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The Clock That Wasn’t

clockA rich man sent word to a master clockmaker who lived in a distant Northern city.

“I want you to build a grandfather clock for me,” he wrote. “The finest ever designed. Your fame is well-deserved, but this time you will surpass even your own limits.  I want the clock that will prove how valuable my time is.”

The clockmaker accepted his terms and began to work. With the meticulous nature that had earned him his reputation, he created his masterpiece. Just before installing the final pieces in their place, his heart gave out and he died.

After the clockmaker’s funeral, his sons wrote a letter to the rich man, inquiring if he yet wanted the clock, at a reduced price. They ensured him that the craftsmanship was the finest they had ever seen.

The rich man agreed, and the clock was bundled and delivered to his home.

After his servants unwrapped the package, the rich man entered his study to see what his money had purchased. Everything about the tall clock was exquisite, but for one thing–

“This clock has no hands,” he said, clenching his fists. “Take it away.”

His servants protested momentarily, but he left the room without speaking further, except to order them to dispose of the clock and remove it from the room.

“A clock without hands is not a clock,” he said to himself in the hall.

At that moment, the clock began to play the loveliest music the servants had ever heard. Their eyes filled with tears as they swayed with the melody that signaled the beginning of another hour.

One hour later, the music began again, a different tune, but lovelier than the first. The servants asked the rich man if they might not keep the clock, if only for the music it played.

“What clock?” he shouted. “A clock keeps time. A clock without hands cannot be called a clock. It does not fulfill the purpose it was created for, and therefore I have no use for it.  I see little potential in a machine with missing or deficient parts.”

And so the clockmaker’s masterwork was destroyed by the rich man’s servants. As they separated the structure into pieces, each of them hummed what they could recall of the lovely melodies they had heard.

Let’s talk: Is a clock without hands a clock? (and don’t try to trick with with digital watches or sun dials)


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Photo credit: stevendepolo

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Shane November 16, 2009, 7:11 am

    Is a clock without hands a clock?

    Yes, it’s the best kind. It shows time is so valuable it’s immeasurable. By the time people realize this, it’s already 1 second past.

  • Joe D. November 16, 2009, 7:48 am

    A clock without hands can only display the present moment, right then the most important time of your life. And the music that plays along with it. Nice post, Josh

  • Joey | R. J. Spindle November 16, 2009, 8:23 am

    If there is a different melody for every hour, then the clock still kept time. With a little effort the rich man could have discovered the melody of each hour. Not to mention, putting hands a clock like that is the EASIEST part! He should have hired someone else to do that last part.

    Considering the man junked the clock without a moment’s consideration after viewing the clock for the first time proves that time means nothing to the man. The time it took to make, deliver, and destroy the clock proves that the rich man is more vain than of any kind of important.

  • --Deb November 16, 2009, 8:49 am

    The true irony is that the first clocks did NOT have hands or faces–they made noise. They rang bells on the hour, or cuckoo’d on cue. They worked by mechanics or by running water, but they were audible, to let entire towns know the time to come to prayer, or when it was noon, or midnight. In fact, the word “clock” comes from the German “glockenspiel” because the first European clocks rang paens of bells. It wasn’t until later that someone thought to make them visual as well.

  • Srinivas Rao November 16, 2009, 10:01 am


    I really liked this post. I personally think if beautiful music played in my ears every hour, then it would be as if time didn’t matter and time stood still. That to me is achieving one of our highest callings, to be present.

    • Josh Hanagarne November 16, 2009, 10:22 am

      Thanks Srinivas. I’m imagining that the clock was playing Neko Case.

  • Casey November 16, 2009, 10:05 am

    Is time immeasurable? No, it is very measureable. Our very understanding of the world around us is rooted in that time is finite and measurable.

    We define an object by its purpose. If an object cannot fulfill its purpose than it is not really that object at all. If a wheel can’t roll, it’s not really a wheel is it? If a clock cannot display the time then it isn’t really a clock is it?

