Monday, 3 April 2017

Rocket Clock

Who (among Australian readers) remembers the Play School rocket clock? What a weird and glorious thing it was, first introduced in 1975 with the arrival of colour TV on the ABC's pre-eminent show for pre-schoolers. Ostensibly a way of teaching children to read the time, the highlight was always finding out what mysterious thing would be hidden below the fuselage – an animal? a toy? a household object? – all strangely revolving to a soundtrack worthy of Doctor Who. 

A TV screen shot of the original rocket clock

Recently I was asked to help redesign a new rocket clock, given it's been 50 years of Play School on air, with many various clocks in between: train, flower, hickory-dickory and more. A great privilege given that, born in 1974, the rocket clock became attached to my subconscious, no less so than a vinyl bean-bag to the seat of my tiny corduroy pants. Of course, while its impossible to surpass the iconic original, there's still a chance to hypnotise a new generation of toddlers more used to wide-screen aspect ratios and digital clocks (for which the original might now lack both proportion and currency). 

Initial sketch for a rocket clock with 'sky wheels' and wings

Mine is an homage to the original, retaining its simple cones, cylinders and carnivalesque abstraction – decidedly non-aerodynamic, not really a rocket. I also wanted it to seem like something a kid could easily build themselves out of cardboard and paint. Two new kinetic elements - wings that can open and close, and a turning milky-way behind the rocket, add interest and better fills the widescreen format of digital TV. This wing-and-dial design actually descends from the 'lift balloon' in The Arrival, which distributes new immigrants throughout a city: the wings indicate flight, the dial time.

detail from The Arrival, Lothian Books, 2006

 Paper model of the rocket clock (using foam-core board), about 50cm tall

Digitally coloured model, testing out a red and blue scheme (one of several)

The final clock, courtesy of Play School and the ABC workshop, wings in 'lift-off' half-turn

Where the original rocket clock turned around to reveal a small diorama behind its skirt, this one has sliding doors that open an close. In part, this is because as a kid I always longed for a sense of literal closure in the Play School rocket clock, that the little toys and other objects inside were actually being sent on an adventure in space. Maybe they will one day be found by alien anthropologists, who will marvel over toothbrushes, teddy bears and tea pots, these sacred miracles from the planet we call home.

Many thanks to the ABC and the Play School team for giving me this opportunity to work with them, and for the fine attention to detail in construction and shooting. It's very fulfulling to contribute something back to a program that was such a fixture of my own childhood, and which continues to fascinate my three-year-old daughter, who always wants to know what's under the clock. I hope other parents of my generation will enjoy this too. You can see the rocket clock from April 3 on ABC Kids (22)


  1. ~(*o*)~! ʚ(ˆ◡ˆ)ɞ·.•*•♫°•♫·.•ʚ(ˆ◡ˆ)ɞ!!

  2. Niiice. Play your cards right and they'll get you to reenvisage that journey through the square/round/arch window too. The rocket is great.

  3. Ideally 🙂 Speaking of cards, I'm using the windows to teach my daughter (3) about the perils of gambling. Hopefully doesn't backfire as joys of gambling.

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