The history of telling time has two modes: neck craned up, head turned down.
At first we measured the passage of time by the sun’s position; we looked up. The sundial was invented, and we looked down. In the 13th century, clocks were placed in civic structures, and we looked up again to see which hour had been struck.
Back then, time’s passage was something doled out by rich patrons, the peal of the quarter-hour bell a statement of noblesse oblige. Knowing the exact minute you inhabited was reserved for the elite, who, by the 16th century, flaunted pocket watches.
Advance the dial to the 1800s, and time starts to become democratized. It migrates from the tower on high to the vest-pocket watch, which you took out, examined in your hand, snapped shut, and tucked away.
In the 19th century, clocks became the rage. Your local city hall had a clock, usually a sizable one. The train station also had a clock, overseer of a million goodbyes.
Not to be outdone, stores put up clocks, which provided a respectable note of civic largesse. And if the store sold watches, you checked your watch against the big clock and perhaps concluded you needed a better timepiece.
In some towns, you could say “Meet me under the clock,” and people knew where to go — the hotel lobby, the street corner where the railroad had its office.
By the 20th century, time was mostly a wristwatch affair, until the advent of the electronic bank sign. Then the urban landscape changed: Time was everywhere, and now it had a partner — temp.
One good idea
The time-and-temp sign was invented by Luke Williams and his brother Chuck. The first one was installed in 1953 at the Seattle First National Bank building.
If there was a time-and-temp sign on a bank near you, chances are it was from their company, American Sign and Indicator Corp. Eventually, they installed more than 7,000 of the signs across the country.
The old clock towers and the store clocks hanging from the side of a building gave you a fuzzy sense of time. You could see that the big black hand was past, meaning that the hour was half-spent. The new time-and-temp clocks were scientific, even clinical: it’s 10:07. The temperature is 31. There’s no room for argument and there’s no time like the present.
There were even fancy time-and-temp signs that revolved. You’d sometimes find them in small towns where the bank wanted to project a modern image. An old corner building would be covered with metal panels and a time-and-temp sign added.
The more common that time-and-temp signs became, the less time seemed worthy of a landmark. The bulbs burned out, the motors broke down. They were expensive: Time literally cost money. No one mourned when they started disappearing from the landscape.
Unless we’re talking about the granddaddies of the local bank signs: the Weatherball.
Sitting atop the Northwestern National Bank in Minneapolis, the Weatherball was loved, mourned and remembered because it had its own song:
“When the Weatherball is glowing red, warmer weather’s just ahead.
“When the Weatherball is shining white, colder weather is in sight.”
“When the Weatherball is wearing green, no weather changes are foreseen.”
Colors blinking by night and day, say precipitation’s on the way.”
The Thanksgiving Fire of 1982, started by two idiots goofing around, brought down Northwestern National. The remains of the Weather-ball were lifted from the wreckage by helicopter, and there were plans to rebuild it at the State Fairgrounds. Never happened; sold for scrap. (There is a model of the Weatherball on the second floor in the Wells Fargo Center in Minneapolis, which was built on the Northwestern National’s grave. While it’s nice, it’s nowhere near big enough.)
No longer a novelty
By the 1990s, telling everyone the time and temp wasn’t a novelty anymore. Everyone knew the time, and no one really cared about the temp, unless it was hellishly high or low.
So now we’re back to looking down.
We take out our phones like people once took out vest-pocket clocks. Our phones not only tell us the temp, they send alerts if it’s going to rain.
We’re still ruled by time as much as ever, but it’s a private event now, not something we share in the town square — it’s a personal devil jabbing us with a fork, not some great god in the sky gesturing for us to move along.
The TCF Tower’s electronic readout was one of Minneapolis’ last time-temp signs. And it has been dark since renovation of the tower began last year. The only downtown clock of note is the recently refurbished classic at City Hall.
There are times you wish you could look up and still see the old Weatherball giving us the forecast. It would be something old-timers could explain to newcomers.
But we have an app for that now.