Sunday, May 03, 2009

Swing Slow, Winged Chariot

Even though many people will not know of Seth Thomas many will have a strong opinion about his most famous and ubiquitous invention: the alarm clock. Thomas's company invented it in 1876; and some claim the world has not had a good night's rest since. Maybe it's a big yawn to some, but to others, those awake and nervous, Seth Thomas is a big deal.

Those who don't follow the history of clock manufacturers won't be at all surprised to learn that the clock at Grand Central Terminal in New York City was manufactured by the Seth Thomas Clock Co. Maybe they're in a hurry and don't have time for this sort of thing.

Seth Thomas (1785 – 1859) was born at Wolcott, Connecticut, and in 1807 went into the clock-making business working for Eli Terry. In 1810 Thomas worked as a carpenter for Eli Terry,obviously learning the cabinet making trade at some point. In 1811 Eli Terry sold the business to Seth Thomas and partner Silas Hoadley. In 1812 Thomas sold out and moved to Plymouth Hollow, Connecticut. There he bought out Herman Clark, a local clock-maker, in December 1813. Clark had made wooden-movement clocks, which Thomas continued until 1842 when his company began using brass movements. Thomas built and operated a brass mill to roll and make wire for his clock factory. Wood-movements were phased out in 1845. In 1853, Thomas officially incorporated the "Seth Thomas Clock Company". When Thomas died in 1859 his sons, Seth Jr., Edward, and Aaron took over the business. Aaron acted as President. As King Canute remarked a thousand years ago, "Time and tide wait for no man." In January 2009 the last iteration of the Seth Thomas Clock Co. closed up shop. The Seth Thomas co. was taken over by the Colibri company, which in turn was taken over in 1971 by Frederick N. Levinger of Providence, R.I. In 2005, Levinger sold the Colibri Group. A commentator at JCKonline suggests that "FREDERICK N LEVINGER was taken by Bernie Madoff." The clocks keep on ticking.
Mr. Thomas was very conservative, and after his death many new styles of clocks were introduced by his sons. Regulator clocks were introduced in 1860. The patterns and machinery for these had been purchased in 1859 from the creditors of bankrupt clockmaker Silas B. Terry. Spring driven clocks were introduced ca. 1855–1860. Perpetual calendar clocks were made from ca. 1863–1917. Some of the most popular later types include walnut kitchen clocks, made from 1884–1909; marble clocks, 1887–ca. 1895; black (Adamantine finish) wood mantel clocks, ca. 1885–1917; black enameled iron cased clocks, 1892–ca. 1895; oak kitchen clocks, 1890–ca. 1915; tambour clocks, introduced in 1904; chime clocks, introduced in 1909; and electric A/C clocks, introduced in 1928.

Many Seth Thomas clocks from 1881 to 1918 have a date code stamped in ink on the case back or bottom. Usually, the year is done in reverse, followed by a letter A–L representing the month. For example, April 1897 would appear as 7981 D.

The Seth Thomas co. made Philadelphia's Independence Hall centennial tower clock. The work was completed on June 24, 1875. The total cost of the clock was $ 20,000. Its bell weighed 13,000 pounds, one thousand pounds for each of the original 13 colonies.

In 1928 the Seth Thomas co. produced the largest single-faced illuminated dial clock in the world for the Colgate Company building in New Jersey. The dial is 50 feet in diameter with hands weighing nearly a ton each. The clock is so large that at night it is visible from all of lower Manhattan Island in New York City.

On a smaller scale, one sure to attract the interest of all automobile drivers, in 1932 the Seth Thomas co. moved into parking meters. You, dear reader, might be pounding a genuine Seth Thomas creation. Please show some respect. It's only a dollar, you know. It can be easily replaced.

More trivia at:

In 1907, jeweler Henry Birks bought the George Trorey jewelery shop at the northeast corner of Granville and Hastings in Vancouver, Canada. Birks kept Trorey's 1905 wooden-movement sidewalk clock, where it stood till 1994. Whether it was made by the Thomas co. I do not know. Probably not, since Thomas's company stopped making wood-movement clocks earlier, but who can tell?

For those interested in learning yet more about the background of Seth Thomas and the early American clock-making business, I recommend this site.

But clocks? Seth Thomas? What has it to do with our reality in such a busy world? Everyone has clocks, and one can buy them for a buck a piece. Now, dear reader, is that totally cool? You can have a clock that will work for the ages, and it'll cost you a buck. You might feel scourged by the sweeping hand, but still, you have order few other can claim. You can measure out your time and be glad of what you have in moments, acutely aware of each you have. You can also look with pleasure on the face of time if you are so fortunate as to own a clock of beauty you know at least a little bit about. Life is good, tick by tock.


truepeers said...

Nice title,

I'm a bit confused about the Birks comment: Birks was at SE corner of Granville and Georgia, where London Drugs is now.

Guess you're not a fan of Picnic at Hanging Rock:)

Dag said...

Ye, I am wrong about Hastings st., but I refer to the brass-case clock on the sidewalk outside the store rather than the illuminated one atop the building. That's the missing one that people are said to have met under.

truepeers said...

I realize now that the clock started at Hastings and Granville,moved south, and then when Birks left Georgia and Granville it migrated back down to Hastings, on the opposite side from its original posting.

Dag said...

I was so confused about the location of the clock that I even went to the clock department in the drug store to ask for directions. I was told to come back late when the guy who knows things was finished with lunch.

I looked up Picnic at Hanging Rock. I think I now understand where does the time go.