Santa Barbara’s newest — and smallest — museum opened last year; it’s definitely downtown’s coolest new old thing. This museum of horology (the art and science of measuring time and making timepieces) is officially called the Bisno Schall Clock Gallery. It’s in the County Courthouse tower, way up high with all of 500 square feet for 4,500 years of chronometer history masterfully depicted from Stonehenge to Santa Barbara in a 60-foot mural surrounding the tower clock’s mechanisms.
After the 1925 earthquake, the county built an elaborate Spanish-Moorish castle for a courthouse with tax revenue from offshore oil fields discovered in 1928. Among the building’s special accoutrements is its four-faced Seth Thomas Clock Company tower clock. The company was the most eminent clock maker of its time; its tower clocks also adorn Independence Hall in Philadelphia and Grand Central Terminal in New York City.
By late summer of 1929, Santa Barbara’s tower clock, Seth Thomas’s 2,744th, began telling time. Its standard five basic components — the power of falling weights; the swinging pendulum dividing equal intervals of time; a double, three-legged gravity escapement releasing energy to the transmission apparatus to the four displays of hands; and Roman numerals on the tower — have been keeping accurate time for more than 80 years.
Thanks to the vision of winter residents David and Fay Bisno and the generosity of Dick and Maryan Schall, the former storage room was converted into an exhibition gallery of horology. Electronics genius Bryan Mumford and clockmaster Mostyn Gale volunteered their expertise. Now, for the first time since 1929, the timekeeping mechanisms are visible and well worth the walk up tile stairs and then metal tower stairs to the glass-enclosed gallery.
Physicists may argue that time has more than one dimension. In the gallery, time’s measurement has at least three. It’s like shrinking into your watch and looking out. Or, if you’re interested in time travel, simply look up — the ceiling mural incorporates more than three miles of fiber-optic cable to re-create the twinkling night sky just as it appeared on December 4, 1602, when Spanish maritime explorer Sebastián Vizcaíno named Santa Barbara in honor of the saint’s feast day.
Ed Lister’s museum mural shows a comprehensive history of timekeeping including an Egyptian water clock (1600 BCE), the Antikythera Mechanism (the first analog computer, 100 BCE), an astrolabe, a medieval sand clock, and a 14th-century astrarium. By the 1600s, Santa Barbara’s history is depicted along the bottom of the mural, while above are concurrent events and the icons of horology — Italian, Dutch, English, and French pioneers of timekeeping.
Project coordinator Rodney Baker reports that viewing a “completely original, fully functional Seth Thomas Tower Clock in full operation” is one of the highlights of a visit to Santa Barbara. He’s right.
Albert Einstein believed time was relative and said, “The only reason for time is so that everything doesn’t happen at once.” His 1933 visit to Santa Barbara is shown in the mural.
Perhaps the most important message in the mural comes from the 23 birds flying in its upper corner, one bird for each of the world’s other 23 time zones. The birds remind us to tend to our lives and to visit the museum soon. After all, time flies.
Public tours are Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays, 1:30 p.m., at 1100 Anacapa Street. Call the Courthouse information booth at (805) 962-6464 for details.