Redisplaying the York automaton clock

This post was written by Daniela Corda


Hercules, hour strike reassembly (photo  courtesy of York Museums Trust)

Hercules, hour strike reassembly (photo courtesy of York Museums Trust)


Over summer 2018, Matthew Read, Director, Bowes Centre, and I were commissioned to condition survey, part disassemble, pack for transportation, and reassemble an eighteenth-century automaton clock on behalf of York Museums Trust.

York automaton clock (photo  courtesy of York Museums Trust)

York automaton clock (photo courtesy of York Museums Trust)


Originally assembled during the 1780s, this highly ornate clock was most likely designed for the export market and – although unsigned – has long been attributed to the London inventor James Cox (c.1723-1800).

The compilation of written and photographic condition surveying helped update museum records, inform current and future care, and outline operation options.

Pop-up conservation workshop, The Burton Gallery, York Art Gallery (photo courtesy of York Museums Trust)

Pop-up conservation workshop, The Burton Gallery, York Art Gallery (photo courtesy of York Museums Trust)

Reassembling the two main movements (photo courtesy of York Museums trust)

Reassembling the two main movements (photo courtesy of York Museums trust)


In its new permanent location in the Burton Gallery at York, the clock is on open display for the first time. Preventive measures were taken during reassembly such as the insertion of Melinex® film behind the case frets to restrict dust entering the case.

Under normal operation, the clock performs a 360-degree audio-visual show that includes rotating glass rods simulating waterfalls; automata pastoral scenes; spinning stars; jewelled contra-rotating flowers, and dancing cast-figures. In addition, the clock plays a sequence of seven melodies on a nest of eleven bells, striking the quarters too.

A detailed treatment report from York Castle Museum, dated 1982, indicates the clock has undergone many repairs, alterations and layers of reinterpretation, including the replacement of a pipe organ with a nineteenth-century Swiss musical box mechanism.

In its present state the clock has six main functions:

  1. Clock mechanism: indicating hours, minutes, seconds, 1/5th seconds, date and age of the moon
  2. Quarter striking
  3. Hour striking
  4. Automaton musical train
  5. Automaton drive mechanism
  6. Swiss musical box

The majority of these dynamic elements are able to function, thanks to major renovation upon the object’s acquisition in 1974. So, although the clock can run, the overriding question is; should the clock run?

As the single dynamic historic object on show at the Gallery, running the clock adds tangible and intangible value for visitors, but comes at the cost of further cumulative damage. The present arrangement is to run the clock’s main movement, authorising the ticking sound, the hour and the quarter striking, but only to operate the automata elements at scheduled times.

Digitisation methods are being considered to build into wider conservation plans. Following prior research into microcontroller electronics, this object can benefit from implementing digital strategies such as recording audio aspects, reversibly relieving the mechanical movement from operation, and therefore wear, without experiential losses.

This ostensibly straightforward project highlighted inevitable emotional, mechanical, philosophical and conservation collections care questions. The clock can be seen at York Art Gallery with automaton demonstrations on Wednesdays and Saturdays, 14.00.


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A clock to remember the Zeppelin raids over London


The Dolphin Tavern, 44 Red Lion St, London WC1R 4PF

The Dolphin Tavern, 44 Red Lion St, London WC1R 4PF


A recent article published in Antiquarian Horology, entitled ‘A Time to Remember’, focuses on a pocket watch in the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich that had been recovered from the Titanic, which sank in 1912 after hitting an iceberg. The hands indicate 3.07, presumably marking the moment the watch entered the water. The article discusses this and other watches recovered from the Titanic and can be read here.

I was reminded of this when recently I noted a board outside a tavern in the London district of Holborn, drawing attention to a somewhat macabre relic. The pub had been destroyed by a Zeppelin bomb in 1915, and a clock found in the wreckage, marking the time the bomb had struck, could be seen inside the pub.

The board outside

The board outside


The clock found in the wreckage stopped at 10.40

The clock found in the wreckage stopped at 10.40

the two clocks

Inside the Dolphin

Step inside, and there it is on the wall. Next to it hangs a clock that is in better shape but lacks its movement. In a show of solidarity, both clocks stand still forever.





The clock is mentioned in a list ‘London’s top 10 timepieces – Time Out counts down our city‘s finest timepieces’, with this comment:

When this snug corner-boozer was leveled by a Zeppelin bomb in 1915, one of the few things to be pulled intact from the rubble was the clock that today hangs to the left of the bar, hands frozen at the hour of doom. Locals say the clock can sometimes be heard to whistle, as though imitating the falling bomb. Bollocks, says the barman.


