Unlike our lives in the turbulent '80s, our timepieces are sleek, streamlined, efficient. They neither tick nor tock, and while they sometimes discretely beep, they never resoundingly chime. Press a button on your wrist and you get the time to the minute, in glowing Arabic numerals. Gaze at the clock on your bureau and it's the same thing. Quartz. Accurate. Never needs winding. It's the machine age pushed to its ultimate -- almost no moving parts.
But perhaps in no age did the mechanisms by which one told time tell so much about a people as during the German Renaissance (1550-1650). It was a golden era of clockmaking from which 120 treasures will go on exhibit this Friday (through Feb. 15) at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of History and Technology. The exhibition, organized in collaboration with the Bayerisches National museum of Munich and called "The Clockwork Universe" includes machines many of which have never before been on public view.
What can be seen are both objects of art and feats of engineering. The clocks styled as individual figures are gilded and jewel-encrusted. Some are so ornate it's difficult to locate the dials. Lions, elephants, bears, mounted horsemen, Turks on golden ships, statues of Diana and Minerva -- all move in time. The theme pieces of the exhibition are mechanical models of the universe, lavishly ornamented globes capable of revolving against a backdrop of the fixed stars, making it possible to predict the movement of constellations.
Dr. Otto Mayr, curator of the exhibition, says these mechanical timepieces were "the greatest achievement in machine building before the invention of the steam engine.
"The technology of the mechanical clock was to the people of that time something like space-age technology is to us -- a pure adventure of the mind and imagination. There are times in history when technology, like music, is at a peak and this was one of those times."
The clocks, Mayr says, "played an enormous role in the thinking of the time." Their great appeal was that they were an example of the rational in a time marked by religious and political strife and they led to the widespread acceptance of the concept of a universe based on scientific law, running as harmoniously as a clock.
"We wanted to make the point that technology is not just one thing, but that it is deeply related to all aspects of the life of its time," says Mayr.