2014 Every schoolchild learns that trees, as they grow, lay down new wood each year, so the age of a tree can be determined by counting the growth rings, officially called dendrochronology. Not only do those rings mark time and weather (temps & temps, as the French say), but also they are subtle ridges to the hand and form supple patterns both geometric and chaotic, warm and arresting, fragile and strong. Wood remains a constant in 21st century culture, still forming the basis for much of what we do, how we live, and how we mark out our days.
1722 John Harrison finished the Brockelsby Park tower clock, a timepiece that still functions after almost 300 years and is built almost entirely of wood. Harrison eventually received much of the prize money set aside by the British Parliament in the 1714 Longitude Act for service to the crown for finding a practical solution to the longitude problem. His solution was a clock—the H-4 chronometer—which to the modern eye looks like a large pocket watch, but that device helped to usher in the modern era, global capitalism, and the industrialization of time. Brockelsby Park was a farm clock. It measured the rhythms of feeding, milking, plowing, and reaping. Although it did not require the precision of the H-4, this clock did demand adjustment and regulation. One of Harrison's innovations included using tropical woods with a high oil content to reduce friction and eliminate the need for lubrication. Of equal importance, was his understanding that a well-regulated clock was not the result of the interaction of uniform, homogenous material, but instead by compensating for the variations those materials produced. A bimetallic pendulum counteracts the different rates that metal expands in temperature fluxes, and Harrison's wooden clock exploits the varied properties of dozens of wood species and their interactions with other woods. Closed and open grain expands and contracts at different rates, its stability determined not just by species but also by the angle of the saw cut, the direction of the rive. Compensation in clockmaking is not a philosophical or theological concept, but it is fundamental for measuring time and, perhaps, eternity.