Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Clockwork in the Cold

Swiss-y Stuff, part 2


While the Val-de-Travers has so much to offer by way of absinthe history, it is also in these same Jura mountains where some of the finest clockmaking was done in the history of Europe.

I have a theory (heh-hem) about why the Swiss became such excellent clock-makers, and why it became so much of an industry in a country where the population is sparsely scattered and relatively isolated.


Thanks to AndreJenny


My theory (heh-hem) goes like this: imagine living in a place where you are trapped, indeed kept in idleness, for seven months or more of the year. Imagine your whole family in one very large house with three-foot-thick walls, often with the barn attached on the side or even above the family dwelling, filled with cows and hay, keeping you warm. Imagine how much you tire of each others' company, and how difficult it is to get to the other houses in your village when the wind is howling outside.

Imagine that you have time on your hands. The weather is crazy cold, and you have horrible cabin fever. You have a meticulous mind, keeping things clean and organized; and you are thinking of time, because time is something one counts when one is stuck inside all winter. Plus, where are you going to get income for the winter? Traditionally, farmers and village folk make things in the dark and snowy months, which they sell to bring in a little for those necessities which can't be stored away in the fall.


Now, if you learned how to make clocks - which was a craze in those days, everyone was buying them - think how interesting it would be, losing yourself in that small and meticulous world of rhythm and movement, of calculation and hand-eye coordination, a small world unto itself. Think how large and comfortable your house would appear when you'd been spending hours working in your little world. And, if your family and your regular work got too tiresome, you had that secret place of concentration - of communion, even - to return to.

I'd be willing to bet that the clock industry slowed down considerably during the summer months, when people were busy trying to get their houses in order, the weather is warm and everyone's outside working. But (heh-hem) this is simply my theory.

La Chaux-de-Fonds is famous for its MuséeInternational d'Horlogerie. The architect Le Corbusier was born here (and unfortunately much of the newer architecture seems to reflect this fact). The museum has a pretty good timeline for their collection on their website, color-coded for different types of clocks, with different technologies listed across the top. Very interesting (with some excellent examples, such as the rather graphic little watch from 1820 with the tiny animated picture of Jupiter seducing Callisto, accompanied by "an air of mechanical music").

The Cartier factory outside La Chaux-de-Fonds. I found it really strange, the industry in this part of Switzerland. All the famous, super-luxury watch people seem to be based here, but the factories are small and ineffably Swiss, with clean modern exteriors and usually sandwiched into a small village or out in a field somewhere, like this one is.

In Le Locle, a small town whose charm had clearly been substantially supplimented by the prosperity of its three-hundred-year-old watch industry, we went to see their lesser-known Musée d'Horlogerie before theoretically heading on to the big one in La Chaux-de-Fonds - which we never got to, because the things in this small museum, housed in an old chateau, were amazing, and the people were gracious and forthcoming.


First of all, before you even get into the museum there is a small room in the garden with a replica of ibn al-Razāz al-Jazarī's Elephant Clock, done complete to every detail, and using al-Jazari's technology. There is a nice document explaining the technology, which is essentially a hollow hemisphere with a hole in the bottom, which gradually fills with water, tripping a falling ball which in turn lifts the hemisphere out of the water. It's very ingenious, and thrilling to see something of al-Jazira's in the flesh, so to speak.


Besides all the many, many beautiful clocks - engraved clocks, carved clocks, enameled or guilded or caged clocks - there was a whole room devoted to automata. Not large automata; small ones, from doll-sized dancers who whirl across the floor to a perfect foot-high old women who walks carefully on her own two feet with help from her cane, to tiny birds no more than an inch long who pop out of a hand-mirror and sing with real whistles. There were watches there, too, with extremely tiny automata of dancers and musicians and so on, and my favorite was a pair of segmented enamel and gold caterpillars, only slightly larger than life-sized, which hump their way very realistically along on whichever surface they are put.

Made by Francois Jurod in 2000 for La Semeuse coffee company.


The museum is known to be a gem, in that they house three very particular collections which contain some of the finest specimens of their kinds in the world. But some of their displays are temporary: on the bottom floor, for example, they had an exhibition of coffee technology - ancient machines for roasting and grinding, and a really great automaton of a Turk on a flying carpet pouring himself a cup of real (read: wet) coffee, which he then "drinks" so that his cup is empty again. The best part was the waving carpet, with its attendant, wonderful, mechanism.

On the top floor they had an almost overwhelming exhibit on the theory and nature of time and its measurement. Geological time, astronomical time, personal time (birth to death), the rise and fall of civilizations, chronological time such as calendars (perpetual calendars, lunar calendars, calendars from different cultures, etc.), almanacs, datebooks, and many more. There was an area devoted to "le temps approximatif": sundials, astrological instruments, and hourglasses. And then, of couse, the area with watches, gear-cutters, and precision watch-making tools, a compliment of the excellent display on the history of movements on the ground floor.


They have a really quite amazing film of the tiny automats all doing their stuff, one by one, in extreme closeup - worth seeing because then when you see the real thing you understand the amazing actions of their mechanisms. The film is interesting in its own right, and they sell it for 30 francs (about $20), but alas, they were out. They do accept money through the mail and will send you a copy if you do so - I will be getting a copy and I will try to post a sample so that you can see how great it is - I think they could do with the business.

Both towns, and indeed many small clock-making villages in between, are in the canton of Neuchâtel. The Musée d’Art et d’Histoire, in the lovely city of Neuchâtel, houses the amazing Jaquet-Droz Automata. You can go see the automata anytime (there is an accompanying film in several languages), but they only demonstrate them the first Sunday every month - it is the same man you see in the videos (the Writer, the Artist, and the Organ Player) doing the demonstration, and he will answer questions happily if you are willing to ask in French.

They are truly as wonderful as I had heard, and I was lucky enough to stumble on a special demonstration outside the usual time. The writer wrote, the artist drew, the man showed us their insides, and the organ-player played her tunes, her wooden fingers actually pressing the keys on her specially-made organ. Most wonderfully, my elder daughter and I sneaked back for a last look at the three pseudopeople and were astonished to find the organ-player sitting in the dimness breathing and tipping her head, long after the demonstration was over, the lights turned off, and everyone had gone home. Apparently her breathing and head movements are natural effects of the mainspring being allowed to wind down so that it doesn't stay tight all the time and lose its...well, springiness.

So we sat there in the dark and watched her eyes gleam slightly as she shifted in her seat, her chest rising and falling, silent and companionable. We kept her company for as long as we could, and then we went home to France.




Links

The organ player

The Writer

The inner workings of the Writer - a true early computer.

The Artist, who actually blows away the pencil crumbs...

4 comments:

Rima said...

Ooo - clocks!
Wonderful!
You have actually described my last few weeks busying away making my Once Upon O'Clocks :)
Lovely ....

Heather McDougal said...

Oooo, a new rima story! Very nice. I love your stuff...!

Heather McDougal said...

EEK! One of the pictures (of the Cartier factory) is lost. I'll try to find it - this is what comes of posting in a hurry...

SoccerFire said...

I love the Dumbo Octopus ;D I've written an article about it to and if you're interested Dumbo Octopus

Add to Technorati Favorites

Stumble It!Stumble It!