Designing Time

Antiquarian Horology and the Meaning of Craft

By Danielle McClune

Photos by Joe Day (Instagram: @joeday)

Heritage and lineage. Celestial wonder. Mastery of craftsmanship. In the age of “move fast and break things,” antiquarian horologist Brittany Nicole Cox operates on a different plane. Her work requires a return to principles and ideals often out of sync with the rapid innovation spinning just outside her Seattle studio door.

Cox is one of perhaps a dozen people on the planet practicing antiquarian horology—the conservation of historical clocks and the study of time. She’s a true renaissance woman—a practitioner of mechanical engineering, watchmaking, automaton regenerating, ornamental turning, woodworking, silversmithing, blacksmithing, gilding. She single-handedly runs every facet of her operation, Memoria Technica. She leads a lecture series on horological conservation. She’s a philosopher with a particular bent for epistemology. The list goes on, an esoteric collection.

Using many of the same tools and machines from centuries past, Cox will dissect years of hard work and materials, examine the mechanisms and metaphors of a beautifully crafted object, and slowly build it back up. Intrinsic to these instruments are ancient ruminations on the tilt of the planet, the power of the sun, diamonds versus wood, weights versus springs. Gorgeous automatons dot the mechanical mayhem of her workshop; birds chirp, dogs bark, music chimes without a single electrical connection. Bellows and gears whir soundlessly and bring time to a bewitching halt, and an iPhone suddenly feels insubstantial by comparison.

An image of the rear of a clock.

Inherent to her quest is the concept of time—how we design it, how we use it, how we revere and contend with it. Long ago, humans gazed up at the night sky and began to consider our place among the stars. That philosophical wonder evolved to the mechanics of horology and eventually to where we are now—ever connected and in demand, our time a commodity owned by smart phones and digital calendars. Our meaning of being is getting lost in the cacophony and with it the toil and tenacity that defined modern time as we know it.

Consider John Harrison. A carpenter by trade, he chased the 1714 Longitude Act enacted during the reign of Queen Anne. The challenge was simple yet enormous: find an accurate way to measure longitude at sea. Harrison experimented for 30 years, eventually succeeding with the H4 sea watch and earning today’s equivalent of millions of dollars for his discovery. That a timekeeping device could be used to pinpoint longitudinal position was the big breakthrough—design rooted in science. It changed the course of navigation, commerce, and exploration the world over. Beyond that, the sheer craft of Harrison’s work is staggering by today’s standards. His creations were elaborate and curated, the materials painstakingly sourced.

This is what Cox strives to conserve. Not just the romance of antiquity, but the power of its influence. The imagination and heart behind the objects that measure the turn of our world.

A portrait of Brittany Nicole Cox at a lathe.

Cox’s study of rare, beautiful, and rather important things is a critical mirror for design in 2018. Where Silicon Valley demands innovation at a break-neck pace, rarely examining the inundation of apps, bots, social networks, and devices left in its wake, Cox is reaching for a return to indispensable creation and the pursuit of preservation.

Perhaps you’ve heard: Moore’s Law is dead. The rate of computational enhancement that drove the past 50 years of advancement is at its apex. We’re coming up on something here—some cliff that drops us into quantum computing, artificial intelligence, and a new age of rapid design.

Where does that leave conservation and craft? It might be time to slow down rather than speed ahead. If we want our attention back, want to feel like we’re truly creating something substantial, want to focus and take care and make beautiful things, we need to look to creators like Cox who care deeply about what we’re carrying forward. This is the moment to consider the legacy of design.

Danielle McClune is a writer at Microsoft and an expert wanderer. She hails from the Midwest and feels passionate about thunderstorms.