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 important 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
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
Work (217) 287-7231
Home (217) 824-9375
The above is posted with the permission of the author.
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