National Watch & Clock Museum Mystery Clocks
Museum educational director Katie Knaub describes how this mystery clock, built by famous French magician and clockmaker Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin, works. Each of the timepieces has no visible means of connecting a movement to the hands marking time a horological magic trick. (Amy Peiffer

Part of the enjoyment of looking at mechanical things for many people is figuring out how they work. Discovery Channel documentary series "How Stuff Works" has deciphered the gamut of mechanical mysteries - from manufacturing engimas such as how bacon gets packaged, to the science behind Swiss cheese.

But in an age of answers, the National Watch & Clock Museum, 514 Poplar St., Columbia, is celebrating the excitement of a little mystery. The museum's newest exhibit, "The Magic of Mystery Clocks," is now open and will run through December.

Mysterious timepieces: The exhibit showcases the horological magic trick of clockmakers' style of clock commonly known as the mystery clock. The clocks each have no visible means of connecting a movement to the hands marking the time, giving each an air of mystery that defies visible explanation upon first glance.

Looking closer, however, educational director Katie Knaub explained how the mechanical parts were often hidden or modified to remain invisible without close inspection. Visitors to the exhibit can study the pieces closely to try to figure them out - who doesn't love a good puzzle? - or read more about the mystery clocks on display cases throughout the exhibit.

"It's exciting, I think," Knaub said. "There's definitely a magical aspect to it."

Part of the exhibit features mystery clocks built by famous French magician and clockmaker Jean Eugnene Robert-Houdin. The renowned magician is thought to have provided the inspiration for illusionist Harry Houdini's stage name, Knaub said. His first profession, however, was clockmaking.

Robert-Houdin used his knowledge of magic in constructing mystery clocks, Knaub said, and the style was then mimicked by other clockmakers in the late 19th century. The style experienced its heyday from the 1940s to the 1960s, Knaub said, and had even been replicated in pocketwatches and wristwatches.

The exhibit features works from across time and complexness - from Robert-Houdin's late 1800s elaborate glass and pendulum piece, to a Movado watch from the 1980s. The exhibit began as a research project by a summer intern, Knaub said. The museum drew on pieces in its collection that didn't get out much, and reached out to members to fill in with mystery clocks from their own collections.

"Collectors of these clocks really enjoy showcasing this fun type of clock," she said. "We've had such a great response from our members."

While you're there: Visitors to the museum's exhibit will also have access to the more than 10,000 items on display. Starting with ancient timekeeping devices and water clocks, through present-day atomic clocks, guests are taken on a literal journey through time.

As part of a collaboration between the arts and the military communities, the museum will offer free admission for active-duty military and family, up to 5, from May 26 through Sept. 1.

The museum will also host Make-and-Take Clock Workshops from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. every Monday through Aug. 25, starting in June. Visitors can create their own clock to take home - Knaub said they can even include their own magical element. The cost of the program is $6 per clock, and registration is required for large groups.

Other exhibits currently on display at the museum include a novelty wristwatches micro-exhibit and a James Bond micro-exhibit, including Ian Fleming's Rolex.

- Reach Amy Peiffer at