The end of time-Part II

Town Clock: works by E. Howard and Company of Boston, installed in 1928.

Intrigued by the town budget line item requesting $200 for “Clock Winding” (see Part I), I wanted to see the old town clock for myself, and Bob Johnson was kind enough to take me up into the steeple of the First Parish Church.

It is an ascent that requires a little dexterity. We are in the spire above the sanctuary balcony, in a tight square room with a high ceiling.  It is here that time in our town has been measured and doled out, by this clock and its sole predecessor, for more than 200 years. In the center of the room sits the mechanical works— a green cast-iron frame of matching semi-circles housing brass gear trains and the heart of the clock, a deadbeat escapement. It is a piece of machinery clearly built to last. Steel cables rise at angles from winding drums on either end of the housing— one to power the clock, one to power the striker mechanism for the giant bell in the belfry, directly above.

"Special Tower Clock Oil"

Suspended from the cables are stacks of driving weights in hollow wall shafts that descend clear to the floor of the main vestibule, two and half stories below. On a shelf on top of the works is a nearly empty bottle of liquid: “Special Tower Clock Oil.”

A varnished wood pendulum of about seven feet in length hangs off one side of the clock housing. It descends through the floor into a crawl space below and swings an iron ball through an arc that takes a full 1.5 seconds to traverse. As the pendulum approaches the mid-point of its travel, a sharp click is produced by the movement of the escapement in the housing, a movement that in turn advances the gears driving the clock hands by 40 precise increments every minute. The “click” is what in a mechanical household clock would be the “tick tock.” But on this scale, and in this small room, the clock produces a sound that is more like a mechanical snap, majestic and ominous in its deliberate repetition. Above the clock works is a system of bevelled gears and drive shafts that move the hands on the three exterior clock faces. If you like precision engineering, it is all a fascinating thing to see.

Bevel gears drive the clock hands.

The clock is (or should be) wound once a week. Bob allowed me to give it a spin. There is an iron winding arm with a wooden handle for the purpose. Put one foot in front of the other, lean forward, grab the handle with both hands, and put your shoulder into it. It takes 44 rotations of the winding arm to raise the 200 pounds of clock weights two and a half stories straight up.  As you muscle the handle around, the locking mechanism on the winding drum clatters like a machine gun. For the bell striker, you will grunt through 212 rotations of the winder in the course of raising 450 pounds of bell weights up the same two and a half stories. I only wound the clock part and even that is something of a workout.

Winding drums on the town clock, viewed from below.

Most working tower clocks of this vintage have by now been retrofitted with electric winches for winding. I can see why. Note to the Advisory Committee: $200 a year to manually wind this thing is a bargain. That’s $3.85 for working up a sweat each week.

But the most startling thing about my visit to see the town clock—something I didn’t really anticipate—was the palpable sense of the passage of time you feel in that room. Every one of us has a certain number of seconds to live. When that number is reached, it is your time. Nowhere will you get such a vivid reminder of the one-by-one reduction of your allotment of seconds than in that tight windowless space, with only a room-sized clock and a pendulum moving below you in long, solemn arcs: click…click…click. Someone once said that nothing is as far away as one minute ago.



As promised, a funny story about the town clock from the late 1800’s will come shortly.

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