Counting Time

Counting Time

With the arrival of a new year, we tend to take extra stock of time: counting down the drop of a giant ball in Times Square, setting up a new calendar, learning to write the not-yet-familiar “2022.” Time has played more than its usual tricks on us recently, dragging us through quieter days and skipping over familiar rituals and celebrations. Nevertheless, we keep on counting.

A long time ago, New Haven made clocks for the world, and it still has no shortage of them. The clock atop City Hall calls out the hours. Yale’s Harkness Tower displays an oxidized copper clock face on each of its four sides. Another four-sided clock tower rises high above the corner of Temple and George Streets at the Temple Square apartment complex. Union Station’s waiting room is flanked by matching analog clocks, though most travelers probably read the digital version on the new departures board.

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Cold Spring School

But the city and its environs are home to more unusual timekeepers, too. A ring of lights stands in for a minute hand, building each hour to a fully illuminated circle on the face of the Hilton C. Buley Library at Southern Connecticut State University. Inside the ring, bars replacing numbers light up to mark the hours. Over at the Peabody Museum of Natural History, a pendulum that must have been the city’s longest once hung from the top floor, passing through the high lobby ceiling to swing inside a large case, where it greeted visitors as they entered. Installed in 1928, the “Foucault pendulum” was donated to the Museo Nacional de Historia Natural in Chile in 1960. The shadow of another long-gone clock remains above the mantel of an old fireplace in what was once the main office lobby of the New Haven Clock Company on Hamilton Street. Founded in 1853, it manufactured clocks there starting in 1866 until it fell into bankruptcy, also in 1960.

Before there were analog clocks like these, sundials told the time. Edgewood Park’s sundial sprinkler, located near the corner of Ella T. Grasso Boulevard and Edgewood Avenue, hasn’t jetted water recently, but it still throws a shadow across the numbers circling its concrete wall and base. Southern has a sundial, too—a 50-foot-tall, concave tower. The shadow of its gnomon—a band that crosses the tower’s top—features a pinprick of light shining through a tiny hole that catches the sun. This unusual instrument measures not only the time of day on the tower’s aluminum surface but also the time of year, depending on how long or short the shadow stretches.

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The Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History

Marking the time of day isn’t the only way we keep time, of course. We follow the plans of weeks and months on calendars posted outside businesses and churches, strung on banners across Whitney Avenue and Temple Street and linked all over the Internet. Albertus Magnus College is home to what may be the city’s quirkiest calendar. One day a month at about 1 p.m., sunlight shines through a stained glass gnomon in a window of the Tagliatela Academic Center’s atrium at just the right angle to color a decorative tile on its floor, representing the anniversary of an event in the history of the college or the Catholic church.

Measuring time in seconds are the signals at the city’s crosswalks and the game clocks at its sports venues. And there are other, more subtle, ways we orient ourselves in the moment: a bus arriving, a shop door unlocking, an aroma steaming from a lunch cart, a radio show theme playing, a streetlight illuminating, a body craving sleep.

Years, on the other hand, are the focus of Maya Lin’s Women’s Table. The sculpture in front of Yale’s Sterling Memorial Library marks the length of time women have been students at Yale on a spiraling time line that runs from the university’s founding in 1701 to 1993, when the sculpture was completed. Carved on a flat surface that—when operational, at least—is spread with water from a bubbling fountain, a chain of zeros gives way to numbers that count the university’s female students, beginning in 1873. (According to the Yale Visitor Center website, the first women are now known to have been enrolled in 1869.)

Roughly 10 minutes away on foot, the New Haven Museum’s timekeeping efforts reach back even further. Its collection of locally relevant writings and artifacts, including a number of clocks, stretch from around 1650 to the present.

But even the scale of New Haven’s 381-year history shrinks in the face of astrophysical time. The Leitner Family Observatory and Planetarium has temporarily suspended its Tuesday night public sessions, but Michael Faison, the observatory’s director, appeared on YouTube live last Tuesday night to guide viewers into the night sky anyway, spotting the new James Webb Space Telescope at L + 10:14:45—that’s 10 days, 14 hours past launch and counting. The telescope is headed for a point in space known as L2, located roughly a million miles outside Earth’s orbit around the Sun. Telescopes like the JWST have to operate autonomously, Faison says. We can’t control them remotely from Earth because of the time delay it takes for information gathered to reach us and our response to return. L2, where the JWST will be “parked” for six years or more, is over 5 light seconds away from Earth. Light from the Sun takes about eight minutes to reach us, Faison says, and “the stars are all tens or hundreds or thousands of light years away.”

As we wait for a time we can call “post-pandemic” and count up increasing minutes of midwinter daylight, we’re as attuned to time as ever.

Written by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Image 1, outside SCSU’s Buley Library after dark, photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Images 2-4, featuring Harkness Tower, the “ghost clock” room of the old New Haven Clock Company factory and the City Hall clock spire, photographed by Dan Mims. Image 5, of the floor of the Tagliatela Academic Center, provided courtesy of Albertus Magnus College. Image 6, featuring the sundial splash pad at Edgewood Park, photographed by Christopher Arnott.

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