Skip to main content

Clocks and Bells - A Matter of Time

Printer-friendly versionPrinter-friendly version

The clock in the metro station remained still, as if it were frozen in time on an unknown day at exactly 17:11. With both glass facings now gone, the once-futuristic, half-flip digits looked as if they were still awaiting their one last command from "central clock control". At one time many of our public clocks, in office buildings, on street corners and in clock towers were controlled by a "central" system, where one adjustment to the master clock would reset a network of connected "slave" clocks in unison. With the arrival of the digital age, the accuracy and the need for our reliable old clocks had come to an end. It was sad to see so many of our beautiful public "faces" wind down, without even a bell or a chime from us, as one by one they were abandoned. Some with their juice turned off completely, others left to self-adjust between the months of daylight savings, and still others left to suffer on their mounts as simple ornate decorations of a time gone by.

Church bells once played the role of keeping all of our hours in sync. There was a time when we could set our watches to the sound of a church bell. Our neighbourhood bells would "chime" sometimes hourly, as we all knew the time, at the same time. Those bells scheduled our daily rise in the morning and when to quit at night. They added their own sense of formality to our social events, and still do today, yet without the background of urban noise of today’s world. Our cities and towns held a certain quaint silence then, as our bells announced our weddings, our funerals, and our holidays throughout the year. To this day there is nothing like the pure sound of church bells, although their tones hold much less meaning, we could easily imagine the community spirit they once heralded, in simpler times of the horse and buggy. Strangely, as each belfry had a limited range, people living within multiple bell locations, could sometimes be serenaded by the "surround sound" of the day, or be let down if their timings were just not right. We took comfort from hearing those bells not only to keep the correct time, but also to keep us all connected within our communities, assuring us that all was well. Chimes could be heard from across the island, depending on the wind direction, the weather, and the time of day. It must have been something to hear the bells of downtown chapels from our Southwest corner, as today we rarely hear any of our own.

As our cities grew, public clocks controlled by master controls became the standard so that we all were operating on the same time. Office buildings, public areas, and many private companies installed their own internal central clock systems. This was not only to provide time conformity, it was to ensure that daylight savings time could be communicated in one uniformed way across our cities and towns. Our City halls clocks were once controlled by these master timers, which reset the time throughout the many departments within them, from the Mayor’s office to the night court halls (yes, we once had our own city courthouses). All clocks changed together, allowing us to synchronize with official "city time" and with each other. Our public buildings were once adorned with these beautiful timepieces usually made of the finest polished metals, like detailed art sculptures in their own right..

Our world was then, and still is, controlled by time. Looking throughout our cities we are reminded of the importance that our beautifully decorated clocks once played. The brass Dominion clocks that still shine today at Windsor Station, told our troops how long they could continue kissing their girl before going off to the horrors of war. Walking within the station’s now quiet halls, we can still almost hear the train whistles, signalling that their time was up. Most would return to the sound of bells, yet they could no longer hear them.

The Old Port clock tower still provides the correct time to ships arriving and leaving the Port of Montreal. The familiar Molson Clock, with its red fluorescent hands and dial still illuminates the night skyline near the east-end, and continues to add a Montreal feel to our city. Our public clocks are now becoming only reminders of an era when they were once so preciously upheld. Times that now seem long forgotten, times when Montreal was truly a world-class city.

In today’s daily commutes, we are often found side by side with someone holding one of our newer timepieces. Although these "personal assistants" now allow you to view a live event in real time, to instant-message anyone, to make dinner reservations, or even to turn on the lights before you get home, they also take away time for us to be ourselves, for us to communicate with others, and for us to be "non-productive", if not just for a moment. Their unlimited capabilities draw us into them, until the rest of the real world is
almost completely shutout.

Until one day, holding a bus rail, you lean over to a person typing away frantically with their thumbs, and ask them for the time. It is only then, that they realize they are talking with a real person. While both of you stare down at their small screen now flashing "Low Battery", and let out a small chuckle…together…enjoying the real life and real times within our own Southwest corner.