The Swiss Watch

Each year the Atlantic receives several thousand short stories in the form of fantasies, but it is a rare one indeed which kindles the imagination, much less the belief, of our readers; yet this is whatJOHN LEIMERThas done on three occasions. Our readers will remember his story “John Thomas’s Cube,”which has been reprinted a number of times since its original appearance in the Atlantic. A Chicagoan and a graduate of Northwestern, Mr. Leimert writes: “I make my living by selling corrugated paper shipping containers. My hobbies are watching cats for relaxation, writing fantasies for fun, and the Great Books, of which I am co-leader of a class at the Union League Club. I do not know whether the fantasies are a reaction to the Great Books, or the other way around.”


A LITTLE over a year ago my daughter gave me a brand-new imported Swiss watch for which she paid $5.00 including sales tax. It was a wrist watch with luminous dial, well made, handsome enough to have cost three times as much, and guaranteed. The guarantee stated that if anything went wrong within a year, I was to return the watch with $1.00 for postage and handling, and the guarantors would send me another one.

This, I thought, was fair enough. I felt that if they would guarantee the watch for a year, they were honest people, and it probably would run for many years. I continued to read with friendliness and satisfaction until a little further along I came upon another statement printed in black caps and underlined in red: —


Now, two things in this world I dislike are a peremptory and arbitrary attitude on the part of people who sell me things and a mystery without a solution. “Do not remove the back of the case,” they said to me, and the back of my neck began to grow hot. “Do not remove the back of the case,” they said and, like a sensible person, I wanted to know why. I felt cheated, and abused, and pushed around. In fact, the thought came to me, “The reason they don’t want me to remove the cover and expose the works is that there are no works. This thing isn’t a watch but an imposture and a fraud.”

Yet, the watch ticked the same as any other, and the hands went around with great regularity marking off the time nicely enough for a person like me who does not care too much for a minute or two one way or the other. I listened to it, watched it run, and felt it against my skin. It was real enough and I began to look in my mind for an explanation.

It was my reason that solved the problem, that faculty I have with all other men of moving logically from premise to conclusion. The watch ran and there must be a cause for this moving, though not the usual one of wheels and springs and gears. Who hides the obvious? Who prohibits us from finding out what everyone knows?

These were the elements my mind surveyed. The conclusion it arrived at was that they did not want me to remove the cover because the watch was run by a small colony of Swiss flying ants which, if they were not confined, would fly away.

The moment this conclusion came to me, all my doubts and worries vanished and I was unreservedly pleased with the watch. I patted it, put it on my wrist, and started to whistle.

But not for long. Another nagging little question began to flutter at the edges of my consciousness. Why must they be flying ants? This is the way with questions in this world. We think we have the answer to one of them, and so we have, and we think that with the answer we have come to the end of our inquiry, and so we have not. Questions beget answers and the answers in turn beget other questions, and so on, as it happened to me.


How, I asked myself, did the ants move the hands of the watch around the dial, and how did they know at what rate to move them so they would show me the time? What kind of people would think of using ants for a mechanism, and how, and why, and how? From this small beginning, a new world opened out before me. A relationship developed between me and the watch and the ants that ran it, a relationship that included the factory where the watches were made, the people who worked in the factory, and the habits, needs, and aspirations of the ants themselves.

For the ants had aspirations and needs the same as any other living creatures. I found this out during the little more than a year that they and the watch and I coöperated on the common project of getting me places on time. I also found out that when the Watch Makers forbade me to open the cover for fear the ants would fly away, they were reasoning from their knowledge of the general character of ants, but were wrong about the particular character of the ant who was foreman in my watch. Or, with ants, should this person be called foreladv, or foreneuter? I prefer foreman; he had qualities of leadership, courage, perseverance, control, activity, reason, and integrity that definitely are masculine.

That the one in my watch was an exception, I am willing to believe. A rigid and intelligent system of selection and training had been set up at the factory in Lucerne where the watches were made. An ant did not become a foreman because he thought he would like the job, nor was he selected at random the way children make somebody “it” by counting eeny, meeny, miney, mo. He became a foreman only after passing certain tests designed by ant psychologists—or, more properly, by persons familiar with the psychology of ants— that measured his general intelligence and discovered his particular aptness for the job. These tests eliminated the commonality of ants and established a superior group whose members conformed to minimum standards. Those who wore to become foremen had then to prove themselves by directing practice crews successfully at the factory.

Occasionally an ant came along who far exceeded these minimum standards. He was to ants as Von Apt, the Managing Director of the Works, was to men. Such was the foreman in my watch. As for Von Apt, it was he who conceived the idea of substituting ants fo♥r mechanical wheels, and levers, and springs; who perfected the method of applying the labor of a living thing directly to the job to be done, rather than applying human labor indirectly to the fashioning of mechanisms.

