In the Clockwork Universe, planets orbit, Zodiac signs rule, and miniature men perform ancient rites to mark the stately procession from day to night, from year to eternity.

When the hour strikes, the Turk, standing on the fire-gilt bronze and copper ship, raises his arm and the two oarsmen paddle. When the quarter-hour strikes, the ape at the bow moves and the first oarsman turns his head. On another fire-gilt bronze and copper Turkish ship, a guard of Turks march around the mast. Once there were other diversions about the mast but they are long forgotten.

The monk, when wound up, turns his head and bows, moves his eyes from side to side, open and closes his jaw, beats his chest with his right hand and moves his left up and down, "walks" (the feet move but locomotion is really by wheels), turns and walks until he runs down.

The bronze-and-copper, fire-gilted Bacchus rolls his eyes from side to side and drinks from his cup.

A parrot whistles the hour, darts his eyes from side to side and lays eggs.

On the hour, Minerva's carriage moves forward while the horses leap, the satyrs and apes turn and the organ plays.

The armillary base has four sides that show hours, quarter-hours, latitude, days of the week with reigning planets and a dial to set the striking. The clock is topped with the armillary (a skeletonized celestial globe of rings representing the movement of heavenly bodies around the earth).

On Friday, the Smithsonian's Museuum of History and Technology (now the National History Museum) will open "Clockwork Universe," an exhibition of 120 clocks and automata (clockworks that don't tell time) from the golden (literally) age of German clockmaking, 1550-1650. The exhibition, the most important to come to the museum in several years, continues through Feb. 15, 1981. As well as the clocks, the exhibits will include working models, by David Todd of the museum, showing the various devices. Constantine Raitzky installed the show, in a dark-walled room, with spotlights picking out all the brillance of the fire gilt.

Otto Mayr, museum curator, organizer and editor of the show and its catalogue (with Klaus Maurice), talked about the show the other day, while the boxes were unpacked, bringing treasures from 60 lenders in Europe and America. (Ken Bush, the museum's shipping chief, said it took two weeks and piles of tissue paper, polyurethane, Styrofoam, plastic tape, bags, wood braces and 90 crates to pack the clocks at the Bavarian National Museum in Munich, where the exhibition was first shown.)

Mayr said, "No one knows who invented the clock, or where. The mechanical clock seems to have appeared about 1300 in a wide stripe from the British Isles, down through Europe. They weren't known in the East. The spring drive in the 1400s was the most important invention. The astronomical gear drive was essential in making a clock in a small space.

"The very fine pieces went to the nobility. But within 100 years, every town of any importance had a clock.

Towns were judged by the intricacies of their clocks, rulers by their clock collections. The Chinese refused to convert to Christianity unless bribed with clocks. The Turks were kept at bay with tributes of clocks (perhaps that's the reason for all the Turkish figures on clocks).

Mayr said some princes used clockwork effigies during drinking bouts. One clock had a figure that shot arrows ("a dangerous, even lethal device," Mayr said). Whoever was closest to where the arrow fell had to chug-a-lug.

The exhibition's catalogue, actually an elaborate book in English and German, is a marvel of information about every phase of telling time.

Silvio Bedini, the Smithsonian's great clock scholar, writes that the first clockmakers were blacksmiths, then gunfounders and locksmiths, with clockmaking becoming important in the 16th century. The elaborate cases were often mmade by goldsmiths or engravers. After the mid-17th century, manufacturers began to specialize in making clock springs, tools, escapements and so on.

(Mayr pointed to some of the less elaborate clocks, in the storeroom cabinet, noting that several had the same sort of feet or finials, "Even small lions were stock parts, mass-produced," he said. A small brass figure would cost a small amount. Clock bells were imported from France to Augsberg, Germany.)

Eva Groiss, in the catalogue, drawing on archives from Augsburg, traces the beginnings of the clockmaking craft. In 1392, the master builders mended a clock on Perlach Tower, evidence that an important clock had been around for a while. Two hundred years later, the clockmakers' guild was well-organized.

The central fact of the guild was the requirement that a journeyman had to make a meisterstucke or "masterpiece" to be acknowledged as a master, one who could hire journeyman, apprentices and so on.

An apprentice, to be admitted to the shop, had to be 12 years old, born legitimate and free, and proposed by a master. Often such positions were reserved for relatives. After three years, the apprentice became a journeyman, if he were hard-working. After another seven years or so, he could register to make a masterpiece. The number each year was limited, with preference for sons of masters. They only had six months to make the masterpiece. Journeymen could not be married. But masters had to be. Certain advantages went with marrying the widow or daughter of an established clockmaker.

