We live in interesting times. Here in the Twin Cities metro area life has radically changed from just a month ago. After rattling around solely in geographies that are “someone else’s problem”, the Coronavirus situation has come home to the US. In the last 30 days, the stock market has fallen from its highs on February 19th by about 33%, panic has caused stores to have to ration basic supplies like toilet paper, and schools nationwide have been closed, possibly for the rest of the school year.

My children are home now. I am fortunate to have a job that I can do mostly from home, and am fortunate to have an amazing wife who succeeds for the most part in channeling my kids’ immense energy in positive directions allowing me to be able to focus enough to stay employed. I am very aware that many are less fortunate. Many have lost jobs, and many people with jobs are without childcare to allow them to work. Our healthcare workers have a monumental task ahead of them. And of course there’s the sickness itself, which for some people can be very serious. My heart goes out to you, no matter how you are impacted by this.

“Don’t watch the clock; do what it does. Keep going.” – Sam Levenson

American writer and humorist Sam Levenson said “Don’t watch the clock; do what it does. Keep going.” This quote has been used by many motivational speakers, and its meaning has been stretched to anything from ‘don’t let the clock run your life’ to ‘in difficult times, don’t wish for it to be over, live in the moment’ to ‘embrace the busyness’. I don’t really know what Sam originally meant by this or what the circumstances were when he wrote it, but as he was born in 1911 and lived through two world wars and the Great Depression, I’m sure he had ample experience with adversity. I suspect his aim was to encourage us to focus on the task at hand and not to pine for easier times so much that we forget to live in the moment.

I would like to revise his quote to be “Look at the clock and do what it does. Keep going.”

 

In addition to my wife and children keeping me company at home, I have a number of inanimate friends that remind me of their presence with ticks and chimes. The picture above is of a few of the clocks in my home office. On the left is a Welsh Tall Case clock from about 1750, signed Winstanley, Holywell. In the center is a Waterbury No. 3 Regulator from around 1880, and on the right is a Waltham regulator labeled Central Scientific dating from about 1910.

I find antique clocks very beautiful and fascinating. They are surprisingly precise – even low-grade clocks run within a few dozen seconds a week, which considering there are almost 605,000 seconds in a week, is quite something. I’m also captivated by the history of the clock. How many families have treasured our Welsh Tall Case since its construction 13 generations ago? Where has it spent its life? When did it make the voyage across the water to America? What conversations did it overhear while ticking away in the corner?

In the 275 years since this clock was made empires have risen and fallen, America became a nation, we have fought brutal wars, and we have made technological and humanitarian advances. The clock shows some wear and tear, which I find beautiful, but through all of that time and history, it’s still going, having ticked somewhere around 8.6 billion times. Not without help, of course; many clockmakers have cared for this clock over the centuries without whom this clock would have been on the scrap heap long ago.

Look at the clock and do what it does. Keep going.

I think looking at an old soldier like Winstanley reminds us that tomorrow will come. We were never promised a life without challenges, but with a little help from friends we will keep going.

Psalms 34:1-8 (New Living Translation)

I will praise the LORD at all times. I will constantly speak his praises.
I will boast only in the LORD; let all who are helpless take heart.
Come, let us tell of the LORD’s greatness; let us exalt his name together.
I prayed to the LORD, and he answered me. He freed me from all my fears.
Those who look to him for help will be radiant with joy; no shadow of shame will darken their faces.
In my desperation I prayed, and the LORD listened; he saved me from all my troubles.
For the angel of the LORD is a guard; he surrounds and defends all who fear him.
Taste and see that the LORD is good. Oh, the joys of those who take refuge in him!

 

 

I recently purchased a collection of clocks from the estate of a longtime collector and have begun to go through them. Some will likely stay in my personal collection, but I need to send on a few that I don’t have room for. First on the list is this interesting Mission-style tall case clock.

I don’t have any concrete information on the age or history of the clock, but I suspect it is a pre-war clock – somewhere in the 1920’s or 1930’s. Other than the “C” shown below, there are no marks on the movement. It is a simple two-train clock – it counts the hour and strikes once on the half hour. The clock is just short of seven feet tall. The open base makes it look a bit like the clock is standing on a chair. The lower door has beveled glass; the upper door has very old wavy glass. I presume the upper glass is original; it’s hard to say about the lower glass. I know beveled glass existed in this period, but it could have been replaced at some point.

