By People Staff
May 21, 1984 12:00 PM

James Kilburg was visiting relatives in Luxembourg in 1962 when his wife phoned from half a world away in California to say hello. Alas, her call came in the middle of the night, local time, and roused the whole household. “People ought to know more about time than what they get from a clock,’ grumped Kilburg, who is a mechanical engineer. He promptly set about “cooking up a machine that would picture the earth’s surface as it would appear to someone sitting in space.”

A year later he had his Geochron, an electrically driven wall map and timepiece. The device consists of a two-by-three-foot frame in which a world map scrolls on a continuous belt from left to right at the rate of an inch an hour, simulating the earth’s rotation. Time zones are marked at the top, while the date and day of the week on each side of the International Date Line appear below. Most ingenious of all is an illuminated area in the middle, marking the portion of the earth’s surface that is in daylight.

Since the Geochron was patented in 1964, it has developed a classy following. When he was Governor of California, Ronald Reagan acquired an early model, as did Monaco’s Prince Rainier, William F. Buckley Jr. and Frank Sinatra. The Pentagon and NASA have several. “We think the Russians have two,” says Kilburg, “although they never buy direct. We know the CIA uses them because they’ve been returned for map updating. Secretary of State George Shultz has one, and Henry Kissinger’s people called to order one just like Mr. Shultz has.”

Kilburg, 77, and his staff of 12 (including his wife and three of his six children) build 500 Geochrons a year at his small factory in San Mateo, Calif. He employs no salesman and has never advertised. At $955 plus shipping, the Geochron is no stocking stuffer. But orders have come from as far afield as Singapore and West Africa to create a five-month backlog.

Born in Luxembourg, Kilburg immigrated to the U.S. in 1926. He has created such practical gadgets as a shorthand-writing machine and an automatic phone dialer. The Geochron is his pet invention because “I’ve met a lot of nice people through it. Shirley Temple Black was so delighted when her husband gave her one. And President Reagan’s was back here for repairs when the assassination attempt was made. Mrs. Reagan wrote to ask us to hurry, so it could be in the West Wing when he returned from the hospital.” Kilburg is working now on a desk model. No, he isn’t planning a wrist-Geochron.