The National Watch and Clock Museum
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The National Watch and Clock Museum

- By Keith Lehman (PA) 9/15/17

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Watch and Clock Museum campus. Courtesy Keith Lehman.

With its classical Greek architecture, proud pineapple-topped rotunda, 70' tall clock tower, and tetrastyle Tuscan-fluted column entrance, the exterior of the National Watch and Clock Museum in Columbia, PA, is an impressive sight. Inside, the Museum is a treasure trove of scientific and cultural knowledge with a collection of over 12,000 items ranging from wristwatches and alarm clocks to monumental and atomic clocks, a Library and Research Center with over 30,000 books and thousands of feet of archival material. Funded in part by thousands of members of the National Association of Watch and Clock Collectors (NAWCC), a truly international community with about 150 Chapters worldwide and its own Publications and Education Departments, this nonprofit’s humble origins are hard to imagine. Now a half-city block of horological dedication, the organization began as a small collection of timepieces housed in one man’s living room. Indeed, the tiny acorn has grown into a mighty oak.

For these reasons and countless more, the National Watch and Clock Museum is a must-visit for any watch or clock collector, enthusiast, or maker. Founded in 1977, it is the only accredited museum dedicated to the art, history, and science of horology in North America. Museum Director Noel Poirier says the Museum’s outreach is greater now than it’s ever been.

“The Museum has worked toward making everything we do accessible for NAWCC members, the public, and our stakeholders. In addition to the Museum’s website, where all of our collections, plans, and policies are openly available, we offer numerous social media platforms where the public can see almost daily what is happening at the Museum,” says Poirier.

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Three time globes with novelty and car clocks in background. Courtesy Keith Lehman.
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Industrial machines for watchmaking from the Waltham Watch Co. Courtesy Keith Lehman.
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Orrery, RGM Watch Co. Martin guitar, and a lighthouse clock in our member contribution section. Courtesy Keith Lehman.

The “Search the Collection” page, one of the accessible features Poirier refers to, allows free access to search the Museum’s entire collection database and archives that grow daily as new information and objects are added. Not only can one search general topics or brands (e.g., self-winding or Rolex), but an “advanced search” feature allows for more granular inquiries. The Museum maintains a presence on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and most other major social media sites to spread its mission to preserve, encourage, and stimulate interest in the art, heritage, and science of timekeeping to the public. In addition to these freely accessed venues, NAWCC members have additional online access to every issue of the Watch & Clock Bulletin (published since 1944) and discounts on courses (online and on-site) and merchandise offered by the organization.

The Museum itself is like an orchestra, each timepiece a player, the story they tell a symphony. To highlight a few single pieces or sections cannot do the Museum justice, but the following are some of the Museum’s more defining pieces:

  • The first replica of the Antikythera Device. Found over 100 years ago in an ancient shipwreck, this device, created roughly 2 BC, has been the subject of fascination and scientific debate since its discovery. Although its true purpose is a mystery, studies have determined that it is the earliest mechanical calculator ever created and was designed to predict the movement of the moon, planets, and stars.
  • The Engle Clock dubbed as the Eighth Wonder of the World and the first apostolic monumental clock created in the United States. One man, Stephen Engle, took 20 years to create the clock. When it was finished around 1878, it toured the United States. At 11 feet high and 8 feet wide, the clock demonstrates two organ movements and 48 moving figures and movements that reveal the days and months of the year and the positions of celestial bodies.
  • A pocket watch collection that includes watchmaking machines from the Waltham Watch Factory, a Breguet pocket watch (once owned by Napoleon’s sister and the King of Prussia), and an Adolph Lange & Söhne multicomplicated pocket watch.

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First replica of the Antikythera Device. Courtesy Keith Lehman.
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The Engle Clock. Courtesy Keith Lehman.
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Adolph Lange & Söhne multicomplicated pocket watch dial and movement. Courtesy Keith Lehman.

“The NAWCC was formed by members who concentrated their interests principally on clocks and pocket watches and the Museum’s collection in turn reflects this,” explains Poirier. “But the changing nature of horological technology, culture, and societal needs requires the Museum to consider new and exciting directions.”

Over the past five years the Museum has been cultivating relationships with wristwatch enthusiasts, makers, and manufacturers. The 2010 exhibit “Grand Complications” was the Museum’s first attempt at featuring the important role wristwatches have played in the story of horological development and design. Watches like the Ulysse Nardin “Freak” and the George Daniels coaxial escapement model Omega were just two of the more than 30 innovative pieces featured.

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The Museum rotunda. Courtesy John Lehman.

Through the presentation of special exhibits and hosting of industry events, the Museum has also cultivated relationships with major brands, such as Hamilton International Ltd., RGM Watch Co., Bulova Watch Co., and others.

“It is our hope to play a greater role in the watch industry’s ability to share their influence on the history of horology and reach a larger public audience with the important role wristwatches continue to play in our daily lives,” says Poirier.

The National Watch and Clock Museum is in the truest sense a timeless place. Not only does it house an amazing collection of horological objects but it tells a story—the story of time. All over the world, through time and space, we are united by it, from our most ancient ancestors puzzling at the nighttime skies to our children posting their latest selfie.

The Museum has something to offer everyone—from the accomplished watch and clockmaker to the recent wristwatch enthusiast. Guest Wristwatch Curator Adam Harris stated in an interview with, “I came here [the Museum] thinking I was an expert. I left knowing I was a novice.” If humility is truly wisdom acquired, then come and see our building, walk our halls, hear the sound of time passing, and gain the wisdom you seek.

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