A Clock and Ball Story

By Gene Weingarten
Sunday, February 25, 2007

I was waiting out a flight delay in Boston's Logan Airport the other day when I happened upon an enormous kinetic sculpture. It was the size of a UPS truck and consisted of hundreds of rubber balls rolling along tracks, riding little elevators, ringing bells, tooting horns, pushing pendulums. It was endlessly repetitive, for the entertainment of idiots. I reached this conclusion after watching it nonstop for one hour and 10 minutes.

My vigil was intermittently joined by about 20 other people, some alone, some in groups of two or more, all lingering awhile to watch this mindless event. Although we were individuals of different ages, sizes and ethnicities, we all shared a single distinguishing characteristic: Adam's apples. As more time passed, this began to bother me. Finally, to my relief, an actual woman approached. Then she grabbed her husband by the elbow and dragged him toward the gates.

Men love gadgetry, and we don't always look good doing so. At a dinner party at my home a few years ago, as the wives were in the kitchen discussing matters of family and issues of national interest, we husbands were gathered in my bathroom, assembled around the toilet, marveling at the latest in float-bulb technology. (My friend David noted, correctly, that the new design "minimizes lateral energy loss.")

Right now I am looking at something I bought for my son this past Christmas. It is a rolling ball clock. It arrived in its original box from 1979. Back then, it sold mostly through those dippy gift catalogs that also peddled items such as toe-hair trimmers, dish-towel calendars and stick-on lawnmower headlights. Back then, the rolling ball clock cost $29.99. I picked mine up on eBay for a mere $92, though I was prepared to bid much higher. I've always wanted one.

Rolling ball clocks are basically miniature versions of the Logan Airport sculpture: Once a minute, steel balls roll along plastic tracks, drop through chutes, scoot through sluices, and then arrange themselves along numbered rails to tell the time. A rolling ball clock is an excellent home timekeeper except that 1) it is hideously ugly; 2) it is hard to read; and, 3) it is so loud that you cannot put it in a room where people might ever want to sleep or watch TV or talk or listen to music or think.

Needless to say, my son was thrilled with this present. But after he and I spent two hours assembling it, we discovered the motor was dead. Now, I know what you women are thinking. You are thinking: "Gee, I guess you are out of luck, since original rolling ball clocks haven't been made for 20 years and were a cheap, disposable novelty even then!" No man is thinking this. Men are thinking: "Why don't you just find some rolling-ball-clock guy?"

Stuart Singer's e-mail name is "Ballclockguy." An IT specialist in North Carolina, Stuart buys and sells original rolling ball clocks as a hobby; he owns 20 or 30 of them in various states of repair, including three that he keeps in their shrink-wrap, as a shrine. He started his Web site in 2001 as a private joke, figuring he was alone in his obsession, only to find that he was getting dozens of e-mails a day -- including some from Australia, Japan, Germany and Portugal.

I asked: All from men?

"Every once in a while, I'll get a letter from a woman," Stuart said, "but she's always trying to find a ball clock for her husband."

There is a melancholic air about Stuart. It is the mournful outlook of, say, an authority on Yiddish or polar bears, someone who knows that his life's work is slowly dying out. Stuart is running out of clock sources, as they fall into irreparable disrepair. Stuart said he had only one functioning motor left, lovingly repaired by him using skills he learned from a kitty cat-clock guy.

Stuart didn't want to sell the motor; he relented only after I said he could name his price and that I would make him famous. (Using one's column for personal gain is against the rules of The Washington Post, but I figured I could get away with this, inasmuch as most of the top editors have Adam's apples.)

We settled on $75. And now my cheap, ugly plastic $167 clock is working perfectly. Guys, if you want a treat, set your alarms for 12:59 tomorrow morning, open a window and listen. When the numbers shift from 12:59 to 1:00 on my clock, all the balls move. If you're anywhere near the mid-Atlantic states, you'll probably hear it.

Gene Weingarten's e-mail address is weingarten@washpost.com

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