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Clock Lore

Clock Lore from Der Uhrmacher

American clock movements have undergone many innovations over these passed generations. These innovations took the form of unusual repairs by local tinkers. It's not uncommon to examine an antique American clock movement and find a piece of bailing wire plugged into a worn pivot hole. Glue took the place of solder when piecing together broken levers and solder was used to fuse anything that didn't look right to the beholder. An old timer brought in his American clock boasting that it was running for 25 years without missing a tick. He never had it cleaned or oiled and couldn't understand why it stopped. Needless to say, there was a lot of work to be done on this overhaul. First, I discovered a cotton wad soaked in kerosene which was stuffed into the corner of the case. This was an "old wife's tale" practice expecting that the kerosene vapors would not only keep the movement oiled, but would dissolve any gunk build-up occurring over the years. In a fairy tale world, this might be true, but actually, any working machine needs periodic lubrication and eventually an overhaul.


From Eli to Seth

I was working on a Seth Thomas Pillar & Scroll shelf clock and chuckled to myself as I imagined how this clock came to be. It's made exactly like the Eli Terry clock. Young Seth Thomas was an apprentice to Eli Terry. After the revolution, not much British brass was being sent to the new country. Terry found his way down to Connecticut and established the first clock factory in America. He utilized a water wheel to generate power for his machines and made his movements out of wood. Noble parts like pivots, escape wheels and verges were made of metal. He used close grained, high-resin woods like apple and pear for wheels and pinions. Oak was used for the plates.

Anyway, the young apprentice, Seth Thomas, fell in love with and eloped with Eli Terry's daughter (much to Eli's chagrin) and relocated (or was run out of town by Eli) to the next town. With him, he took his father-in-law's teachings and established his own clock factory. Seth embraced new ideas and technology and eventually bought out old Eli's business.


Connecticut, Mecca of American Clockmaking

The steam engine replaced the water wheel and rolling mills cranked-out metal stock. Skilled Europeans came to New England with their talents and the American industrial revolution built the society. From water to steam, and finally to electric power generators, Connecticut clock and watch factories provided the world market with Yankee timepieces that anybody could afford. From the early 1800's to the mid 1950's, Connecticut clockmakers cranked-out more timepieces than any other state in America. The "Old Country" was restricted with generations of bureaucratic regulations and guild demands that stymied mass production, but the "New World" had yet to become riddled with these hindrances. If you had the money, someone else had the brains and I had the skills, we'd open a clock factory. Competition was keen and many companies went out of production or in most cases, were absorbed by more successful establishments. Poor management was the demise of most companies. Connecticut's countryside contained a great deal of natural resources. From iron ore and timber, steel could be produced. From copper and zinc, brass was manufactured. Many streams and rivers were utilized as barges hauled products to the rail systems. During the late-1800's, Waterbury Clock company was producing over a million clocks per year, not to forget that their watch sales were close behind. Bristol, Waterbury and New Haven lead other cities in their production of timepieces. Surrounding cities and towns contributed not only with skilled labor, but raw stock and the machines to make clocks. New Britain became the "Hardware City of the World". After World War One and the demise of aristocracy, most of the European clock manufacturers went bankrupt as socialist governments claimed more of their clientele's money. Connecticut clock manufacturers filled the market, producing timepieces that not only were affordable by the multitude, but were produced in a country which not only embraced the entrepreneur, but a citizen's strife to become extraordinary. Essentially by that time, the clock movement had been perfected. Eventually though, even Connecticut clock manufacturers re-organized and tooled-up to become other kinds of manufacturing industries. With the production of electricity being more dependable, electric clocks found their market. Mechanical clocks were on the way out. After World War 2, only a handful of Connecticut clock manufacturers existed. Connecticut lost its last big clock factory during the late 1960's as Seth Thomas Company was unable to meet labor union demands. Eventually, even the tiny New England Clock Company took its last gasps. The great Connecticut clock industry became history.