Groiss writes that clocks by l562 were so generally available, the clock maker kept a stock and sold them even at weekly markets and fairs.

A clockmaker was likely to be an educated man. Groiss has found evidence that clockmakers attended university prep schools. Johannes Buschmann was called to inform His Imperial Roman Majesty Ferdinand III on mathematics.

The clocks, though beautiful and marvelous were not all accurate. Mayr said, "Many incorporated sun dials on the clocks to set them by. Sun dials were far more dependable."

Bedini writes that sun dials, made in elaborate profusion in Nuremberg and Augsburg, were still more popular than clocks. Not until the clock became useful in the astronomical sciences and for determining longitude at sea, did the clock "achieve the improvements necessary to convert it into a precise time measurer."

Galieo invented a pinwheel escapement, and worked on a pendulum clock but died before perfecting it. A few years later, Johann Philipp Teffler made a clock with a pendulum for Prince Leopold de' Medici. In l764, John Harrison invented the chronometer (a precision timepiece with an official rating that can be used to determine longitude at sea.

Other people have told time by methods other than clocks, according to Nina Gockerell in the catalogue. In Islamic countries, the first prayer of the day is said when you can tell a thread of white wool from a black one. Some people use a straw and their hand as a sundial. Noon is widely measured as the time when the sun shines precisely on your head.

Not content with exhibiting the clocks as marvels of craftsmanship and mathematical ability, Mayr sees the German clocks as a result of the political philosophy of the times.

He cites chapter and verse to show that the Germans, who were the prime clockmakers of the period, saw in the clocks a symbol of order and respect for central authority in an unruly world.

Descrates, the philosopher (l596-l650), even theorized that animals were automata.

The ability to control the clockwork figures must have been enticing to the emperor, who short of beheading his subjects, couldn't be sure they'd do what he told them to. He had better hopes for his clocks. In the catalog introduction, Mayr and Maurice, with Germanic reasoning, write:

the clock represented the sharpest conceivable contrast to the prevailing reality, with the collapsing political and social order of the Middle Ages, with the wars of religion arising out of the Reformation, with the multitude of revolutionary new ideas and the social unrest which these unleashed. The clock exemplified what was lacking in the real world : a centrally organized, unalterably functioning, rational order. People started to formulate their idea of the universe on the model of the clock and to conceive of the three essential systems within which mankind exists -- the cosmos, the state and the body -- as being clock mechanisims. The relationship between God and Creation became analagous to that between the clockmaker and the clock: The harmony of the universe was explained through the regularity of the clock. The animal body was understood as an automaton directed by clockwork and the technology of automata promised realization of the ancient dream of the creation of artificial life.

Looking at the automata, Mayr pointed out that man's fascination with automata or artificial humans (usually women) go back to the beginning of history. Pygmalion, the man who made himself a complacent clockwork companion is probably the best-known, but there were others. In the Middle Ages, Mayr said, Albertus Magnus was supposed to have made himself a woman. aHis disciple, Thomas Aguinas, fearing for Magnus immortal soul, smashed the automata. Another legend says that Descartes had a mechanical woman. On an ocean voyage, the captain of the ship found the figure and threw her overboard. Regiomontanus made a fly and eagle to soar during a visit of the emperor in Nuremberg.

Later, full-sized automata were built in France and Switzerland to play music, write verse or draw. One , like today's Boris, the computer, was supposed to play chess, but alas, for engineering history; it was discovered to be a fraud -- a dwarf inside really made the plays.

With the spread of the Romantic Movement, the mechanistic view of life and the enslavery of even quasi-humans came to be regarded with great guilt. "The Tales of Hoffman," the stories of Poe, "Star Trek" and many other are based on the fear that to make a human is a forbidden practice. Like designer genes of our own period, such inventions were thought to invite the wrath of the gods by challenging their prerogative to create life.

Mayr and maurice think that the golden age of clocks was a technological achievement equal to "the Pharaonic pyramids, the Gothic cathedrals, or the American space program." Mayr said he is not convinced of the great value of the clocks. "I don't get such enjoyment from them as I do a Mozart sonata, for instance." The introduction to the catalogue puts them down as being "merely flights of the creative spirit, materialized fantasies, projections from the realm of ideas into the real world.

"one could hardly call it practical or useful: unreliable, imprecise, and overloaded with such extraneous capabilities as astronomical prediction, mechanical music, and automatic theater, it was a problematic timekeeper.

But then, the authors have to admit, "such shortcomings, however, didn't count, for the clock was a wonder of inventiveness, a triumph of craftsmanship, an example of the particular beauty of machinery . . .

Its design elements solved complex problems with a mechanical sophistication that has yet to be adequately appreciated by modern scholarship."