated by clocks and watches since his childhood. The exhibit includes not only a variety of clocks dating as far back as the 18th century, but also some samples of the devices – such as sundials and stardials – that were used to tell time long before anyone ever heard the tick of a clock.

Throughout human history up until about 150 years ago, our lives were not ruled by the minute or the second. “Through much of history, we relied on “sun-time” — determining the time by observing the movement of a shadow cast by the sun,” Needles said. “Sundials of one form or another have been the mainstay of time-keeping from early times up until the beginning of the 19th century… The concept of hours, minutes and seconds in a 24 hour day was known to scientists, astronomers and navigators, but ordinary people were comfortable with knowing the time to within an hour or so, as reckoned by the position of the sun, and the tolling of a nearby church bell or town clock.”

Through information panels at the exhibit, Needles and his collection takes visitors on a chronological journey of horology (the study and measurement of time).

For instance, did you know that sundials only work properly in the latitude for which they were manufactured? Or that, for most of the year, in order to get an accurate reading of a sun dial you need to do an extra mathematical calculation based on what month it is? “Up until the 1960s, in most Canadian classrooms you could still find instructions on how to properly read a sundial,” Needles said. “For a long time, they would print the instructions – known as an analemma – on globes.”

The exhibit follows the progression of time keeping through the invention of the pendulum in the 1600s all the way up to modern electric clocks regulated by quartz crystals. Thanks to innovations, today’s clocks do not even need to make the familiar ‘tick, tock’ sound, Needles said. However, companies install chips that artificially replicate that sound, as they have found customers prefer clocks that tick.

“Each clock presents a new challenge, and a new learning opportunity,” said Needles, who has some of his clockmaking and repairing tools on display in the exhibit as well. “In the miniature geared world of a clock, there’s much to be found. Even broken clocks tell a story. Each timepiece I work on teaches me new respect for the talent and patience that went into the design and building of a fine lock – and the astonishing artistry of the craftsman who made it. Despite all the highly technical innovations of the 21st century, I can still marvel at their skill.”

“Travels in Time” runs from Nov. 22 to Dec. 17 at the Station Studios and Gallery, located in the historic Via Station in St. Marys. Gallery hours are Tuesday to Saturday, 9:30 am to 4:30 pm. Admission is free.

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