The Internet has made quite a few animals famous. There’s Grumpy Cat, Darwin the Ikea Monkey, and Sockington the Twitter Cat, to name just a few. But as this brief list suggests, Internet-famous animals tend to be either pets or species that biologists describe as “charismatic” — meaning ones that people can easily identify with. Insectsdon’t get much love.
But this hasn’t always been the situation. If we look back to 1932, we find an example of a spider that achieved overnight celebrity status, with the media producing daily reports of its adventures. It’s the curious case of the “spider in a clock.”
The Spider First Noticed
By the time a reporter first saw the spider — around December 7, 1932 — the insect had grown to the size of an ordinary house spider, and the hands of the clock were covered with fine threads.
How had the spider managed to grow without any obvious source of food? And how had it gotten into the clock in the first place? These were the mysteries that the spider presented.
The reporter interviewed the Thompson’s two children. Young tommy thought the spider was boring, but his sister, Mary Louise, was fascinated by it, admiring the way it kept at its task despite constant defeat. She said, “He must be awfully brave.”
Evidently much of the American public agreed with Mary Louise, because after the first story about the spider (distributed by the Associated Press) appeared in papers, interest in the arachnid swelled. The media responded by providing daily details of its adventures.
Science Weighs In
On December 9, Harold Madison, director of the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, offered his opinion on the mystery of the spider’s size. He dismissed the idea that the insect had grown inside the clock, insisting that the tiny spider first seen must have been one of the current spider’s offspring. She had probably eaten it, he said, as well as the rest of her babies. Furthermore, he added, “It is also possible that her mate is inside the clock, and she obtains food by eating him.”
The suggestion of cannibalism only made the story more sensational in the eyes of the media.
A reporter then got the idea of taking the clock, and its spider prisoner, over to the University of Akron where he presented it to biologist Walter Charles Kraatz.
Kraatz peered at the spider through a microscope and declared that he saw two “circular clusters” on the face of the clock. These appeared to be eggs, and if they hatched, he suggested, the offspring “likely would take up the blind, relentless fight to spread a web over the hands of the clock.” Or the spider would “eat its young in a cannibalistic orgy.” Either way, the battle of arachnid versus clock seemed destined to continue for a while.
After examination of the clock, Kraatz also theorized that the spider had entered the timepiece through a small opening in the back, made its way through the machinery, and then got out onto the face via a small crevice at the shaft which bore the hands.
Meanwhile, the spider was still at its never-ending task of trying to connect the two hands of the clock, oblivious to the media storm around it. Kraatz noted that he thought it appeared to be weakening, but he assured the press that “every movement of the spider would be closely watched in the interest of science.”
Not everyone was taken with the spider in the clock. Some were appalled by the entire spectacle. In particular, the members of the Akron Humane Societydeplored what they perceived to be a case of arachnid imprisonment (albeit self-imprisonment).
On December 10, an agent of the Society, G.W. Dilley, issued an announcement to the press, declaring that he would permit Kraatz one week to study the spider, then he would demand its release. He conceded that the spider would probably die if let out in the cold weather, but he nevertheless insisted that it was cruel to allow the insect to continue to suffer in its “clock-face prison.”
Kraatz responded that the spider was not suffering because it had “a low type of nervous sensibility.” Also, he assured the public that it wasn’t starving because its species could survive an entire winter without eating, living on stored-up body tissue.
Cyril Thompson, owner of the clock, evidently hoping to avoid being branded as a spider torturer, added that he had always been in favor of freeing the spider, but hadn’t done so because it would require taking the entire clock apart.
The Spider’s End
The Human Society never needed to put their spider rescue plan into action. Despite earlier suggestions that the spider might go on battling the clock indefinitely, its time was actually fast running out.
On December 11 it ceased its web building and retreated beneath a small web built along the outer edge of the clock face, leaving behind a “shambles of broken strands” on the hands.
Hoping to allay fears that the spider had died, Kraatz told the press that it had probably entered a period of winter hibernation, and that if kept warm it could survive until the spring.
However, after two days of inactivity everyone began to suspect that the spider was, in fact, dead. So on December 13 the clock was disassembled, and, sure enough, the lifeless body of the spider tumbled out.
Obituaries for the brave spider ran in numerous papers. They noted that although the insect had died, it had, in its death, finally defeated the clock against which it had battled, by causing the clock to be taken apart.
But although the mechanical march of time had been temporarily stilled, it couldn’t be stopped altogether. The same obituaries noted that the clock was soon reassembled and started ticking again.
Over a month after the spider’s death, articles about it continued to appear in papers as far-flung as the China Press. So what exactly was the appeal of the spider?
As told by the media, the spider’s predicament had all the elements of a classic fable. Many articles noted the similarity between the spider in the clock and the spider that had once inspired the Scottish king Robert the Bruce.
The story of Bruce and the Spider (first put in print by Sir Walter Scott in 1828) told that while on the run from the English the Scottish king had hidden in a dark cave where he spent his time watching a spider building a web. Inspired by the spider’s unceasing effort, Bruce rallied his spirit and went on to defeat the English at the Battle of Bannockburn.
So the spider served as a metaphor for the universal struggle against time and hardship. Despite suffering constant defeat, the spider got up and kept on trying, “unmindful of the insurmountable odds.” The imprisonment in the clock added added a modern, mechanical twist to the fable, updating it for the 1930s.
To underscore this moral lesson, one poet (John A. Twamley of Rochester, New York) set the spider’s struggle to verse:
In the city known as Akron,
In the state of O-hio,
On a clock face there’s a spider
Spinning web threads to and fro.
Back and forth he keeps on going
From clock hand unto clock hand,
And why his threads should keep abreaking
He of course can’t understand…
When we men meet with reverses
We should keep this thought in stock:
That ’til death we should keep striving
Like the spider in the clock
Recall that all this happened in 1932, during the depths of the Great Depression, and the popular appeal of the spider becomes easier to understand. Times were hard, and the spider offered a lesson of perseverance in the face of setbacks.
But despite all the fuss made about the spider, there were limits to the public’s appreciation for an insect. For instance, no one ever bothered to give it a name. It was simply referred to as the “spider in a clock.” Nor was there ever any indication of a memorial or funeral service for the brave insect. The location of its final resting place went unrecorded. It probably ended up in a University of Akron trashcan.