When I first started the clock, it started right up, but the chime train wasn’t running consistently. I never assume that a clock I buy has been serviced in any recent memory, and that was definitely true in this case.

The first thing that was apparent after pulling the dial was a whole lot of dirt and a fair bit of wear in the movement.

Modern clock repair benefits greatly from a product of technical manufacturing – highly precise bushings. As clocks run, the friction of the train begins to wear on the movement. With regular service, this wear is minimal, and clocks can run for a couple centuries before the wear is significant-enough to require attention. That’s not the norm for the life most clocks live though – clocks generally are run until they stop working – the equivalent of waiting to get the oil changed in your car until the engine seizes up. How this manifests itself is enlarged holes in the movement plates. The modern solution to this problem is to ream out the enlarged hole and press in a bushing. These bushings were not available until the 1980’s or so.

Earlier repair methods consisted of either trying to close the hole by punching divots around it and smooshing the brass to shrink the hole. This works, but is ugly, and you get only one shot at this. The next time the clock needs service, there’s no more metal to move around. Bushings were sometimes made by hand – the hole was drilled out and a piece of bushing wire was pressed in and re-drilled, but this was time-consuming and error-prone.

One solution to the problem that came along was a Rathbun bushing – a piece of brass with a small pivot hole and a larger hole where the repairer would drill a hole into the clock plate and put a screw through. It allowed some adjustability and didn’t require much skill to install. Unfortunately, it is a pretty cruddy repair. It’s functional as long as the pivot was long enough, but it requires drilling a hole in the movement that wasn’t there before.

This clock was the recipient of two Rathbun bushings – one on the front side of the escape wheel, and one on the strike train, shown above. Mercifully they were soldered in rather than drilled in and so could be removed without leaving a hole in the movement.

After polishing the pivots and bushing the movement plates, I reassembled the movement. The clock ran and chimed correctly, and using my timing machine, set it to 3600BPH – one tick per second, which is standard for large clocks, but it wasn’t keeping time. Making a long story short, this clock isn’t a 3600BPH clock – it’s about 3708BPH. This is a really odd thing – I don’t understand why they chose to do this – the clock is certainly big enough to accommodate a 3600BPH pendulum. 3708 is off just enough to be annoying, without any apparent benefit that I can see.

The pendulum that came with the clock didn’t match. It was the wrong color, was beat up, and was the wrong length. I decided to make a new one that better matched the clock. Pendulum rate is not linearly related to pendulum length. As pendulums get longer they slow down, but a pendulum rod that is twice as long doesn’t run twice as slow. For example, a typical pendulum with a one second tick will be about 39″ long, but a pendulum with a 2 second tick would be around 156 inches long! Because of this and the complexities of calculating how a big chunk of mass in the bob affects timekeeping, it is just easier to determine the right length experimentally.

I mimicked the original pendulum design from a piece of oak and reused the old hardware. It took a couple tries to get the length right so the clock kept time with the bob in the middle of the adjustment range, but I got it. Some stain and shellack made it a passable match to the clock case.

This was a fun project. I had a couple personal firsts – the Rathbun bushings, and the mismatched pendulum rod. I think it turned out really well. I delivered and set up the Mission Clock today for its new owner and it looks great in its new home.

 

Antique clocks and watches are fascinating to me. I love the mechanical art and science that took hundreds of years to develop, the craftsmanship required to make a working clock, the astonishing accuracy of even relatively low-grade clocks, the physical beauty, and the history of a piece. I love imagining who carried a pocket watch around for all their life, and what stories were told below the mantle clock that sat above the fireplace for five generations.

Some of my favorite pieces are the ones I know the provenance of. My most precious timepiece is my Great Grandpa Joe’s Illinois Bunn Special. This watch dates to 1907. Joe was born in 1895, meaning that either he was a very precocious and affluent twelve year old, or more probably that he bought the watch used later in life.