Roman Numeral Four

Many tourists who visit my Shop often ask why the Roman numeral four on most round clock dials is illustrated as IIII and not IV. I've heard such stories as the king of England declared it accepted because his clockmaker made a mistake, having already painted it on a particular dial. There's even a story that the Clockmakers' Company utilized IIII as a trade symbol. Yet another story claims that IIII was the outcome of the French Revolution attempting to change the method of dividing the hours of the day into tenths. But, the truth is quite simple. If you observe a round dial containing Roman numeral IIII, you'll notice that one third of the numerals contains I's, one third contains V's, and one third contains X's. It's purely an example of symmetry! How do you like that? A square or rectangular dial will contain IV. The symmetry, in this case, exists naturally.


New England Clock Company

Quite a few clocks made by the New England Clock Company have come across my bench for repair or restoration. Up until recently, it was a prolific manufacturer clocks, something quite rare in America.

The New England Clock Company has roots dating back to around 1835 when Jonathan Clark Brown and a bunch of investors started up a business named the Forestville Manufacturing Company in Forestville, Connecticut. Forestville is a section of Bristol where my father and uncles "Phillips Automotive" sold and serviced International Harvester trucks and Studebaker Packard automobiles. Forestville Manufacturing went bankrupt about 25 years later and Eliha Nils Welch, one of the debtors, absorbed it by default. For 10 years, he ran a tight ship and the company prospered. It was renamed the E. N. Welch Manufacturing Company in 1864. Welch produced a number of clocks including movements for other clock manufacturing companies and specialized in producing various springs for mechanical devices.

At the turn-of-the-century, E. N. Welch wasn't doing too well. As part of their manufacturing process, they used a local foundry just down the road in order to produce castings. The foundry owner's son, William Sessions, took an interest in horology and bought the controlling stock in the E. N. Welch Company. In 1903, Welch jumped out and the Sessions Clock Company was organized. Under William's authority, the Sessions Clock Company produced everything required for their line of clocks .. movements, cases, dials, artwork and of coarse, castings.

Sessions realized that the future of clock making was turning to electricity, so in 1930, the company expanded to produce electric clocks, timers for radios, televisions and other devices. They also kept producing traditional brass mechanical movements. In 1956, Sessions was absorbed by a company interested mainly in their timing devices. Kept as the Sessions Company, the new owners ran the operation until 1969 when the decline in business forced its liquidation.

William K. Sessions, grandson of William E., disliked working for the new company, so in 1959, he left to form The New England Clock Company. As a youngster, I remember Bill visiting my father's truck garage on occasion. He had a place called "Sessions Woods" about 5 miles away. Anyway, Bill worked out of his cellar designing a kind of contemporary collection of clocks; however, colonial was in at that time so the New England Clock Company emphasized colonial timepieces with floral decoration. With the advice of his wife Phebe, they also organized The Connecticut Clock Company. Phebe became the president. Nils Magnus Tornquist, an industrial designer produced many innovative manufacturing ideas and case designs. During the late 1960's, they even manufactured a cuckoo clock "The American Cuckoo Bird", a rarity in modern American clock making. Ten years later, they offered clock kits. Connecticut Kits were somewhat pricy, but well-worth it. The kits offered no choices such as inexpensive dials or movements. Their Abel Cotty line of grandfather clocks was named after America's first clock maker (circa 1655).

The New England Clock Company moved three times before ending up in Farmington, CT. Old Bill Sessions was no longer around and the company was absorbed by a group of investors left-over from International Silver Company in the late 80's. Their modern, one story plant produced traditional and transitional styles as well as historical reproductions of the past. Although fitted with German mechanical movements, the clocks were entirely made in the USA. Their case work was superb, but the cost of operation in today's American society proved overwhelming. I remember my cousin Eddy calling one day. He said that The New England Clock Company was going under and there were dumpsters outside the building loaded with all kinds of goodies. When he arrived, the dumpsters had disappeared and around 2000, The New England Clock Company followed the road taken by all of the other clock companies that formed its history.