Clock wise

Feb. 29, 2012, 3:02 a.m.

113 years later, Stanford tower clock tells more than time


Clock wise
The Stanford tower clock. (Courtesy of Dorian Clair)

The familiar tones of the Westminster Chimes melody float across campus, followed by a short pause. At this time, Stanford students of the early 1900s would have pulled out their pocket watches, ready to set at the imminent stroke of the hour.


The tower clock can trace its history back to 1899 when Jane Stanford ordered it from the Seth Thomas Clock Company, the same company that manufactured the famous clock at Grand Central Station in New York City. The clock originally resided on top of Memorial Church, but the 1906 earthquake damaged the tower in which it was installed. The clock was then transferred to a new home, a shingled wooden structure, behind the church–a move that was intended to be temporary but lasted for over 50 years.


Over the years, engineering students added a motor to turn the dial so that the clock would continue to keep accurate time, but the chimes fell completely out of sequence. The clock stood as a relic of Stanford University’s earlier days–sentimental but not particularly useful. By the 1960s, the clock and its bells had disappeared into storage and, for a time, into oblivion.


Henry Fuchs, professor of mechanical engineering, took on the task of bringing the clock back to life in the 1980s, placing it in the Terman Engineering Building for a few years. He discovered and hired Dorian Clair, an expert in antique clock restoration, who had a shop located in Palo Alto. Clair had restored and maintained the Ferry Building and Ghirardelli Square clocks in San Francisco and the San Jose Museum of Art clock.


William Kimball ’41, after whom Kimball Hall is named, donated enough money to build a clock tower to house the old mechanism and chime bells.


Clock wise
The Stanford tower clock on top of Memorial Church before the 1906 earthquake damaged the tower. (Courtesy of Dorian Clair)

Clair returned the clock to its original mechanical functions, and in 1983 it took up its current residence at the corner of the quad by the roundabout often called the “Circle of Death.” The clock is the most complete mechanical clock displayed in the Bay Area.


“It’s not only one of the best maintained tower clocks,” said Gibson Anderson ’67, a Bonair Siding employee who volunteers to set the clock and helps Clair service it. “It’s also one of the best displayed.”


Through the glass walls of the clock tower, one can view most of the mechanisms that make the clock run. The pendulum runs on gravity. Weights pull on cables that turn drums that are attached to gears that turn other gears. Every 15 minutes, a stop releases the chimes. Although complicated in assembly, the individual parts that make up the clock follow simple rules, operating completely through mechanical processes.


“There have been no revolutionary changes in clock design in a thousand years,” Anderson said.


Digital wristwatches and smartphones may have replaced pocket watches, but the principles on which the tower clock runs–harnessing the forces of gravity, tension and basic machinery–remain elegantly simple.


The clock’s timeless design helps it keep time remarkably well. A few weeks ago, its running six minutes behind caused a minor stir on campus. But this delay had been caused by human neglect in adjusting the clock rather than any fault in its mechanism.

Clock wise
Dorian Clair adjusts the dials of the Stanford tower clock at the corner of Escondido and Lasuen Malls so all four sides read the same time. (Courtesy of Dorian Clair)


The clock itself is subject to the same natural laws on which it runs. In dry weather, the pendulum loses mass in the form of moisture, changing its effective length and causing it to run behind time. The clock, however, was built with gross and fine adjusting mechanisms to compensate for climatic influences.


“As long as you keep it wound and set, it’s going to keep on going,” Clair said. “The life expectancy of that clock is several hundred more years if it’s taken care of.”


The clock embodies Stanford’s history not only in its classic appearance, but also in the efforts that Stanford students and community affiliates have put into it over the years. After its installment in 1983, Professor Dave Beach’s mechanical engineering students made some modifications to compensate for the effects of weather, including a new temperature-compensating pendulum.


Clair rearranged the weight assembly so that in the event of an earthquake, the weights would land in the pit below the tower rather than potentially destroying the clock by crashing into it. This improvement proved itself useful in the earthquake of 1989, and bash marks from the weights can still be seen on the tower’s walls.


Anderson came up with an external adjustment mechanism, adding and removing small weights to the pendulum weight in order to compensate for temperature-related weight fluctuations. Bill Boller ’68 redesigned the bell hammer mounting mechanism, which had been improperly striking and damaging the bells. For all of these individuals, the clock played a touching role in their Stanford experiences.


“The clock and I followed each other across the campus,” Boller said. “When I was in graduate school, the clock bells were visibly sitting under a tree next door to the Fire Station…it seemed natural to respond to the request to help ensure their future.”


In 1994, Rob Bernier M.S. ’96 Ph.D. ’01 began maintaining the clock, winding it up and checking its accuracy weekly. In an interview with The Stanford Report, he described the clock as “a mechanical thing in a computerized world.”


The tower clock’s history is not only mechanical. During its restoration in 1982, Clair would put together some of the parts on the stairway of the engineering building for show. To teach students not to touch the clockwork on display, Fuchs applied a layer of Moly Coat, a black substance used on metal that stains hands and clothes.


The night before the new tower’s opening ceremony in 1983, an unidentified student put Mickey Mouse hands on the clock face. When it started at midnight, Mickey’s minute hand bent over and grasped the other hand, stopping the clock. Clair had to go to the top of the tower and pull them off before it could run again.


Today, Clair, Anderson and a number of graduate students and Stanford affiliates maintain the clock, winding it up every four days, checking its accuracy, recalibrating it when necessary and occasionally cleaning its bells.


Having invested in the clock’s fate for over 25 years, Clair hopes it will have a long future.

Clock wise
The inner mechanisms of the tower clock as seen from above. (Courtesy of Dorian Clair)


“Don’t let it run down,” he entreated. “It’s capable of keeping pretty good time, and you can tell just looking through the window if it needs anything.”


The clock occupies its stately spot today and runs on time through the efforts of students, faculty and alumni over dozens of years. Passing by, visitors can behold a living–and ticking–record of Stanford’s illustrious past.


Click here for a photo gallery of the Stanford Clock Tower.

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