This was genius. This was economy, for ants cost less to maintain than men. Their food consisted of a rarefied honey of which one sixth of a thimbleful, a few crystalline drops, would feed a watch colony for more than a year. The cost was so low that the watch could be made in Switzerland and shipped to the United States and sold for $5.00 at a profit to everyone along the way.

Von Apt loved his fellow men. He told his customers not to open the backs of their watches, but he did not tell them why. He knew that we are Pandoras who would not believe in the ants until our curiosity had set them flying away, and he did not want the company’s reputation and the prospects for repeat sales to disappear with the ants.

But why flying ants, why wings? Because the fluttering of them added impetus to the work and helped in changing the air and dispersing heat. Also, the ants talked with their wings. As men first talked with their hands and only later learned to adapt sounds to meaning; as a bee that has found a field of clover in bloom tells his friends at the hive by dancing a solemn figure; so the ants talked by wing signals more quick and precise than dancing and almost as ready as speech. And since, like men, they were social animals, like men they had to tell one another how things were and how they wished they were, or they could not be happy.

Therefore, in the watch Von Apt made, the flying ants were the engine, the honey was the fuel, and the mechanism was a sprocket wheel that the ants turned by marching around and around inside the watch. There were twenty-four ants and one foreman for each watch, and they worked in teams of twelve, three harnessing themselves to each of four equally spaced sprockets. The principle and the device were like the old-fashioned gristmill.

While twelve ants worked, the other twelve rested and refreshed themselves at the honey pot and the foreman (in my watch his name was Andy) seemed to do nothing. Actually, he was the coördinator, the moral force, the motive, if you like, of the entire living system. He saw that the shifts were changed, not all at once but three by three without loss of momentum. He rationed the honey, gave the orders, listened to the complaints, and through it all slept by cat naps, ate when he could, and worried, fussed, and fretted more than the others, since his responsibility was greater.

The ants, of course, had no better conception of time than men; it was no more natural for them to move in a circle at a constant rate than it would be for men to walk always at the same pace. But a watch running now fast and now slow, now going leisurely like a man with his mind in the clouds of a summer day, or on the legs of a pretty girl who just passed him in the street, and then rushing wildly about like the same man trying to catch a train, would be no good. A watch must run without measurable acceleration or deceleration, like the earth rotating on its axis, or the planets revolving about the sun, and people are accustomed to measure time in equal intervals between events that repeat, uniformly.

“Not that they are right in this prejudice,”Von Apt said. “I have thought of a watch that measures the time inside of us rather than outside. For a man who is idle or anxious, the interval between events seems to drag out unendingly, while for another who is busy and ambitious, events rush upon him and past him before he can count them. The second man needs a watch that runs much slower than the first, since with him it is three o’clock in the afternoon much sooner.

“This is for the future. For now, we want a watch that runs uniformly. The ants must be trained to move at a constant rate. Gentlemen,” he said to his department heads, “this is our problem. Please solve it.”

They solved it by establishing conditioned reflexes in the ants. They did it by harnessing them to a sprocket wheel within sound of a metronome. They tempted the ants with honey just out of reach, and as the ants moved forward the honey moved away from them. When they went too fast or too slow the honey, like a will-o’-the-wisp, eluded them. When they moved exactly in time with the metronome, they got their taste of honey.

“You see, sir,” the man who perfected the system said to Von Apt, “our technique is based on the findings of Pavlov and it works for the following reasons.”

“Never mind the reasons,” Von Apt said. “That the system works is important. What to do to make it work is important. But why it works, leave that to Pavlov and to God.”

This statement shows the practical and frugal side of Von Apt’s intellect. As for the ants as they went around, the one of three nearest the center traveled the least distance and did the least work, and the one farthest from the center traveled farthest and did most. The bright ants wanted the inside track, and even a dull ant on the outside was liable to discontent. He thought he should have more food to compensate for the extra labor, and he tended to make a pig of himself at the honey pot, responding to a natural inclination. When we have too little of one thing we often want too much of another.

Von Apt himself solved this problem. He made the outside ant corporal of the subteam of three and gave him the title of Pace Setter. It was found that the ant in question felt satisfied with this extra compensation in the form of greater recognition and if anything ate less honey than the others.

As for the ant in the middle, Von Apt said that when there were three in a row, one always must be in the middle. This was a law of nature, but the ant could console himself that he was expressing in reality what the philosophers meant by the Golden Mean: neither too much nor too little. Also, he could be proud that he was the normal ant, the one whose pattern was the standard from which the brighter ant on the inside and the more distinguished on the outside were deviants.

So the ants marched around and around, three by three, happy, industrious, satisfying their personal needs to expend energy and moving the second hand of the watch as they went. By means of a system of reduction gears, the minute and hour hands also moved, the minute hand at a rate one sixtieth that of the ants and the hour hand more majestically, more splendidly, hardly observably, one thirty-sixhundredth as fast.