The Illinois Bunn Special is an extremely high-quality railroad-grade watch. They are worth more today than the average watch from Hamilton, Hampden, Waltham, or Elgin (though all of those names have special pieces, too), and are a beautifully decorated full-plate movement. That’s not what I love about Great Grand Dad’s watch, though.

I love the fact that this watch was so well-loved that it was carried until nearly all of the gold was worn off the case. I love that when the original enamel dial was damaged at some point, instead of replacing the whole watch with something newer and cheaper, Joe replaced the dial with what he could afford to keep his precious timepiece running – an Art Deco-style metal dial that dates probably from the 1930’s.

Joseph Pearson was a Swedish immigrant. Grandpa Joe came to America via England and the story goes that he was supposed to have sailed on the Titanic, but was delayed and took a later voyage. He was drafted into the American army in 1918 and served as a private in World War I. He received his US citizenship sometime after the war.

Grandpa Joe was a carpenter by trade. He married my great grandmother Hulda Anderson in 1953, his second wife. Joe and Hulda were both widowed with a total of eleven children between them from their first marriages. At 5′ 4″ he wasn’t a very big man on the outside but made up for it in personality. He and Hulda loved dancing and they had a wonderful marriage. He passed away in 1972 after an automobile accident. Hulda gave Joe’s watch to my mom shortly after his death.

Joe wasn’t a railroad man and so didn’t need a watch of this grade, but he valued having a quality timepiece enough to make a financial sacrifice. When new, Grandpa Joe’s watch cost around $100 in 1907 money. That translates to nearly $3000 in today’s dollars.

I never met Great Grandpa Joe, he died several years before I was born, but I knew of him and I was reminded of him every time I saw the watch hanging on the wall as a kid. My mom said it would someday be mine – when I turned 18. This was really exciting for a couple reasons – in a way it was an incentive to grow up, and it spoke to the value of the piece – that I had to mature before I was worthy to be the next caregiver.

My mom was good to her word and the day came when she entrusted a special family artifact to me. It’s not the most monetarily valuable piece I own. It’s definitely not the prettiest, but I’ll never sell it.

 

I picked up a non-running World-War II-era Seth Thomas ship’s clock, model 5195. This is a time-only clock in a brass case intended to be mounted on the bulkhead of a ship. As pendulums aren’t much good on the water, this clock has a watch-style escapement. I picked this up from Merritt’s a few months ago while out in Pennsylvania at the NAWCC watch repair class.

Merritt’s had a couple ship’s clocks for sale. The other was running, but in tougher cosmetic condition, and older. This clock looks factory fresh, other than needing a bit of brass polish. I ran through my usual pre-purchase evaluation process, and Merritt’s was kind enough to let me pull the movement out of the can. The clock wasn’t running, but I could see that the balance staff wasn’t broken (it ticked a few times with poor amplitude and then stopped), and it looked like with a normal cleaning procedure the clock should be able to be brought back into working order. I haven’t worked on one of these before, but was reasonably confident that I could get it running, and so chose the one in better cosmetic shape.

The craziness of fall came and has now gone, and after clearing a couple projects off my plate, thought I might take a peek at this and see what could be done.

This is a gorgeous movement. Chelsea clocks are all the rage and I have no doubt they are very well made, but I really think Seth Thomas naval clocks are underrated. These clocks have thick plates and an industrial design that just screams quality. The mainspring click has a convenient lever to release the click for service, and everything is modular for easy access and replacement. There’s no decoration on the plates, but other than that, in every way that matters, this is a fine clock. Courtesy of Google Books, I even found the original service manual online.

I’m actually telling this story slightly out of order. After removing the bezel from the clock, I popped the second hand off and loosened the nut retaining the minute hand and suddenly the movement was off to the races.  The hour hand was not pressed down far enough and was making contact with the minute hand. There was enough friction that the movement couldn’t overcome it, and the clock wouldn’t run. I pressed the hour hand down a bit farther and put the other hands on, and the clock continued to run.

Normally I’m very suspicious of the condition of any clock that I don’t know the history of, but this clock was so clean with oil visible in all the pivots and with great balance amplitude I decided to leave well enough alone. 

