As a child I was an independent spirit, and never cared much for school. In class I was an inveterate clock-watcher. Reaching high school age, I would have been quite content to learn a trade, but my parents had different ideas. I was to attend a good 4-year liberal arts college, where I would find out what I really wanted to do. And what better way was there to prepare for this grand adventure, than to attend Classical High School in Springfield, Massachusetts-- named by its Principal Emeritus, Dr. William C. Hill, as “the best school in the solar system.”
Upon entering Classical as a freshman in September of 1957, I immediately took notice of the clocks. They were quite a bit different from those of my junior high, which was housed in what was then a state-of-the-art building. The junior high clocks were made by IBM, and each had a big red second hand which crept along at a snail's pace beneath a glass bubble. Utilitarian, yes, but like so many modern things, devoid of character. By contrast, old Classical's clocks were archaic. There were no second hands, the glass was flat and the numerals Roman. Doubtless they were dependable and required little attention, since most appeared to be securely cemented into position by many additional coats of wall paint applied over the years. For 59 seconds of each minute the clocks just hung there, dead, inert, motionless. Time stood still; the hands didn't even creep. Then, with a most authoritative and resounding “tick-tock”, the minute hand would edge back slightly before making a flying leap to the next minute, the hour hand following at one-twelfth the rate. And every last one of the seventy-or-so clocks in the building did its thing at precisely the same instant. At Classical, time marched on in perfect cadence. If my junior high's clocks were the tortoises of the clock world, Classical's were the hares. But unlike Aesop's fabled animals, both types of clock took exactly the same amount of time to reach what I considered to be their destination: namely, the end of another school day.
During study periods, which very often followed an exhausting gym class, the discomfort of trying to sleep at a desk and chair rigidly screwed to the floor was quite a challenge. The teacher in charge, who was usually busy correcting papers, seldom seemed to mind. After all, sleeping students never chewed gum and rarely talked. In more than one such study hall I contemplated, in a state of semi-wakefulness, the question of phychokinesis. Was there really such a phenomenon? Could I, by focusing mental energy on the clocks, make their hands at least skip ahead a few minutes? With my eyes closed I would see. After what seemed like a hundred or more seconds of intense concentration on my wish, there were no apparent results. Indeed, my fervent though private thoughts must be having the opposite effect, bringing the clocks, if not time itself, to a halt. Then, startlingly, the command was received. “Tick-tock”. Another minute had expired, so on we went to the next.
And where did that command originate? Not from this would-be Uri Geller, but rather from the master clock which hung high upon the wall just outside the office of principal Dr. Joseph Rodeheaver. Beneath this clock was the desk of his secretary, Mrs. Sheehan. One day, when no one was around, I climbed up on her desk to get a better look at this horological marvel. It was actually seven clocks in one. Beneath the main dial there were six little clocks resembling ships’ clocks, with coiled wires coming out the top of each. Later, I learned that each one of these clocks was responsible for monitoring a dozen or so of the many “slave” clocks in remote parts of the building. But something seemed to be missing from the roomy case of the master clock. I gathered that the clock had been modernized and once had a pendulum. A clue lay in the main dial, which, being made of aluminum with art-deco Arabic numerals, didn't look old at all. Yes, I eventually discovered, there was once a pendulum, but since around 1950, a little motor you could hold in the palm of your hand ran the whole system. Not only that, but with the old storage battery gone too, a power outage would bring everything to a halt. And they called it “progress”. Ironically, the City of Springfield maintained its own clocks, rather than rely on the superior expertise of their nearby maker, which had many service contracts in effect elsewhere. Taxpayers saved little if anything, and the clocks suffered greatly.
To the left of the master clock was located a curious device referred to by some as “the ticker-tape machine”. Controlled by the master clock, its purpose was to determine at which times the various groups of school bells would automatically ring. Correctly known as a program clock, it contained 3 endless paper tapes or program ribbons, each side of which had a series of 1,440 printed and numbered little rectangles-- 8,640 in all-- equaling 6 times the number of minutes in a day. Punching out any rectangle (with a special punch provided) would enable activation of a specific bell circuit at the corresponding time. Thus, bells on any of 6 circuits could be independently rung at any minute, day or night. There were inside bells, outside bells, half-day bell schedules, and bells for the junior high section, which had its own smaller program clock, run by the same master.
