The Thinking Clock

The Thinking Clock

A Story by M. A. Kilcorse

Through a mechanical process, sentient thought arises from clockwork


            The clock is dead now. For many years it stood as a beacon for the town of Newton, a symbol of continuity for generations of citizens that grew accustomed to walking beneath its constant gaze. Even as war scarred the continent and bombs burst and blackened its brick, the clock stood. As the centuries wore on and the elements decayed sharp corners to dull stone, the inner workings of the clock remained complete and its judgment remained impeccable.

            The great mechanical beast was first conceived of over five-hundred years ago. The first engineer, or Time-keeper, as they would later be called, began with a simple intention: recreate the human mind. The Engineer theorized that the mind was directly tied to the organic workings of the body. Others had manufactured spare limbs; some inventors even managed to assemble a basic computing device, but never before did anyone attempt bring the two together and construct something as intricate and complex as consciousness. If one could replicate all the delicate functions of the brain, would a sentient mind follow as result?

            At first the image of a great thinking clock tower came to him in his dreams; every morning for months he awoke and began frantically scribbling out notes and sketches that came to him while he slept; collecting the blueprints for his device over time. Thrilled by his visions of magnificence, he dedicated himself to its construction. Using every penny to his name, he bought a large workshop and began to fill it with supplies.

            Springs gears switches levers wires and metal filled his room from wall to wall crowding every spare surface and spilling out onto the floor and piling high to the ceiling and blocking the windows. Starting with the simplest spring, he fastened it to a grain-size gear, laid the cogs in track from a slightly larger gear, wound a bit of wire around the axel, fastened that bit of wire to another spring, and slowly began to assemble hundreds of simple machines. With the care of an ever-loving father, the Engineer combined them into more complex constructions; tightening screws and fastenings wires as the mess around him slowly transformed into a single clock.

            When it was first completed the clock could only keep time. Though it was more precise than anything like it in the world, it was still only a clock. This drove the Engineer mad as every night he would return home from his teachings and shut himself in his workshop. With precise instruments he sought to perfect his device in the dim light of the burning candles. Some nights he adjusted the cogs of the gears. Other nights he experimented with the tightness of the springs. Everything connected and pulled to the center time-piece; a clock-face with a common one to twelve numbering and at least five dozen additional hands accompanying the second, minute, and hour hands. Thirteen bronze dials were mounted beneath it. Each dial had twenty-four strange symbols painted on its face; each representing a specific task or calculation. Every night he programmed the same question: “What is your name?”

            But, every night, as he toiled away and sacrificed his well-being in pursuit of his dream, the clock would simply respond with a detailed, punctual report of the time; lost to anything more complex. For thirty years after its initial creation, the Engineer would return to his workshop every day and carry on his mission. He never noticed his youthful skin begin to leather and wrinkle or his hair begin to thin and gray while his bones weakened. His life revolved around the perfection of his clock; his thoughts became incoherent streams of numbers that he would mutter in his sleep and sometimes shout while he was awake. As he turned into an old man the University fired him, his family and friends cut off ties with him, and the bank took everything from him except for his workshop and his creation.

            One harsh December night as the wind howled through the air and blew snow through the cracks in the rafters; the Engineer pulled his tattered cloak around his frail body and sat down at the dials. Hungry, sick, and alone, he let his brittle fingers fall over the wheels like a master pianist before his instrument. He began to shake as tears traced along his worn cheeks and splashed against the chaotic ensemble of metal. A strong cough grabbed his chest and stole the air from his lungs. Doubled over and gasping for breath, the Engineer rested his tired head against his clock and shut his eyes to dream of a life wasted. Like they were on wires, forced by habit, his hands lifted and adjusted the dials, clicking each one into place until they asked: “What is your name?”

            Then, out of the five dozen hands, the smallest of them, covered in dust from years of stagnation, ticked forward one small degree. This had never happened before. That hand never moved. Within the chaos of the machine, the Engineer wasn’t even sure of its purpose. The clock produced something completely random and unique prompted by his question. The clock responded.

            Excitement filled his body as he jumped up from his bench and gasped at what he saw. His heart began to race as his head started spinning while a dry crack scratched out of his throat from ecstasy and shock though his arm was too numb to lift in the air and praise the heavens. Instead, crippled under the flood of his joy, the Engineer fell to the floor. He was dead.