The clocks side by side — their hands frozen in time

The clocks side by side — their hands frozen in time



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And now for something different

This post was written by David Read, Society Member



E. Howard & Co. pocket watch

E. Howard & Co. pocket watch


In the world of watch collectors there are many who dislike finding that a pocket watch case has been engraved with the owner’s name, or to record it being given as a present. My feelings are different. An engraving not only provides a date which can be useful information, but can also point to an interesting history.


E. Howard & Co. movement, signed "E. Howard & Co. Boston.  220854"

E. Howard & Co. movement, signed “E. Howard & Co. Boston. 220854″


Late one evening in November 2000, I was watching a BBC documentary about the Yukon Gold Rush when the name Skookum jumped out at me. In turn, I jumped out my chair because some years earlier at a NAWCC meeting in Florida, I had acquired a 14 karat gold E.Howard & Co. pocket watch retailed by Joslin & Park of Denver Colorado. E. Howard & Co. made some of the finest watches in America so it interested me, as did the inner back which was not the same colour of gold as the rest of the case. And engraved on it were the words, A relic of Skookum Gulch March 22nd 1897. It was certainly something different.


E. Howard & Co. Inner cover engraving: "A relic of Skookum Gulch March 22 1897"

E. Howard & Co. Inner cover engraving: “A relic of Skookum Gulch March 22 1897″


When the Yukon documentary finished, some quick research on the Internet led me to an email address for the Yukon Prospectors Association and before going to bed I sent questions with attached images.  In due course I received a reply from a member, himself a prospector who had searched for gold and experienced the thrill of finding it. The following summarizes what he wrote;

“Gold was first discovered at Skookum Gulch by Joseph Goldsmith and his partner on 22nd March 1897, the date engraved on your watch. Arriving in the Klondike area too late to stake a claim on one of the major creeks, he prospected the feeders and found rich gold in this one.  

Goldsmith staked the first claim and named the stream. He, or perhaps his partner, used some of the gold to have a replacement inner cover made for the watch. The gold will be from the original panning and is significant in that it marks an historical event”. 

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Old Father Time Statue, The Sandringham Estate - Norfolk. (Photo Jim Linwood)

Old Father Time Statue, The Sandringham Estate – Norfolk. (Photo Jim Linwood)


The dictionary defines ‘two-timing’ as ‘to be unfaithful to a spouse or lover’ or ‘to deceive, to double-cross’. But that’s not what I want to talk about. What I have in mind here is people who put the clock forward even though they know it’s not the ‘real’ time. Perhaps we can regard this as another kind of cheating.

Some months ago I came across the term ‘Sandringham time’. British Summer Time – putting the clocks forward one hour in April and back again in October – was introduced in 1916, and among those supporting the idea had been King Edward VII (1901-1910). Here (with thanks to David Rooney who supplied me with a scan of the relevant page) is what David Prerau wrote in his book Saving the Daylight: Why We Put the Clocks Forward (page 12):

“The king had recognized the waste of morning daylight and had already taken royal action: for several years, in order to have more time for hunting, he had been creating his own small sphere of daylight saving time at his palace at Sandringham, and in later years at Windsor and Balmoral castles, by having all the clocks advanced thirty minutes. (The tradition of ‘Sandringham time’ lasted until Edward VIII abandoned the practice in 1936).”

I was reminded of this when this week I finally got around to reading Flora Thompson, Lark Rise to Candleford, a semi-autobiographical series of three books giving scenes from a childhood in rural Oxfordshire in the 1880s and 1890s. The books were originally published in 1939, 1941 and 1943, and then as a trilogy from 1945 onwards. I quote from the Penguin Modern Classics edition of 2008.

At the age of 14, the main character Laura (= Flora) starts work as assistant in a Post Office. It is run by a woman, Dorcas Lane, alongside a blacksmith’s workshop which she had inherited from her father.
“The grandfather’s clock was kept exactly half an hour fast, as it had always been, and by its time, the household rose at six, breakfasted at seven and dined at noon; while mails were despatched and telegrams timed by the new Post Office clock, which showed correct Greenwich time, received by wire at ten o’clock every morning.” (page 364).