Everyone’s favorite bell, apart from the dismissal bell, was, of course, the lunch bell. My freshman homeroom, #120, was directly opposite one of the iron staircases leading to the basement cafeteria. There was always an intense, though civil, clamoring to be first at one of the meal lines. Homeroom seats were assigned alphabetically, and boys seated nearest the door considered themselves indeed fortunate. Poised at the very edge of their chairs like Kentucky thoroughbreds at the starting gate, each knew the precise interval between the movement of the clock hands and the sounding of the bell. If that bell ever failed to ring, we'd be halfway down the stairs before realizing something had gone terribly wrong, with detention sure to follow. But that never happened; the bells always rang on time.
Classical’s clocks, I later learned, were rather special simply because they, along with those of most other Springfield schools, were made in the very city in which they were used. By the early 1920’s, when Classical's clocks replaced a failing system by another and then defunct maker, The Standard Electric Time Company of Springfield, Massachusetts, had become the country's foremost maker of clock and program systems for schools and colleges, both public and private. All over the United States and beyond, students would see “Springfield, Mass.” proudly printed on clock dials, and some would ask the teacher where it was. A geography lesson was quick to follow. Those old classroom clocks put Springfield on the map as did nothing else, before or since.
One of Classical's many “slaves” I remember as being different from all the others. It was the one in the boys’ locker room. The case was of nicely finished oak or ash instead of metal, and looked a lot older. There was no comma after “Springfield”; perhaps some English teacher somewhere complained, as all the later clocks had commas. The workmanship was incredible. Thirty separate pieces of wood, all glued together and turned on a lathe, comprised the outer case. I think it must have come from the High School of Commerce just up the street, and built in 1916. Sometimes an ailing clock would be immediately replaced, and when later repaired, put back into service at a different location to replace yet another ailing clock. I often wonder where this remarkable timepiece is today. Perhaps it's been fitted with a quartz movement and is telling time in someone's kitchen most anywhere; maybe it's the very one that a retired city employee gave to an acquaintance of mine for his office..... but most likely, its remains dwell way beneath the ground in some landfill.
Up on Armory Hill, about a mile from Classical and adjacent to the campus of Springfield College (where basketball was invented) was the sprawling home of The Standard Electric Time Company. I would often pass by it on the way to school. At the helm of this far-reaching enterprise, which maintained another factory in Montreal, Canada, and about two dozen branch offices throughout the United States, was Mrs. Frances Wakefield Riggs, widow of George Leonard Riggs, the man who brought “Standard” to Springfield and who suffered a fatal heart attack in 1928 at the age of 54. A devoted follower of Mary Baker Eddy, Mrs. Riggs never let her being a woman interfere in any way with performing her duties as the company's chief executive officer. Amusingly, she would sometimes receive mail addressed to “Mr. Francis Riggs”. I met Mrs. Riggs many years ago. She was the type of person you might expect to find teaching most any academic subject at Classical. But instead, it was upon her shoulders that ultimately rested the task of keeping a vast majority of America’s schools on time.
Several years after “Standard” departed Springfield in 1981, it was announced that Classical was to be closed and its building sold to a condominium developer following the completion of a new modern high school in another part of the city. I wasted no time in returning to my Alma Mater with the hope of acquiring at least a few of the clocks I once watched so intently. But alas, they had all disappeared years ago. Even their concealed “series” wiring had been supplanted by over-the-wall conduit connected to contemporary “junk”. Probably the drive pawl rivets had worn to the point of making the clocks unreliable. Think of that-- replace in each old clock one part costing about a nickel to make, and they all would have been good for at least another forty years!
Miraculously, Classical’s 1921 master clock proved just too good to throw away. Abused and neglected, but restorable, it languishes in a city-owned storage area. Perhaps someday it will be properly restored to its original glory, pendulum and all, and given a place of honor in either the Connecticut Valley Historical Museum or School Department headquarters. Only time will tell. Meanwhile, I've been holding onto the essential parts required, taken from a very similar clock that escaped modernization but was scrapped.
In a corner of my living room reposes a stately old grandfather clock, which used to chime every 15 minutes. According to the hands, it still does. But from the next room, it seems to be sounding off every 5 or 10. The pendulum, like that of Classical's master clock of over a half-century earlier, beats seconds. Yet, its oscillations are occurring at a rate reminiscent of the shorter pendulums I remember as a child. Nearly fifty years too late, my wish to speed up the passage of time is coming true.