Object lesson No 62

18th May 2001 at 01:00
There is a problem with one of the most famous moments in cinema history. I'm referring to Harry Lime's closing speech in Carol Reed's 1949 film, The Third Man - the one that goes like this: "In Italy, for 30 years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder, bloodshed, but they also produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock."

Unfortunately, Harry, it didn't.

In fact it was not so peaceful Germany that cursed the world with the cuckoo clock, specifically a chap called Anton Ketterer. In 1750, this middle-aged farmer found himself twiddling his thumbs in a snowbound-village in the remote Black Forest. The weather had closed in and the land had been given over to bandits and boars. What better way to pass the time than to make a clock?

The first Black Forest clock had been made in 1640 on a farm named Glashof. It was constructed of wood and only had an hour hand. By 1700, the region's clocks had hand-painted pine faces, minute hands and chimes. Then along came Ketterer. He used bellows instead of chimes, an innovation which allowed him to imitate the sound of the cuckoo - forever connecting Old Father Time withone of nature's more monstrous young mothers.

Soon, many farmers were spending their winters crafting cuckoo clocks, which became more accurate as metal movements replaced wooden ones. In the summer, peddlers strapped these creations to wooden frames on their backs and travelled all over Europe. They had no difficulty shifting this tick-tocking stock, which was regarded as fine art.

By about 1800, the Black Forest clockmakers - all 700 of them - were not content with the mere sound of a cuckoo and perched a handsomely carved bird on top of their designs, often surrounded by branches, vines, leaves and hunting trophies. Then the appearance changed again. The coming of the railways proved a crucial influence, perhaps because of the once clear link between trains and timetables. Whatever the reason, cuckoo clocks look like cute Swiss chalets because they were made to resemble German railway stations.

Nowadays, you can travel the German clock route, a 320 kilometre trip through one of the Black Forest's most successful industries which, 10 years ago, exported 60 million clocks. In the factories along the route, thousands of people are still feathering their own nests by making cuckoo clocks. Now that would really wind up Harry Lime.

Stephanie Northen


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