The Post Office is re-introduced at the beginning of Part 3:

“As she followed her new employer through the little office and out to the big front living kitchen, the hands of the grandfather’s clock pointed to a quarter to four. It was really only a quarter past three and the Post Office clock gave that time exactly, but the house clocks were purposely kept half an hour fast and meals and other domestic matters were timed by them. To keep thus ahead of time was an old custom in many country families which was probably instituted to ensure the early rising of man and maid in the days when five or even four o’clock was not thought an unreasonably early hour at which to begin the day’s work. The smiths still began work at six and Zillah, the maid, was downstairs before seven, by which time Miss Lane and, later, Laura, was also up and sorting the mail.”(pp 395-6)

In the first volume, when Laura is still a small child living with her family in a nearby hamlet, we find another interesting example of dual timekeeping. One person in the hamlet, ‘Old Sally’, owned “a grandfather’s clock that not only told the time, but the day of the week as well. It had even once told the changes of the moon; but the works belonging to that part had stopped and only the fat, full face, painted with eyes, nose and mouth, looked out from the square where the four quarters should have rotated. The clock portion kept such good time that half the hamlet set its own clocks by it. The other half preferred to follow the hooter at the brewery in the market town, which could be heard when the wind was in the right quarter. So there were two times in the hamlet and people would say when asking the hour: ‘Is that hooter time, or Old Sally’s?’ (p. 77)


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Discovering a Japanese lantern clock

This post was written by Daniela Corda, student at West Dean College


The early-mid period Japanese lantern clock

The early-mid period Japanese lantern clock


As a Post Graduate Diploma student of the Conservation of Clocks program at West Dean College, one of my recent projects has been to restore safe working order to a Japanese lantern clock belonging to the Russell-Cotes Museum, Bournemouth. Museum records classified the clock as Chinese, however, after conducting initial research, it became clear that the object conformed to many stylistic features of lantern clocks from the early – mid period of Japanese clock making, these indicators included:

  • Two-winged bell nut
  • Deep bell
  • Verge and foliot escapement
  • Rotating “warikoma” dial
  • Latched case
  • Posted iron frame and iron mobiles

Some of these features are indicative of the temporal time system employed in Japan during the country’s Edo period of isolation (1603-1868). It was not until 1873, during the Meiji Reform, that Mean-time and the European calendar were adopted.

The Japanese temporal system divides the day into 12 hours, rather than 24, and six of these “hours” are proportional to daylight and six to darkness. Hence, the adjustable numerals are designed to accommodate variable time intervals within the relative lengths of day and night by season.

The numeral characters are engraved with the traditional 9-4/9-4 numbering, using the zodiacal names of the hours, which count down in reverse order.

During the process of recording and documenting, a conservation approach was employed focusing on stabilising the clock in its current condition. Treatment included; fabricating missing parts and the mechanical removal of corrosion with a custom made mother-of-pearl scraping tool, a material that retains its shape but is softer than the substrate, so becomes sacrificial, reducing the risk of damaging the ironwork.

Mechanical removal of corrosion with a mother-of-pearl scraping tool

Mechanical removal of corrosion with a mother-of-pearl scraping tool


During Japan’s isolation, the temporal time system suited the predominantly agricultural society: concurrent competition in Europe for the longitude prize was not of their concern. Therefore, it is important to refrain from imposing western motives, descending from a precision-driven approach to clock making, onto an object that has come from a very different context.


The lacquered calendar wheel

The lacquered calendar wheel

Considerations for future work include analysis of the brass alloys and the coating used on the ironwork, as well as investigating the lacquer present on the calendar wheel (pictured above) aiming to provide a more detailed narrative of the social and craft context surrounding the clock. Due to its age a stable environment and restricted running hours will be imposed on the clock to mitigate further losses.


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The popularity of horological tattoos

This post was written by Society member Anna-Rose Kirk


 (Photo with kind permission Lal Hardy)

(Photo with kind permission Lal Hardy)

 (Photo with kind permission Lal Hardy)

(Photo with kind permission Lal Hardy)










Clocks and watches are the most tattooed image at the moment according to Vice magazine and tattoo artists are sick of tattooing them.

Clocks. Clocks, pocket watches and more clocks. Mostly on guys in their mid 20s. There must be hundreds, at the very least, being done in the UK every week. Lots of tattooists have stopped putting them in their portfolios because they’re so fed up with them”Craig Hicks

Prisoners doing long sentences don't like to count the days so have clock tattoos without hands to show that time to them is meaningless

Prisoners doing long sentences don’t like to count the days so have clock tattoos without hands to show that time to them is meaningless

Time symbols have always been popular in art as reminders of the passing of life and the inevitability of death.  Hour glass tattoos have been a simple depiction of this for many years, and there has been a long tradition of symbolism within prison tattoos depicting clock and watches with no hands, however, the more recent need to capture time has sparked a trend of more complicated depictions and designs within larger tattoos often surrounded by banners, flowers, and owls.