His body was found a week later, preserved by the winter’s frost. With no heirs to claim his few remaining possessions, the workshop was put up for public auction. While reading his Sunday paper on the way to his shop, Richard Brashly, a former student of the Engineer, read about the “impressive and curiously complex time structure.” Curiosity drove him to hire a driver to take him to the countryside where the old master spent his final days. As the carriage bounced violently on the icy roads, Richard found himself gazing across the plains, filled with the glistening white beauty of a morning after heavy snow. Down the road a little ways, straining to see past the horses, he spotted a group of people congregating before the workshop; nearly totally obscured under the drifts of snow that threatened to bury it.

            Stepping out of the cart, Richard fought his way through the loose snow that sucked his legs down past his ankles and dampened his socks. He fastened the buttons on his coat, brushed the snow of his pant legs, and joined the others as the Auctioneer, an incredibly round man, was about to lead them inside. Pulling out a silver key and unlocking the door, the Auctioneer waved his hands for everyone to follow.

            “Plenty of space for any of your imagined needs,” the Auctioneer began, “Cozy with a quaint country-charm and a fireplace that will keep this whole room hotter than hell in the darkest of winters. Away from the smog and filth of the city you will truly begin to notice the difference in the air after your first week, no, day after leaving here. The previous owner spent his final days here, constructing this beautiful art piece before us, yours with the property. Perfect for hobbyists and collectors, or we will remove the junk at no cost to you. Look around, look around. Bidding will begin shortly.”

            Speechless, Richard examined the intricate and beautiful machine the Engineer had built. Every piece laid into its exact position of patient, detailed hands. Pushing his way past the other bidders he found a desk covered with the complex notes explaining the structure and purpose of the clock. The sharp scribbles of ink and pencil were composed like a diary of madness. Incoherent and rambling; nearly impossible to decipher.

            “The auction is over.” He said, loud enough for everyone in the room to hear. Marching to the Auctioneer, Richard put his arm around the portly man’s shoulders. “Whatever the amount. Whatever the counterbid. I purchase this workshop.”

            “Why, Mr. Brashly,” The auctioneer looked confused as he tugged on his overals, the buttons on his jacket were straining against the threads and threatened to pop at any second, “There is a procedure to these sort of things. This workshop needs to be placed on proper auction and to just perform a final sale without giving these other fine citizens an opportunity would be unlawful.”

            “Then begin the auction. Now.” Richard’s expression was stern, his short, dark hair stuck out in all directions.

            “Al-Alright then,” The auctioneer said as his neck fat shook. Turning to the confused crowd and clearing his throat, he began the auction:

 “In regards to the Newton Countryside property, I open this auction with a starting bid of five-hundred dollars.”

            “Five-thousand dollars.”

A hush that fell over the room. No one dared speak. Richard walked up to the front of the room, took the deed and contract from the Auctioneer’s hand, signed both, and handed them back. Turning to face everyone at once, he said “Now. Leave. All of you. The auction is over. Go home. I wish to examine my property.” As everyone slowly left, Richard grabbed the Auctioneer’s arm, “Send no one else. I wish to keep everything.” He shut and barred the door after everyone was gone.

            Left alone in the cold room, Richard build a fire in the small stove and gathered all the papers he could find and began to pour over the details. Spread out on the freezing, filthy floor, his eyes scanned the entire pages, focused on every minute detail within the sketches. Not a single word passed under his eyes unnoticed. He couldn’t believe what he saw. Truly the Engineer was a crazy fool. Each individual construction of the clock operated on unique functions and calculated complex specific functions that seemed irrelevant for any other purpose within the device. Staring into the mess of mechanics was like staring into an intricate network that could correct itself, mend errors in its procedures, and adapt to new logical processes. The dials with their symbols seemed to be a means to communicate directly with the network.

            There was a page with each symbol’s translation. The overall effect was a simple, almost numerical system of language that managed to encompass nearly all meaning and context within the English language. He read the last message the Engineer had programmed: “What is your name”

            The last dial was off slightly. Setting it into place, Richard watched as the smallest hand moved a fraction of an inch. No parts of the dials’ mechanics were directly connected to that hand. Rather, Richard watched as the prompt caused several gears and switches to click over and through small movements, a system of overlaying information being sent and interpreted became apparent and all of this great working added up to only a fractional tick on the clock’s smallest hand. The dials posed a question, and the clock delivered an answer. An answer beyond its mechanics. An answer that came through organic thought.


© 2012 M. A. Kilcorse

Author's Note

M. A. Kilcorse
The beginning of the short story I'm working on.

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Added on October 26, 2012
Last Updated on October 29, 2012
Tags: engineer, clock tower, clock, mechanics, clockwork, magical realism


M. A. Kilcorse
M. A. Kilcorse

Toledo, OH

I use writing not just as an escape, but as a construct. To see non-physical ideas take life in the form of places and people is the magic and mystery of creative writing. more..