Friday, June 10, 2011

The Call of the Cuckoo

I am a happy man today.

A few months back, my cuckoo clock had stopped. Inexplicably. The interiors of our house had been done up and, for a change, I had shifted the cuckoo clock from its original place in the living room and hung it from a nail on the lintel above the French window. And it died. Well, not exactly dead: it had been comatose for over a year and a half. When you give a swing to the pendulum, the clock comes alive for a few minutes and then goes to sleep. I did not know why.

Today it came to life again. All I did was to shift it to its original spot and apply a few drops of oil on the chain to smoothen the movement. Now I know why my cherished asset had folded up. The wind flowing in through the window would meddle with the swing of the pendulum, and cause the movement to stop. In its original position against the feature wall, there is no such intruder.

The cuckoo clock is one of my prized possessions – a souvenir of my trip to Europe in 1997. I was attending a training programme in the Maastricht School of Management in Netherlands and took time off to hop over to Germany. A cruise of the Rhine was one of the highlights of that weekend.

To the north-east of the Rhine Valley in Baden-W├╝rttemberg is the wooded mountain range called Schwarzwald (Literally, the Black Forest). The village Schoenwald here is where cuckoo clocks were first designed in 1737 and are still manufactured and sold. I purchased my ‘original’ cuckoo clock from a shop that called itself ‘Die Uhrenmacher des Schwarzwaldes’ (The Clockmakers of the Black Forest).

The first cuckoo clock I saw was in the study of an uncle. It had Roman numerals and rich ornamentation featuring a chalet with carved leaves, flowers and deer heads with antlers. A boy of ten, I would accompany my grandfather to my uncle’s house, mostly on weekends. As we trudged along the untarred road, I would hope and pray that we would be there about five to ten minutes before a full hour – so that I could see the spectacle of the cuckoo peeping out of the cage and flap its wings.

When grandpa prepared to bid goodbye and it was time to leave, I would plead: ‘After the cuckoo comes out once more, please!’

Even since, it was my desire to own a cuckoo clock. Mine is a poor cousin of the one my uncle had. It has just a one-day movement while my uncle’s boasted of an eight-day movement. My clock has two weights – one for winding the clock and the other for the cuckoo. There were three weights in the version my uncle had, thought for the life of me, I cannot guess why.

As a child, I was fascinated by the contraption and asked my uncle (He was a school headmaster) how it worked. He had no answer. Now I know how. It is a pendulum-driven mechanical (though quartz models have now made the scene) time-piece that tells you the hour using an imitation of the call of the cuckoo. It has an automaton of the bird that appears through a small trap door while the clock is striking. The bird moves while the clock strikes, typically by means of an arm that lifts the back of the carving.

The weights are made of cast iron in a pine cone shape and the ‘cuc-koo’ sound is created by two tiny pipes in the clock, with bellows attached to their tops. The clock's movement activates the bellows to send a puff of air into each pipe alternately when the clock strikes.

Another question I asked my uncle was why the clock face had in place of 4, a IIII instead of IV. This may seem trivial, but have you noticed that in most clock faces with Roman numerals, IIII is often used in place of IV for the 4 o'clock. The answer he gave me was that in was in deference to the wish of Louis XIV that clockmakers opted for this variant.

He added that there was another theory doing the rounds: ‘IV’ is an abbreviation for ‘Jupiter’ since Roman times. (Recall that in INRI, the I’s stand for J and that some of the police stations (Bhowanipore and Lal Bazaar, for instance) in Calcutta still have the words Station Hovse emblazoned on their facades) So they decided to use "IIII" so that their clocks didn't have "1 2 3 GOD 5 6 ..." written on them.

But, recently, I heard a new explanation. Imagine a watch face with roman numerals with IV instead of III. Look at the numerals opposite each other – all of them are in perfect balance, except for the 'heavy' VIII and the 'light' IV. Optical balance can be attained by printing a 'heavy' IIII. This does gel with the theory of visual balance attained by using 10:08 in the advertisement for watches and seems quite plausible.

Someone told me the other day that of late, my blogs tend to be more educative than experiential. He did not add which of the two he preferred. Coming to think of it, he never said he even liked my blog. Is there a message in that?


Santanu Sinha Chaudhuri said...

Apropos of the question in the last sentence of your article, does it matter?

Santanu Sinha Chaudhuri said...

Apropos of the question in the last sentence of your article, does it matter?