I, too, was perfectly content until the watch stopped about six months ago. I was on my way to keep an engagement and looked to make sure I would not be late. The watch showed the same time it had when I left home. I held it to my ear but could hear no sound. I tried winding the stem but it was tight. In a sudden panic, I shook the watch and listened again; there still was no ticking.

I do not know what I really was afraid of. It is true that we grow very dependent upon our timepieces because of our need for coördinating the events in our lives.

I may have been anxious, then, because my regulator and drive wheel had failed me and without them I was lost. Actually, I do not think so. I think I was afraid the ants had died and that I might have to take off the cover to see.

Instead, I took the watch off my wrist and shook it again. I slapped it against the palm of my hand and rattled it thoroughly. Mercifully it started. It licked most beautifully and the second hand began to hurry along again as though it knew precisely where it was going and what it was doing.

I set the watch by a clock in a store window and smiled and hurried along too.


THIS is how I felt; what was happening with the ants? The trouble began, as might be expected, with one of the bright ones on the inside. He came off shift and had his honey but then, instead of going to sleep as he would have done had he been a little more tired or a little less bright, he began to think. After he had been thinking for a time, he began to flap his wings.

“What is going on here?” he said, and the disturbance he made must have been felt if not heard. “We go around and around and around and around, and then a little honey and then a little sleep. After that, we go around and around again. Why not cut out the around and around and just have a little honey and a little sleep?”

The first time he stated these opinions Andy ignored him. “Let him grumble,” he thought. “Who cares for grumbling so long as he works.”

But the grumbling went on until the other ants on his shift began to pay attention and then one morning none of them would work. Neither they nor the ones whose shift was ended. The watch stopped.

Andy answered them with reasons and with force of character. “In the first place,” he told them, “we do not go around and around to no purpose. We go around and around in order to move three pointers on a dial with numbers marked on it.”

“You,” the bright ant objected, “do not go around and around at all. You sit all the time. We go around.”

“And I go around with you, if not in body then in spirit. Each of you goes around only for himself but I go around with all of you. Twenty-four times as much do I as any other one and for what ? That the pointers may continue to move on the dial so long as we all shall live.”

It perhaps was a good thing that neither the bright ant nor any other ant thought of asking for what reason the pointers on the dial must move. The reason they did not was that they had been thoroughly indoctrinated at the factory when the watch was made. Von Apt had not foreseen this precise situation but it was an axiom with him that “the worker must know what he is doing. He must realize that he is a necessary part of a more complex, and hence ennobling, scheme of things.”

The problem was to show an ant doing his work and at the same time being his work. To do it they made a watch inside out with the ants turning a sprocket wheel and looking through a transparent crystal at the hands moving with them. When they stopped, the hands stopped. When they went around and around, the hands went around and around. To give system meaning, the ants could see a million little figures scurrying about each time a minute was recorded. This was done by projecting a moving picture from behind.

So even though they had not asked, Andy then recalled to the ants those millions of projected little figures scurrying about. “Do you want all this activity to stop?” he said to them. “Are you so dense that because you cannot see, or taste, or feel, or smell a thing you will not believe in it ? Have you so little pride that you do not want to be the cause that many things both known and unknown happen?

“Besides,” he said to them, “this is a real world we live in and everything, even idleness, costs something. It is not as you imagine it, that all of us could sit here together in friendly fashion eating honey, sleeping, and doing nothing else. We would go mad. We would become so pent up with our nothingness that we would have to run about and make noises if nothing else to relieve ourselves, and all to no purpose. What is there left for flying ants such as we if we cannot work?”

I think it was at this point in his harangue that Andy began to convince the ants. Fortunately he did not have to contend with the problem of sex. Not one ant suggested that instead of working they could make love. Being sexless, love was outside their experience and desire as the sound of a star moving is outside the desire of a flower.

It was at this time also that I shook the watch. They must have had a rough ride of it for a moment or two.

“You see the consequence,” Andy shouted. “Back to work before the world blows up in our faces.”

Thus the watch started again. I set it and smiled and hurried along to my appointment.


THE second time the watch stopped, the situation was somewhat different. I had very much less panic than before since I felt certain that Andy soon would get things going again. Had the year been up and the watch begun to run constantly slower, as though there were less labor for turning the sprocket, I should have worried. As it was I felt certain there was nothing organically wrong and that Andy could handle the ants.

This time they wore striking for higher wages and the same bright ant was instigator and spokesman.

“What we feel,” the bright ant said, “is that we are being paid too little. Six crystalline drops of honey every so often is not enough. What we want is seven drops every so often, or six drops every somewhat less seldom.

“We do the work. Without us whatever is going on here could not go on. But you pay us so little, the quantity is adjusted so nicely to what energy we consume in going around and around, that we have nothing left over for improving our minds, or for social and recreational activities when we are off shift.