Normally my repair adventures follow Murphy’s law and I end up spending much more time than I expected to; it was nice to get one that went the other way for a change.

 

A Repair Adventure

I recently picked this clock up at an estate sale.  It is a dual spring time-only movement, and the signature feature is that it runs for 90 days between winds. 

I’m not sure what the case is made out of – some fine-grained wood, but it’s very heavy, which goes along with the industrial nature of this clock.  This is a stately, simple clock that my wife really liked, so it fairly quickly moved to a place of prominence in our home.

The clock didn’t come with a key, so I borrowed a crank-style key from another clock and started winding it up. And I kept winding. After that, I wound some more. Initially I was worried by the easy wind that seemed to keep going and going that the springs were broken, but after shining a flashlight under the dial, I could see the springs contracting as I wound. The winding arbor is geared down pretty significantly which makes it easy to wind, even if it’s time consuming.  I stopped counting after about 90 turns.  The clock fired right up and started ticking away with pretty significant amplitude.

One thing I didn’t notice in the crush of people at the estate sale was the position of the pendulum bob on the pendulum rod. It was wedged with a piece of wood so the bob was about two inches above the top of the threaded adjustment section of the pendulum rod. This was curious to me, as it sure seemed like the pendulum was correct for the clock based on the size of the case and the position of the beat scale. I removed the wedge, positioned the bob mid-way in the thread adjustment area, and set the clock to the correct time.  It quickly became apparent why the bob had been wedged so high on the stick – after my adjustment, the clock was running extremely slow – losing about five minutes per hour. Not five minutes per week or day, but five minutes per hour.

When I purchase a clock, unless I know the clock was recently serviced, I always presume the clock needs significant maintenance and make my bid reflective of the couple hundred dollars worth of work the clock will require to be put back into good order.  Before trying to time the clock, I decided it was worthwhile to go through the movement and see if there was some other reason for the massive timing issue.

The Movement

This is a significant movement. The rear plate is cast iron and the brass front plate is very thick. Somewhere along the way the iron plate was painted gold. The paint drips suggest it probably wasn’t a factory paint job. The two springs are wound from the same winding arbor via a small pinion gear driving the two spring gears. This gearing down is what makes the clock easy to wind, if time-consuming. This movement has an interesting maintaining power mechanism around the winding arbor shaft.

The springs are absolutely massive in all three dimensions – thickness, width, and length. They were also covered in something disgusting – either heavy lithium grease and/or used motor oil. This mess transferred itself to much of the rest of the movement and required a couple rounds of pre-cleaning to get it clean enough to put in the ultrasonic cleaner.

It’s always an adventure picking up a 100+ year-old clock – you simply don’t know the history. You can do some pre-purchase evaluation, but often you just have to get the thing apart to see what’s going on. 

One of the common wear points for clocks are the pivot holes in the clock plates.  Over time, inadequate maintenance, which tends to be the rule rather than the exception, causes metal particles from the pivots and plate holes to mix with the remaining oil (if any), and form an abrasive cutting fluid, and rather than lubricating the works, the movement starts to saw into itself.  This manifests itself as holes in the plate that are oblong rather than round, and scarred and scuffed pivots. The amount of this wear tends to vary with the type of clock. European and weight-driven clocks tend to have smaller driving forces, making train wear less significant. American clocks tended to be overpowered. In the short term this made them more reliable and less fussy than arguably finer-quality European pieces as they would continue to run even past the point where maintenance should have been performed, whereas finer clocks would simply stop before enough wear accumulated to damage the clock; however in the long term, that extra power proves to be a destructive liability.

Because of the enormous springs in this clock, I was unsure what I would find, but to my surprise, the clock didn’t have enough wear on the train to warrant any bushing work; a quick polish job of the pivots was all the clock required. The good condition of the movement is largely attributed to thoughtful design of the clock – the shafts on the high-power part of the movement are pretty massive, and have apparently been well-sized to the application. 

