Created By: The History Center in Tompkins County
How do you translate a natural system into a mechanical system?
The Chanticleer Rooster has been welcoming visitors to the corner of State and Cayuga streets since 1947...but a unique Ithaca invention was first manufactured at this location many decades before. The photo shows the first Ithaca Calendar Clock Company that stood on the site of the present-day Chanticleer, before the company built another larger factory in the Fall Creek neighborhood.
The Ithaca Calendar Clock
While we usually expect a clock to tell us what time it is, some clocks also tell us the day of the week, month and/or year. In today's digital age, this is perhaps no more astounding than the myriad of other things our computers, smart phones and smart watches can do for us, but back in the mid-19th century, the wonder of time-keeping devices existed more in the elaborate wooden or metal mechanisms that made them work. A combination of circular gears and mechanisms to keep the circles constantly turning resulted in devices that helped humans keep track of the minutes and seconds of their lives as they ticked away.
In 1853 a patent was filed in Ithaca, NY for a new sort of clock that could keep track of the days, months and years as they passed. Well, sort of. While we like to think of a year as a uniform length of time within our systems for measuring the passage of time, natural cycles resulting from the orbit of our planet Earth, around the sun have their own system of time. While the Gregorian Calendar, the civil calendar system most widely used today (and used in Ithaca in the mid-1800's), comes pretty close to encompassing all of the seasons completely within a calendar year, it's slightly off. So every 4 years is considered a "leap year" and gets an extra day in the month of February (though this adjustment is skipped once per century, except in years divisible by 400...the year 2000 was one of these exceptions when we did have a leap year at the beginning of a new century). Without these tweaks, the season of natural cycles that are very familiar parts of our daily lives would eventually cycle through different parts of our calendar years. Eventually snow would be a regular occurrence in July and January might be a pleasant time to swim in Cayuga Lake. This complicated way of attempting to standardize the passage of time doesn't translate well into a mechanical system, so the first Ithaca Calendar Clocks had to be manually readjusted during a leap year.
In 1854, the Ithaca Calendar Clock design was perfected so that leap years could be accounted for. A natural cycle was thereby translated into mechanical cycles – a novel idea that led to a thriving clock business in Ithaca, at least for a few decades. The novelty eventually wore off, however, and at the end of its life, the Ithaca Calendar Clock Company was mainly building clocks for business promotions. As many of the products being promoted were alcoholic in nature, it is said that Prohibition dealt the final blow to this company. Today the Ithaca Calendar Clock is redundant for the basic function it performs, though Ithaca Calendar Clocks have seen a, perhaps nostalgic, dramatic increase in their monetary worth and a local company still repairs and occasionally builds new ones to order.
Photo from Ithaca Calendar Clock Company, Inc
This point of interest is part of the tour: Nature and Culture of Downtown Ithaca - Visual Aids