“We are not things of steel and brass and copper. We are not springs and wheels and levers. Sticks and stones will break our bones. We are living beings and have the right to enough food so that we have at least a chance of realizing our destiny. We have the power to demand it.

“More honey, if you please,” the bright ant said, “or no more work.”

Andy closed the lid of the honey pot and took his stand upon it. They were gathered in a circle around him and he answered them more in sorrow than in anger.

“My poor, poor fools,” he said to them. “I forgive you because you do not know what you are saying.

“You think you would be more happy if you had more wages but I know you better than you know yourselves. Suppose I were to agree and were to give you another drop of honey every so often. Would you therefore go back to your work with glad and grateful hearts and come off shift with contented minds ready for the new and delightful experiences of your leisure that you speak of? You would not.

“Your feelings at first would be pride in your strength and joy of winning and then, as you went around and around, you would begin to think again. You would say to yourselves, ‘What is this extra drop of honey we get every so often that makes him feel so big when he gives it to us? What generosity! More than half our time in this watch we worked for six drops. If we deserve seven now, did we not then? Where is all the honey that is owed us; what have we to rejoice about?’

“No, my friends,” Andy said, “you would not feel better with a wage increase. You would feel worse, believe me, and more dispirited than now.”

“Perhaps,” the bright ant replied, “but also we would have more honey to revive our spirits. Now, are you going to get off that honey pot and give us what, we want or must we throw you off?”

“I see,” Andy said, “that I will have to tell you. You can throw me off, if you want to, and gorge yourselves with honey and waste what you don’t eat. You are twenty-four to my one and I cannot stop you. But before you do, let me tell you how things are.

“This is all the honey there is. There isn’t any more and for us there never will be. You will remember that before we came to work in here we knew that there were days and nights. The quantity of honey we get during any one of these days and nights is not determined by chance. It is exactly the quantity that will feed us for the length of time we are wanted to work here. No less and but very little more, as nearly as such things can be calculated.

“We are wanted to work, of course, until we die; and it so happens we are a breed of ants that will die at pretty much the same time. The chances are that when the last of us is gone, there will be a drop or two of honey still in the pot.

“There will be, that is, if you do not insist on getting that extra drop every so often you have been shouting about. This is how it is. You wish it were otherwise, I wish it were otherwise, and if wishes were horses beggars would ride.

“So now decide what you want. Either die of old age before the honey is quite gone or, after gorging yourselves, die of starvation a little while from now. As for me, I know it is better to live than to die, and the longer a good thing lasts the better it is.”

Like sensible beings, the ants went back to work for the same wages as before. I say that even had I taken the cover oft’ they would not have flown away. Andy would have found a way to keep them where they belonged, Von Apt and his want of faith to the contrary notwithstanding.

After this, there were no more work stoppages until the last one, which was involuntary. The life expectancy of the ants was a few weeks more than a year, which was the fact that determined the lengt h of the Watch Makers’ guarantee. The watch ran well and strongly as though all were activity, and warmth, and purpose, and then stopped as though all were nothing.

Their time was up and I felt that there was no use winding, no use shaking, no use waiting for Andy to exhort them.

I put the watch into a drawer and forgot about h for two or three weeks and then one day I took it out again. It was as I had left it with the hands at 7.48 and the spring tight.

Without thinking, almost without knowing what I was doing, I took out my penknife and opened the back of the case. There were no ants inside. There were wheels and springs and gears 1 hat looked about the same to me as the works in any other watch I had ever seen.

I was so astonished that for a moment I felt nothing. All I could do was to turn the watch and look at it and handle it to make sure it was the right one. No ants after all but wheels and springs and gears. No Andy, then; no rebellion, no work stoppages, and no harangues. No life, no death, no feelings, no courage, no purpose, and no escape. Nothing but steel bent and folded and cut and fitted together into a thing as impersonal as a steam engine or a yacht or a nail.

Bo I thought standing in front of my kitchen table, and as I was thinking, the telephone rang.

I went to answer and talked for a long time with a storm window salesman about I scarcely knew what. When at last he hung up, not in defeat but with the threat of giving me another call, my mood was deeper and blacker than before.

I returned to the kitchen, and what I saw brought me to a full stop. The watch was lying on the kitchen table face down with the back cover oft as I had left it. Near by was an open sugar bowl and several large black ants were hurrying over the end of the table and down the leg. The last of them, and I believe it must have been Andy, seemed to be waving his feelers at me in farewell.

I suddenly felt like smiling. I cannot swear that there were twenty-five of them because small moving objects are hard to count, but I watched them as they scuttled across the kitchen floor and disappeared through a crack under the sink. When they were gone, I picked up the watch and tossed it into the wastepaper basket. Then I too left the room, whistling.