Speaking to those that have the clock or watch tattoos, it is apparent that the most common reason was the idea of symbolising a date and time, a child’s birth for example, and was a way of avoiding text and numbers which have become a common tattoo choice. Others wanted them as reminders that time is precious and had them tattooed in prominent places as a constant reminder to live their lives meaningfully.

A clock tattoo to remind you that time is precious, don't waste it

A clock tattoo to remind you that time is precious, don’t waste it

A tattoo to demonstrate the aesthetics of a pocket watch

A tattoo to demonstrate the aesthetics of a pocket watch (Photo with kind permission Jake Nash-Wilson)

A tattoo commemorating a death

A tattoo commemorating a death (Photo with kind permission Lal Hardy)

One person I spoke to simply had a deep appreciation for horology and the way that watches worked after coming across them in his job in a jeweller’s and from his friends in the industry. Because of this, the time on the watch does not have a significant meaning, but it was important to him that the detail and the way it looked was right.

Celebrities and easy access to images and discussions play a part in tattoo trends but simply more people are getting tattooed meaning particular images seem to get used more often. I wanted to get to the bottom of whether clocks and watches were seen as something mysterious with no concept of the inside workings, however, although a lot of the general public, especially the younger generation, does not understand the exact mechanics of a pocket watch, they have a tangible feel which in contrast to today’s sleek, minimal, computerised technology can feel a lot more real. They feel as if the have a history and a story; linked to memories tradition and ritual. I wonder if a rise in nostalgia and a romanticism for craftsmanship and the handmade has brought about the rise of this style being used in tattooing and movements like Steam Punk. It is perhaps a fight against excessive consumption of the 21st century and the dehumanisation of manufacturing and the idea that traditional skills may be lost. It seems to be that horology is being worn as a symbol of authenticity and a preservation of history in a vain attempt to show that this generation care.

A tattoo copied from a photo

A tattoo copied from a photo


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Bomb found outside AHS meeting focused on bomb scares


The strangest thing happened last Thursday. To be honest, I thought it was a put-up job and so did many of the people with me. I thought James Nye had arranged it; everyone else thought I had.

It was the first AHS London Lecture of 2017. We’re in a new venue this year. Following the success of last year’s programme things were getting a bit tight at Cannon Place and we needed a bigger room with space to grow, so thanks to an introduction from our Council Member James Stratton, head of the clocks department at Bonhams, we have been able to move to the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) on Parliament Square, overlooking the Houses of Parliament and the Great Clock of Westminster.

I was the lecturer for our first meeting at RICS. I’ve been thinking a lot over the years about the political symbolism of time: how it stands for other things besides when to catch the train. So my talk last Thursday was about standard time and violent protest in the last decades of the nineteenth century and the first years of the twentieth.

Specifically, I was focusing on two bomb attacks: one on the Royal Observatory Greenwich in 1894 by an anarchist and one on the Royal Observatory Edinburgh in 1913 by suffragettes. Both attacks, I argued, were symbolic strikes against scientifically defined standard time but both were very real, resulting in loss of life at Greenwich and significant damage at Edinburgh. They were attacks on the establishment – an establishment centred at Westminster just a few paces from where I was speaking.


Guarding the Greenwich Meridian

Guarding the Greenwich Meridian



My talk finished bang on time at 7.15pm and I was getting ready to answer questions when the house manager came in and whispered a message to James, who was chairing the evening. I assumed it was a minor problem with the catering laid on thanks to the generosity of sponsor Jonny Flower – maybe the prosecco wasn’t chilled enough or the hors d’oeuvres were running late. But I was wrong.

We’d all seen the flashing blue lights through the frosted windows of the lecture room, but they are not an unusual sight in Westminster and we thought little of it. Perhaps a car had been pulled over, or a tourist had taken a tumble. Certainly nothing out of the ordinary.

Then James interrupted proceedings to tell the audience that much of the area outside, including bridges and tube stations, was being sealed off by the police. We really thought it was a put-up job when he told us that a bomb had been found by Westminster Bridge. It was not a false alarm. It was a real bomb – from the Second World War. It had been found by a dredger in the River Thames. The police call to the Royal Navy bomb disposal squad went in at exactly 7.15pm – the moment I stopped speaking.

The German SD 50kg bomb (BBC)


Don’t worry. Nobody was hurt in the incident and the bomb was safely detonated early the following morning at Tilbury. The March lecture is about the gold workers and enamellers of Geneva and we’re not expecting any bother.



