June 21, 2012

Tick Tock, Crazy Clocks

By Elise Ackley

So picture this: I’m walking down the halls of Ford House Office Building to attend a meeting at the Committee on Homeland Security when all of a sudden I hear the loudest, most obnoxious fog horn sound throughout the entire building (so I may be exaggerating a little, but it was loud!). My elementary school education of emergency drills kicked in and my first instinct was to duck for cover, we must be under attack right? Wrong! As I stood there frozen in mid stance, I glanced around to see Capitol Hill busy-bees still going along at their frantic pace. Ok, I thought, I must be hearing things. Then it happened again, and again. At this point I pulled in my pride of appearing like a tourist on the Hill and I asked someone about the sounds. The woman nonchalantly points up to one of the clocks and said “they’re voting.” I had to reel in my diarrhea mouth and not say, “who’s voting, what’s voting, how does the clock know!!”  Instead I just stood there watching the clocks light up and beep at, what seemed to me, like random intervals. Little did I know, these clocks everywhere on Capitol Hill have an intricate system of communicating the parliamentary traffic on the House and Senate floors to the Hill staff.

Not sure what this clock is trying to tell me, but I know it's important

They were designed in a time before BlackBerrys and the internet ruled the Hill. Capitol Hill is a fairly large place, and members are spread out in all different directions. The clocks served as their “messengers,” per say, informing everyone of what the House and Senate were doing. The system is entirely too complex for me to relay here, but I’ll give you a gist of the mystery behind the clocks. For example, one long bell signals a quorum call. But if you have 1 long bell, a pause, 3 bells, followed by 3 lights on the left of the clock that means there is a short quorum call that ends when 100 or more Members are present. A fun one is 12 rings every two seconds with six lights on the left of the clock-That’s a civil defense warning! And it just goes on and on from there with more lights and more bells. I was fascinated to discover the secrets behind the enigmatic clocks throughout the Hill. It makes me wonder though, how many Members on the Hill do you think know all the codes behind the bells and lights? I’d be curious to find out.

One Response to “Tick Tock, Crazy Clocks”

  1. Alerts, past and present… | ping4alerts! Says:
    March 25th, 2013 at 10:01 am

    [...] it’s difficult to find a full list of what all the combinations of lights and buzzers mean.  According to one former intern, “…one long bell signals a quorum call. But if you have 1 long bell, a pause, 3 bells, [...]

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