Another way of saying this is that clocks were very early examples of domestic automatons. Today, we’re used to dynamic and largely programmable domestic conveniences: videos flicker on our screens; a smart dishwasher whirs; Bluetooth speakers stream music. But in the 1770s, houses were largely still and comparably quiet: beyond a fire in a hearth, the click of knitting needles, or the scratch of a pen, a clock’s swaying pendulum and turning hands were often the only moving objects in a house, and the measured tock and occasional chimes the only regular noise. Clocks were the ancestors of the devices that now permeate our lives.

They also contributed to a radical redefinition of time. Before 1700, indigenous Americans and rural Europeans had generally conceived of time in relation to natural cycles and particular tasks; time was largely ecological, seasonal, and practical. As pendulum-driven clocks became increasingly common, though, so too did the abstract, artificial system of clock time. By the 1740s, Philadelphia newspapers regularly referred to the hour and even the minute at which things happened, and both legislators and Shawnee delegates now alluded to the time ‘of the clock’ in scheduling meetings. The shape, the terminology, and even the experience of time were all changing.

Edward Duffield, who made the movement of the BMA’s clock, played an important role in this process. A local clockmaker, he supposedly grew tired of passersby ducking into his shop and asking him for the time, and thus erected the first public clock in Philadelphia. In the 1760s, he was hired to maintain the large State House clock, which was visible for blocks. And he was close friends with Benjamin Franklin—who, insisting that time is money, urged his readers to behave industriously and to avoid wasting time. Duffield’s clocks helped to support the Protestant notion that one should always be doing, rather than simply being. And in that sense, he was an early architect of our own 24/7 culture, with its similar emphasis on the value of constant productivity.

But it would be misleading to attribute this case clock wholly to Duffield. He did make the movement, but the clock as a whole was the product of a newly emerging global economy. Some of the components used by Duffield were made in Britain, parts of the case were made of yellow pine and tulip poplar trees felled in mid-Atlantic forests, and the stunning mahogany panel on the front of the case was harvested in the Caribbean—possibly by enslaved or indentured laborers. This clock, then, is a product of colonialism, exploitative labor practices and the deforestation of the Americas.