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A Gala For Lisa


Lisa Jardine, by Claerwen James, commissioned by Jesus College, Cambridge, recognizing the significance of the vote to admit women fellows back in 1976.  ©2015 Claerwen James/Flowers Gallery

Lisa Jardine, by Claerwen James, commissioned by Jesus College, Cambridge, recognizing the significance of the vote to admit women fellows back in 1976. ©2015 Claerwen James/Flowers Gallery


Tuesday 25 October 2016—to the Victoria and Albert Museum for a fabulous evening to celebrate the life of our late President, Lisa Jardine FRSA, in the company of her husband John Hare, members of the family, and a distinguished array of academics, curators, writers, and lots of friends—it was a year to the date since Lisa’s death.

Lisa believed in lectures that were also a bit of a party. We gathered in the Whiteley Silver Gallery to the sound of a jazz trio, and moved to the astonishing Gorvy Lecture Theatre, where we were greeted by Bill Sherman of the V&A, a colleague of Lisa’s over many years. He introduced Amanda Vickery, who spoke movingly of her long and close association with Lisa, before introducing the remarkable Deborah Harkness, prize-winning historian and now best-selling author, noted for the All Souls fictional trilogy. She spoke on ‘Fiction in the Archives’, explain how a parallel career in fiction has enriched her historical work, following an approach she believes Lisa enshrined – not so much ‘outreach’ – more the invitation to everyone to come and spend time inside the ivory tower. The spine-tingling thrill of archival discovery is accessible and communicable to all—and truth can be more remarkable than fiction. Setting action in her scholarly backyard—sixteenth century Blackfriars—Deborah told us that ‘Fiction at last allows me to tell people what I really think happened, rather than what I can prove.’

It was a tour de force—resolving to the notion that literature can work to promote empathy, a characteristic in short supply in conflicts at all levels, globally. Deborah’s tribute linked this to Lisa, who championed diversity, bringing together so many people, across so many communities.

John rounded off proceedings by announcing the launch of a new initiative with the Royal Society—the Lisa Jardine Research Awards—essentially funding to encourage the study of the scientific revolution and the Enlightenment, an initiative for which significant backing has already been secured. A very fitting tribute indeed.

The evening wound up with a reception in the galleries housing the Ionides collection, to the sound of more jazz. Our hosts were generous, but were probably mindful of Lisa’s mantra—‘never knowingly undercater’—it was a magical event.

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‘A clock which has gone by itself for 2 years’


In the State Library of New South Wales is a manuscript journal of a trip to Holland undertaken in 1773 by the naturalist Joseph Banks  (1743-1820), who from 1778 until his death was to be the President of the Royal Society. His journal can be read on-line here.


Banks's sketch of the supposed energy source of a 'clock which has gone by itself for 2 years’

Banks’s sketch of the supposed energy source of a ‘clock which has gone by itself for 2 years’


Most of his journal, as expected, is related to natural history, but in Amsterdam he visited an unnamed clockmaker who showed him ‘a clock which has gone by itself for 2 years’. From his description, complete with a sketch, it is clear that he struggled to make sense of what he had seen.


From hence we went to a clockmaker Mr [name not entered] who has invented a clock which has gone by itself for 2 years & is therefore called not injustly a perpetual motion whether the principle was fallacious I could not discover but it was or appeared to be 4 balls / fastened to the rim of a circle by long wyers [wires] the circle going round in the direction of the arrows the ball a by its gravity turns it round till at the end of its leaver [??] coming into the place of b it is shortened and so much more when it comes into the place of c the balls c & d at the same time becoming longer & in their turns forcing it round whether however a [illegible word] wheel made upon this construction would ever go once round I very much doubt if not there must either be fallacy or some method of applying the principle which I did not understand which is likely as the machine was rather complicated. [pages 51 and 52 – CY 3011/73 and 74]


The concept of perpetual motion, and the idea that one can make a machine that can do work indefinitely without an energy source, has been exercising many minds over the centuries, but the development of modern theories of thermodynamics has shown that they are impossible. In his book Perpetual Motion. The History of an Obsession, Arthur W.J.G. Ord-Hume has illustrated several devices that look rather similar to the clock that Banks had seen. We must conclude that the unnamed Amsterdam clockmaker was one in a long line of deluded ‘inventors’.

Ord-Hume's illustrations of similar 'perpetual motion' devices

Ord-Hume’s illustrations of similar ‘perpetual motion’ devices


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A new addition to the galleries at the Royal Observatory, Greenwich

The extraordinarily accurate ‘Burgess Clock B’ was recently installed in the Royal Observatory’s Time and Longitude Gallery where it will be on display for the next three years. b

The following filmed interview introduces the work of Martin Burgess and the project behind this remarkable timekeeper.

First shown at the Harrison Decoded conference, held at the National Maritime Museum in April, 2015.

Further information on Clock B can be found here





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