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Clocks in 3D

by Bob Frishman

NAWCC Bulletin, April, 2002, page 140

What if you could time-travel back to visit a brand-new Eli Terry pillar-and-scroll clock on the mantel of its first parlor?  Or what if -- almost as good -- a pair of special binoculars could look back in time to that same 1819 parlor?  The first idea still is a collector's dream.  The second, using photographic technology widely available since the middle of the 19th century, is possible for anyone with a stereoscope and a pile of old views.

Clocks regularly appear in all kinds of vintage photographs although, of course, the clocks were not antiques then.  With stereoviews, once the most common form of published photography, we can enjoy in their original settings some of the clocks we find today in museums, on Mart tables and in our own homes.  We can see regulators in offices and factories; French marble clocks on Victorian mantels; grandfather clocks announcing the hours to lovers and diners; street clocks on their iron posts adding to the commercial bustle of urban thoroughfares.  And because these photos usually are fine-grained and sharply focused, we can study countless period details of décor, dress and construction when the image is magnified.

The history of 3D photography is fascinating in itself.  After Daguerre's announcement in 1839, other photographers applied his discoveries to the research on three-dimensional vision by Charles Wheatstone.  This British scientist, known to us for his early work on electric timekeeping, demonstrated that viewing two slightly different flat images of the same scene -- one for each eye -- would give "solid" form to the image.

Soon there were two-lens cameras to make simultaneous photographic pairs, with lenses separated by the average distance between our own eyes.  Seen through twin-lens viewers, the pictures would spring to life with startling realism.  From the Civil War until the 1930's, millions of stereoviews were printed and purchased by nearly every middle-class household in America.. For "armchair" travel, education and entertainment, stereoviews presented landscapes, cities, sculptures, international exhibitions, nudes, gags, wars, animals, natives, mills, homesteads, and nearly every other subject people would buy.

We can enjoy the same realism today, combined with the eerie sensation of stepping into lives and surroundings that disappeared more than a century ago.  In antique shops and on-line auctions, you can come across stereoviews by the hundreds as well as period viewers, especially the familiar hooded hand-held type invented in the 1850's by Oliver Wendell Holmes.  Harder to find, but worth the search, are beautiful burlwood  English and French viewers designed for glass or translucent paper "tissue" slides.  3D collectors seek multi-view tabletop viewers and folding graphoscopes that combine stereo lenses with a large round magnifier for closer study.

My collection of horological stereoviews is a rewarding union of two collecting passions -- clocks and 3D photography.  (I can report, too, that I often meet other NAWCC members at vintage photo shows).  Following is a small sampling from some stereoviews I have discovered.  For the full effect, new plastic "lorgnette" viewers* can be used to examine the stereo pairs on these pages (on the printed Bulletin document). [*3D viewers and many other materials related to 3D photography can be ordered from Reel 3-D Enterprises, Inc., P.O. Box 2368, Culver City, CA  90231, 310-837-2368,]

Figure 1. The Engle Clock

Clocks as the Subject
The "8th Wonder of the World", our 11-foot-tall Engle clock now at the NAWCC museum in Columbia, dominates Figure 1.  This 1878 photo shows its builder, Stephen Engle, and credits Captain Reid who transported and exhibited the massive clock throughout the nation.  Tom Bartel's article in the February 1990 Bulletin tells the full story of this amazing machine.

We can debate whether Figure 2 (below) is an 1873 appeal to cat or clock lovers, but the large French marble clock certainly is prominent.  With its open escapement, contrasting stones, cast bezel and intricate gilt patterns, the clock is much more than just a seat for the "pair of rogues."

Figure 2. Kittens on French Clock

Figure 3. Bliss

Clocks in the Story
A clock always is included in the "Bliss" series of cards offered by most stereoview publishers.  Figure 3 (above), an example of the first card in the group, shows young lovers discovered by scandalized parents.  A fine steeple clock, complete with its ornate shelf, lets us know that the time is past 2:30 a.m..  Subsequent cards usually show the lovers' astonished awakening and then the suitor's violent ejection despite the maiden's pleas.  Clocks play similar important roles in other such stories of late arrivals, rushed encounters, etc.

Figure 4. Secretaries Lunch

Figure 5. Who Hollered Fire?

Clocks  in the Room
In many interior scenes, a clock greets us from the wall or mantel.  Humorous situations again are captured in my next two examples.   Figure 4 (above) shows two office workers enjoying a lively lunch hour -- the long-drop calendar clock shows 12:30.  Sharp-eyed readers will note the April 1907 wall calendar and an early typewriter.  Figure 5 (above) is more alarming.  We only can hope that the man rushing from this 1899 risque encounter has removed the pendulum from the Doric shelf clock under his arm.  Figure 6 (below), a serious photo of the Mechanics Mill Engine Room, reveals a Howard banjo dwarfed by the massive flywheel.

Figure 6. Engine Room

Figure 7. Newton Railroad Station

Public Clocks
We know that outdoor timepieces  were vital to the public in earlier days.  Figure 7 (above) is an early and rare view of a Newton railroad station.  The bearded traveler sees that it is 9:22 on the oversized hanging pocketwatch with the dial marked "Macomber".  Figure 8 (below) brings us to Greenwich, England with its 24-hour "chronometer" and time ball clearly visible.  The reverse side of this 1907 card features detailed text about the subject, typical of stereoviews from the mammoth Keystone View Company,

Figure 8. Greenwich, England

Figure 9. Jacob Skillman Shop

The most coveted views for my kind of collector may be photographs of horologists and their establishments.  The final illustration, Figure 9 (above), introduces us to Jacob Skillman's shop.  The location is not indicated and I am hoping that a reader may know where this store stood.  His windows are full of rows of brand-new clocks and watches and a sign promising "a good reliable solid silver hunting case watch" for just $10.00.  In this rare photograph, the proud proprietors pose outside, welcoming us to the time when our clocks and watches were awaiting their first owners.

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