A MESSAGE TO THOSE RESPONSIBLE FOR THE CARE OF HISTORIC TOWER CLOCKS


© William R. Kennedy

In general, the most important thing to remember is that you and I are only temporary custodians of machines that may have already outlived several keepers. You may be working on a clock that has run nearly a million hours. You probably would be hard pressed to find any other machine that continues to serve its masters after such a long period, unless it is another tower clock.

The second most important thing to remember is to respect the clock's originality. It is one thing not to be able to get a clock to run right or continue to run--and quite another to mutilate it, or allow others to mutilate. If you cannot get a clock to run today, you or someone else can take a crack at it tomorrow. But if someone comes along and does anything from using an ill-fitting screwdriver that damages the screw slots to electrifying what was once a weight driven timepiece, damage will be done that can never be completely undone. Never allow the slightest alteration of a clock. When repair work is done, it should be done such that the clock is just as it was when it was new when the work is complete. Make no "improvements."

There is nothing you can do to a good tower clock to "improve" it, and anything you do to it that is not exactly as original constitutes the mutilation-cum-destruction of a valuable public asset.

A special note on electrification:

Many tower clocks were electrified during the 1940's and 1950's. People feared the heavy clock weights would fall through the tower and they would find them buried under the basement floor. This was used as a scare tactic by some companies who sold "electrification" to unsuspecting governing bodies. These companies invariably destroyed the heart of the clock (the escapement) making it nearly impossible to restore the clock, and the people who used the clock got nothing in return. It was less dependable, since it stopped with power failures. It still required weekly visits to see that it was oiled and that all was well, and heavy damage was guaranteed since the motor would not just stop when ice or snow blocked the hands, or something else stopped the mechanism. The electrification of a tower clock is a sacrilege. And all of this for want of someone to look at the cables every few years. What a shame.

If your clock has been electrified, there are two avenues you can take. The most conservative is to leave the clock as it is. Do your best to see that it doesn't run dry and is otherwise well cared for. Be prepared to visit the tower frequently during the spring power outage season to reset the clock. Short duration power outages occur much more frequently than you may realize, all year around.

A more aggressive approach would be to restore the clock to its former operation mode. This would be a very commendable activity for any clockkeeper. It would also be a difficult one. To start, look around the tower and basement for old parts ... the anchor, the pendulum, the weights, etc. What you can't find, you will have to make.

If you don't know what it looks like, your best bet is to find another clock like yours that you can make drawings of the parts from. If none exist, contact me and perhaps we can determine from what you have left what should be there. Be prepared to spend time and effort.

It would be helpful if the clockkeeper of your tower clock was a clockmaker ... but that is not an absolute requirement. In fact, what is most iimportant is that the individual have the interest to show up every week at the same time and wind, oil and inspect the clock. Anyone with average intelligence and mechanical aptitude can maintain a tower clock. Like any job, it works out better if you are interested in it.

If you think you can master the above items, you may be interested in these specifics:

1. Under normal circumstances, you need to wind the clock at a uniform time each week, reset it and see that it does not run dry.

2. Go to Radio Shack and buy a radio that will dependably receive the National Bureau of Standards radio station WWV in Fort Collins, Colorado ... preferably on at least three different frequencies. Radio Shack used to have a model that did that and nothing else. It didn't cost too much, and it works better than a short wave set that is capable of receiving great bands of frequencies. Leave the radio in the tower. You have no business setting a clock unless you know what time it is. (One of the so-called "atomic clocks" would likely serve the same purpose.) Besides that, when someone tells you you set the clock off by three minutes, you can cheerfully ask "How do you know?"

3. Study your clock enough that you know what it looks like normally and basically how it works. When something is wrong with it, many times you can tell just by looking as soon as you enter the tower. Watch all the parts work. Tower clocks are big enough and open enough that you can see all of the parts. Anyone who will open his eyes and observe can understand a clock ... particularly when it is right in front of him. Learn where the pendulum normally swings to ...so you can see if it is losing inertia. Look for broken wires in the cables. Learn how the escapement imparts energy back into the pendulum so the clock can continue to run. And don't be in a hurry. Clocks are slow machines. Adjust your pace to theirs. It won't work the other way around.

4. Regulation is the only adjustment you should have to make under normal circumstances. Shorten the pendulum to speed up the clock. Lengthen to slow the clock. And it doesn't take much. A clock I'm familiar with will change ten seconds a week with only a five degree turn of the adjusting nut. That changed the length of its eight foot pendulum .0017 inches. Make small changes and watch what happens.

Remember that regulation is very difficult during the spring and fall because the temperatures are very inconsistent. Don't be too hard on yourself if you speed up the clock because it has been cold and two days later it is forty degrees warmer--resulting in a clock that gains two minutes by week's end. Experience (and the ability to predict the weather) will help you as time goes on.

5. Keep the clock clean. Wipe it off every time you visit it. It is like shaking hands with an old friend. Dirt is its worst enemy, behind perhaps the electrification man.

6. After you've spent some time with your clock, study its sounds. Don't do this at first ... it is too complex. Study the sounds after you know what you are listening to. Close your eyes and listen to the beat. Listen to the whir of the strike train at the hour. In time, you will be able to tell more by listening than by looking. A clock that has hands that are covered with ice, or that have been plowing through snow, or that has a bearing seizing has a labored beat. Learn to recognize trouble sounds from your old friend.

7. Learn to adjust your mentality to low gear low axle as you enter the tower. Be patient. A problem with a clock may occur only every six hours or six days. Be prepared to stay with a problem until you discover what is causing it. Remember, the hour hand could be catching on a loose numeral on the face only when the wind is out of the east at the right angle to pull the numeral out and push the hand in at the same time ... and even when that happens, the clock won't stop then, but rather hours later. Most clock problems stop the clock hours after the problem occurred. When the hand gets caught or the piece of dirt comes around in the wheel, or the tight spot in the bearing comes around, the clock won't stop. It will just start to lose its pendulum's inertia. Only after a few hundred more beats will the clock actually stop. Be patient. Keep looking.

8. Never let yourself forget--the power of the hanging weight is always present--and that it is considerable. Don't take any part of the clock apart unless you have lowered the weight to the ground or blocked its travel way and set the weight solidly on this obstruction.

If you removed the anchor while the time side of the clock was still connected to its weight, the clock could explode from overspeed as the weight crashed to the bottom of its way. And you could be hurt as well. Use common sense.

9. Read the little booklet that I hope came with this sheet ... and some of the suggested reading at its end. It may help you. It was written for visitors to the Christian County Courthouse clock, but has a lot of general information as well.

10. Never lose sight of what you are working on. You may be taking care of a 75 to 100 year old machine that has almost no wear on its moving parts. You probably will never be intimately associated with such a machine again.

Remember, the most important asset you need is the true desire to see the clock run. The desire to climb the steps every week; the desire to stay with it when it is sick until you find the cure; the desire to set it at 2:00 in the morning every spring and fall to agree with the governmental time changes; the desire to be a first class clockkeeper and keep a first class clock--even when it is 25 degrees below zero or pouring down rain.

Feel free to write or call me any time to discuss tower clock problems. I will be happy to relay my experiences and thoughts to you.

William R. Kennedy
P.O. Box 304
Taylorville
Illinois 62568

Work (217) 287-7231
Home (217) 824-9375

The above is posted with the permission of the author.