You would think that the hands are the most basic parts of a watch. Without them we couldn’t tell the time, or could we? As watch hands get more inventive it seems we are less concerned with telling the time anyway.
I remember it well. It was a grey and unsea- sonably cold April day during the Milan furniture fair. Off the beaten track, on a rather quiet street south of the city centre, I entered the exhibition of Dutch furniture designer Martin Baas. Real Time, shown at the Costume National gallery consisted of three films where Baas presented some very imaginative ways of telling the time. He used actors, who he filmed over several hours, performing different tasks that amounted to showing how time advances. There was, what seemed like, a man hidden in a grandfather’s clock, where the clock face consisted of a white- board. Here the man kept on drawing on the time in black marker, then rubbing it off, as if he had changed his mind, just to redraw it at the new position – one minute later. There was an “analogue digital clock”, where another man was sitting at his desk playing around with some items which spelled out the time in digital format. It was turned into an iPhone app a year later, retailing at 99 eurocents.
The idea of time ticking, the cycle of life, is often represented by the two hands of a clock, but a feature we now take for granted wasn’t al- ways there. The watches of the seventeenth century kept approximate time – give or take thirty minutes a day. They had just the hour hand; a minute hand would have been a misleading superfluity. But around 1675, the character of the watch was transformed by the invention of the hairspring or balance spring. This invention improved the ability to tell time, cutting deviations to about five minutes a day, creating a need also for the minute hand. So from around 1680, watches came with the familiar two hands.
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