    True by learning the tunes the rich man could know the present time, but he lacked the ability to plan out his day. When did he need to leave for a meeting? How long till a valued client was due to arrive? These are the sorts of things he needed his clock to tell him. But this clock could do none of those things. (or least not very well)

    Yes the man had ever right to reject the clock. The clock didn’t fulfill the function he needed it to. Would you buy a car without wheels?

    The repugnant nature of the rich man and his desire to destroy what wasn’t useful to him is sad, but ultimately immaterial to the question of the clock being useful.

    PS: First time dropping by in while Josh, love the tweaks to the site!

    • Josh Hanagarne November 16, 2009, 10:19 am

      Welcome back, Casey. Hope everything’s going well for you.

      • Casey November 16, 2009, 11:20 am

        Thanks! Honestly this semester is literally graying my hair. 4 more weeks and I should be clear though!

    • Ricky Scruggs November 18, 2009, 10:19 am

      Seems to me we are looking at the parable from the wrong angle. If you look, the man requested a clock that would prove how valuable his time is. So if he threw it away because it did not fulfill its intended purpose he was sadly in the wrong. The clock’s purpose was to show the man how valuable his time is. I might be stretching but I think the clock maker and the writer is saying your time is valuable if you use your hands to serve a purpose because your time is not that valuable unless used for others. You don’t need hands at all if all you are doing is standing in line to get yours. What could possibly tell you how valuable your time is more than a masterpiece clock whose maker ran out of time himself before he could finish. To put hands on that clock would be worse then destroying it.

      • Josh Hanagarne November 18, 2009, 11:31 am

        Ricky, that is a brilliant look that I never would have thought of. Very cool.

  • Ian M Rountree November 16, 2009, 10:36 am

    This is a poignant concept. It speaks volumes about the rich man’s perspective of value.
    In many cases we don’t treat things as we once did, time is no exception. We’ve stopped treating time pieces (clock, alarm, whatever) as markers and started treating them as currency. “I can give you five minutes to pitch me an idea.” “I need an hour for this project.” It’s a frustrating reversal from “Well, I’m awake, time to work.” Lends a lot of urgency, but as smarter people have said, there is more to life than increasing its pace.

    Ever heard of the Clock of the Long Now? (Wikipedia link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clock_of_the_long_now) Thinking about how minute (as in small) the intervals we think of life are divided up, before zooming out so far that those hands (minute, hour, day) disappear – it’s humbling. Like the servants humming the beautiful tune. Perhaps they saw value the acquisitive man failed to?


    • Josh Hanagarne November 18, 2009, 11:32 am

      Ian, I’ve never heard of Clock Of The Long Now. Looking it up now. Thanks.

  • Jerry Kennedy November 16, 2009, 10:44 am


    Great post! Here’s my take: the rich man asked the clockmaker to make a clock that would remind him how valuable time is, and the clockmaker gave his life to do just that. By dying just before he finished the clock, the craftsman illustrated the ultimate lesson about time: we never know which moment will be our last or what we’ll leave unfinished when our time runs out.

    If the rich man had also been wise, he would have had the clock with no hands carried to his bedroom so that he could see it every morning when he woke and every night when he retired and be continually reminded of the value of his remaining time.


    P.S. I found you via your Copyblogger guest post…are you still taking requests for guest posts?

  • Jerry Kennedy November 16, 2009, 10:49 am


    Great post! Here’s my take: the rich man asked the clockmaker to make a clock that would remind him how valuable time is, and the clockmaker gave his life to do it. By dying just before the clock was finished, the craftsman taught the ultimate lesson about time: we never know which moment will be our last or what we’ll leave unfinished when our time runs out.

    If the rich man had also been wise, he would have had the clock with no hands placed in his room, where he could see it every morning when he woke and every night when he retired, and be constantly reminded of the value of his remaining time.


    P.S. Found you via your Copyblogger guest post today…are you still taking requests for guest posts?

    • Josh Hanagarne November 18, 2009, 11:33 am

      Jerry, still taking guest posts, yes. Just send me an email that meets the criteria in the original post.

