It wasn't 30-something paranoia or a morbid sense of humor but the image of Beethoven lying on his deathbed, shaking his withered fist at God and yelling for more time, that inspired the creation of the quintessential 90s gadget: a clock that counts down the hours, minutes, and seconds left in your life.
"We were taking a walk one day and Barry was telling me about a book he read on Beethoven and how he was on his deathbed, wishing for more time to write his music," says Chip Altholz. "I thought, wouldn't it be great if there was a clock that told you how much time you had left?" says Barry Faldner. And so the Timisis Personal LifeClock was born, landing two Highland Park guys in the Sharper Image catalog.
Altholz, a 45-year-old talent manager, and Faldner, a 37-year-old conductor, invent things. Timisis is the first invention they've had produced commercially. "We've been doing inventions for 15 years but haven't been successful with them because it takes lots of money," says Faldner. "Electronic products take three to five years to produce on average."
Timisis looks like a slab of granite, hand-painted a grainy black and white, with a two-line liquid-crystal screen that displays the time of day, 175 motivational messages, and the minutes left in your statistical lifetime. You punch in your name, age, and sex, and a computer chip calculates your projected life span from actuarial tables (according to a Timisis ad the average life lasts 683,280 hours). Sayings like "You are now looking at your future" and "See time as a gift" scroll by every minute. Every 10 or 15 messages, your name appears ("Rosalind, the time is now").
"We look at it as an antiprocrastination tool," says Faldner. "The idea of counting backwards acts as a motivational tool to live life and make time for people you love," adds Altholz.
The two friends' hectic life-styles played a part in guiding them toward their time machine. Faldner leads the Sinfonia Orchestra of Chicago and acts as a guest conductor for various other orchestras. He's made five albums of classical music and travels to Europe every couple of months to conduct. "A conductor doesn't come into his prime until 45 to 50 years old," says Faldner. "It takes ten years just to begin to learn what to do."
In the late 70s Altholz owned a recording studio and produced "Studio Jam," a live-music radio show broadcast over 50 stations that featured Foreigner, the Police, Cheap Trick, David Bowie, and Iggy Pop. In 1980 he began managing Chicago actress Salli Richardson, who has appeared in the movies Prelude to a Kiss, Posse, Mo' Money, How U Like Me Now, and the upcoming Sioux City and Low Down Dirty Shame. He divides his time between fielding scripts and promotions for Richardson and managing the local rock band Ten-28.
"We're easily bored and not good at doing the normal things," says Altholz. Another invention of theirs, a gun-safe with a backlit keypad designed to keep handguns away from children, has a patent pending.
"When you manufacture from scratch, it takes a million dollars to get off the ground. We had to find a backer," says Faldner. They met money man Roger Leyden at a consumer electronics show in Las Vegas several years ago; through Leyden they found technical wiz Terry Surma. Now all four are partners in the LifeClock Corporation, a Franklin Park factory that produces the clocks. They've sold over 12,000 units over the last two and a half months.
Available at the Sharper Image and Neiman Marcus, Timisis Personal LifeClocks have a suggested retail price of $129. "We thought our customers would lean toward a younger group, but we're finding they're not quite so young," says Altholz. "The audience is quite broad. The average age is 39, but we've had people buy it at 76."
The gadget is popular with sales teams--soft drink, auto, and movie companies have purchased Timisis to motivate their sales forces. "It's good for setting goals," says Faldner. "I don't think anybody can accomplish anything without outside pressure or from within. It still motivates me in periods of laziness. I think about my number all the time."
But there is one group that apparently doesn't appreciate such prodding. "We're finding that women don't react to it the way men do," explains Altholz. "Eighty percent of the purchasers are men. A lot of women find it depressing --although one woman asked us to program her biological clock into it at a trade show. She was 27 and wanted a baby by 40."
When they sold Timisis to the Sharper Image catalog in December, Faldner and Altholz looked at it as a gamble. "We knew there would be an enormous curiosity," says Altholz. "We thought people would either love it or hate it."
"We're not saying this number staring at you is the number," says Faldner. "You can calculate 100 years into the clock, but the idea is to make people take their dreams and do it. Not sit on the couch and dream about it."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Steven D. Arazmus.