The movement was badly tarnished. I have spent time trying to decide how much refurbishment time and effort makes sense for a clock. The state of polish of the movement doesn’t affect its operation and for clocks where the movement isn’t visible, I have struggled to get excited about the couple hours-worth of extra work a full polish job takes. In this case though, the main plate was too gross to leave alone. I didn’t fully polish the whole movement, but I wanted at least the visible parts of the assembled movement to look passable, and put a coat of lacquer on to try to keep it that way a little longer.

Timing

The movement reassembled without issue, and back it went into the case. I didn’t find anything during maintenance that would explain why the clock ran so slow. Surely something must have been lost or changed over the decades, but I don’t know what. There is only one set of mounting holes for the movement in the back of the case, so I’m pretty confident the movement and case are original. It seems likely that the pendulum has been replaced, but I struggle thinking that they would have put a materially shorter pendulum in this large case – the one in there now looks in proportion, and shortening the rod would make the stick well short of reaching the beat scale. I decided to try to add weight to the top of the pendulum to move the center of mass higher and speed the clock up.

Uh oh, math!

It is intuitive to anyone who has ever played with a yo-yo, a yard stick, or any other swinging thing that the speed of the swing is related to the length of the pendulum. What’s less clear is what that relationship is. It’s not a linear relationship; a pendulum twice as long won’t swing twice as slowly. A standard seconds-beat (each tick is one second; the total period – back and forth – is two seconds) pendulum is close to 1 meter long – about 39 inches. If I wanted to make an extra large clock with a pendulum that took two seconds per tick, that pendulum would need to be almost 4 meters long – 13 feet. 

While it is intuitive that longer pendulums swing slower than shorter ones, it’s less intuitive that weight does not automatically translate into a rate change. In fact, as long as the weight is evenly distributed above and below what’s called the radius of oscillation, a 10 pound pendulum will have the same rate as a 1 pound pendulum. What matters is where that weight is.  When you adjust the rate nut at the bottom of your pendulum, you’re not adding or subtracting weight to the pendulum; what you’re doing is changing the radius of oscillation by moving the center of mass of the pendulum up or down. It turns out that adding weight, as long as it’s above the radius of oscillation, actually speeds up the pendulum.

Now what?

Other factors like the distribution of mass of the pendulum affect the timing, so instead of trying to calculate something very difficult, I decided to start experimenting.

I had absolutely no idea how much weight would be required to make up 5 minutes per hour of rate, so I found the thickest piece of sheet steel I had and cut a pair of slabs to go on the front and back of the pendulum rod as high as I could get them. That helped, but I went from 5 minutes per hour slow to maybe 4 minutes per hour slow.

 

 

 

I added two more layers of steel, which brought me about halfway – I was now around 2 minutes per hour slow.

Clearly desperate times call for desperate measures. I didn’t have any spare lead around and I was running out of clearance around the pendulum rod, so I decided to go wider rather than thicker.  My next attempt was using 1 1/2″ wide 1/8″ thick steel bar. In order to keep the pendulum in balance, I also needed to make spacer pieces to keep the weight centered around the pendulum bob.

Here is the final version.

It turns out that even this much weight was barely enough. The clock was now keeping time, however the bob was all the way up on the rating screw. It would have been nice to be able to move the bob down another 3/4″ to be more centered on the rating screw, but I felt like I was about at the end of how much weight I could add to the pendulum without it being ridiculous, so I decided to quit while I was ahead, and added a couple small magnets to my weight plates so I could get at least a couple turns of adjustment on the rating screw to regulate the clock.

I think my eventual solution ended up working pretty well. It’s not visible from outside the clock, and the weights are held on by wire so I haven’t done anything irreversible to the clock. I’m glad this clock has so much power though – I’m not sure that most clocks would have been able to handle the extreme amount of added weight, and I’m not at all confident that I didn’t negatively affect the physics of the pendulum operation that causes the clock to not be as accurate as it would have been with the correct pendulum installed, but hey, it works.  Someday I will make a new second hand – the one that came with the clock is broken and probably not the original style, but for now, it’s in operation.

Thanks for riding along on this unique adventure. It was a first for me, anyway.

 

Update!!! Take a look at part 2 of this repair adventure – Lockwood Almquist Revisited.