  • Randy November 16, 2009, 11:15 am

    Hour Glass… a visual representation of the continuity of what was, what is and what yet isn’t. (“the daze of hour lives”)
    I recall when I was little watching the Wizard of Oz, the wicked witch’s hour glass running out on Dorothy produced significant tension and anxiety…an effect I don’t think a clock would have achieved.

  • Josh Hanagarne November 16, 2009, 11:42 am

    Randy, I agree. I know the scene well. That’s “dread.”

  • Ms. Freeman November 16, 2009, 12:40 pm

    Is a clock without hands a clock? I say yes, when measuring time on a larger scale the hands become obsolete. A song marks the hours, sunlight marks the days. Seasonal temperatures mark the months and champagne marks the years.

    • Josh Hanagarne November 18, 2009, 11:34 am

      I like that. I don’t drink, but maybe I need a bunch of champagne just to keep track of the time.

  • Keith November 16, 2009, 12:52 pm

    It’s like the old saying goes. When life gives you lemons, make some beef stew. Without trying to get too deep, my take on this is that the “clock” obviously served more than just the purpose of keeping time.

    Anytime you look at something complex made up of fragments of less complex parts, you have to figure out when something stops being the thing it was designated to be.

    If I remove a tire from my car is it no longer a car? It doesn’t seem to matter whether it’s a car or not when I am on the side of a frozen freeway with no spare. It becomes shelter. But wasn’t it shelter before? Most cars shelter us as well as aid us in speedy travel.

    Also, Randy made a comment about the aesthetic differences between a clock and an hourglass. The movie High Noon was a great film that used a clock to create tension and anxiety. Krull used an hourglass. Many movies have a bomb with a digital countdown timer. I guess it rests in the director’s skill.

    • Josh Hanagarne November 16, 2009, 1:01 pm

      Keith, I’ve never heard that saying, but I do love me some High Noon.

  • Patrenia November 16, 2009, 1:56 pm

    This was a great story. It’s sad that the rich man did not see the value of the clock. His mentality was the glass is half empty, instead of half full. Even though the clock had no hands (half empty), the servants were right to suggest keeping it at least for the beautiful music (half full). Who knows, if he would have paid attention, the music could have been playing to announce each hour of the day.

    • Josh Hanagarne November 16, 2009, 2:24 pm

      Patrenia, I’ve been meaning to tell you, I love how your blog looks. Thanks as always for the comment.

  • David Spinks November 16, 2009, 4:05 pm

    Wow, great story.

    Perhaps this is a story of status. Something of no use to one may be perceived as invaluable to another.

    Casey asked above, would you want a car without wheels? No I wouldn’t…but someone living on the street who has nothing more than an old weathered sheet and the shredded shirt on their back might find the gift of a stationary, wheel-less car to be warmth, a roof and a sign of hope.

    The rich man only saw the clock for it’s purpose, because anything less than it’s intended purpose wouldn’t be worth keeping around (he could buy another one). The servants saw it for something else. They saw the beauty and mystery of the handless, musical clock to be soothing. Although the clock was purchased for a specific purpose, it served a different, perhaps greater purpose to the servants.


    • Josh Hanagarne November 16, 2009, 4:09 pm

      David, great point about the car. I like your style.

  • Stephanie Smith November 17, 2009, 7:34 am

    Yes it was still a clock. Plaing a song evey hour is still marking time. The hands only make the time measurement more exact, but time passes, whether counted in minutes, seconds or hours. The man wanted to show how valuable his time was, but that is impossible because time itself is something that cannot be bought, stolen or given. It simply exists and no one ever knows how much time they have.

    • Josh Hanagarne November 18, 2009, 11:35 am

      Stephanie, what song do you think it was playing? Baby elephant walk?

  • Stephanie Smith November 18, 2009, 3:46 pm

    The point is…that it PLAYED. P.S. Since I was trying to catch up on comments from your posts and coulndn’t do them -I guess I tried to do too many -I got a message that actually said” you are commenting too fast. slow down.” Seriously – it cracked me up. Did you put that in there?