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Good Time

by Dave Yanko

Ken Wilkie

Clockmaker Ken Wilkie wants to buy a new truck to replace his 1988 Dodge pickup. But he has a problem.

"I can't justify it because this thing just runs super,'' he says, pointing out the back window to the vehicle parked behind Wilkie's Antique Clocks, in Saskatoon.

Of course, the reason the truck runs so well is because Wilkie maintains it himself. And it figures that a guy who is use to repairing and fine tuning clock movements - a certified clockmaker who has great respect for the smooth operation of things mechanical - is not going to be driving a pile of rusty tin tailing a plume of blue smoke.

As one might expect, this fondness for precision, for exactitude, is a tradition among clockmakers. The history of horology, the study or making of clocks, is a series of developments and inventions propelled by a desire to measure time more accurately (and occasionally, by an appetite for the rewards that accrue to those able to do so). Many advances were made by overcoming environmental and material barriers, and Wilkie's shop on Avenue L and 22nd Street is full of examples.

Among the mantel clocks sitting near the front window of the converted stucco house is one of French manufacture whose boxy but intricate pendulum is visible through a glass window. The pendulum, explains Wilkie, includes two vials of mercury used to fight one of the biggest enemies of accuracy: temperature fluctuation.

"If it got really hot in the house, the pendulum would expand and the clock would slow down. But with these, the mercury would also expand (upwards in the vials) and compensate for that point of oscillation.''

The use of the pendulum in clockmaking was a watershed development in its day.

"They had old tower clocks back in the 14th Century,'' says Wilkie, adding they were usually made by blacksmiths. "But they never kept good time, or even kept running.

"Around 1670 or 1680 - that's when they came up with the metre-long pendulum. Before that, you were lucky to be within 15 minutes a day.''

It was Galileo in the late 16th Century who first discovered the timekeeping properties of the pendulum. But says it was Dutch astronomer and physicist Christiaan Huygens who 100 years later first applied these properties to clockmaking.

It turns out that one metre (in addition to being the distance light travels in a vacuum during 1/299,792,458th of a second) is the length of a pendulum required to make a clock tick at one-second intervals. Metric time. Who knew?

- courtesy Ken Wilkie
French mantel clock with mercury pendulum compensator.

"See that old English grandfather clock over there,'' says Wilkie, pointing to a beautifully-finished, 150-year-old clock flanked by two other grandfathers. "It's deadly accurate.''

Wilkie loves pendulum clocks; they're his specialty. He's a collector as well as a businessman. One of his prized possessions at home is a turn-of-the-century wall clock known as a "jeweler's regulator".

Wilkie grabs a photograph of the seven-foot, Waterbury regulator from a prominent spot on the wall near an oversized fish hook and a photograph of his yellow, 1957 Cadillac. Placing it on the counter, he explains regulators were used by jewelers as reference tools to set the time on clocks and watches they repaired. And because they were so used, they required no chimes - a feature whose advantage becomes abundantly apparent at 11 a.m. in an antique clock shop.

- courtesy Ken Wilkie
An Arthur Pequegnat Clock Company "regulator".

Wilkie says his Waterbury employs a "Harrison gridiron" pendulum as a temperature compensator. The Harrison system uses the different expansion rates of steel and brass rods to keep the length of the pendulum and going rate of the clock even at all temperatures. The Harrison raised timepiece accuracy to one second per month.

John Harrison, a British carpenter and clockmaker with little formal education, shocked the scientific community in the 18th Century when he won the Longitude Prize, offered by British Parliament, for developing a timepiece that could be used to accurately calculate longitude at sea. This was no trifling accomplishment when you consider the range of humidity, temperature and movement encountered by ocean-going vessels.

The prize, a then-whopping 20,000 pounds, was awarded to him for a series of four chronometers (precision timepieces) he developed. Each was more accurate than the very best, land-based, pendulum-driven timepiece available when the award was announced in 1714, and all met parliament's stringent criterion of being able to keep time to within three seconds a day. Harrison's best chronometer was accurate to within a third of a second per day - not quite the one-millionth-of-a-second-per-year standard achieved by today's atomic clocks, but truly awesome in the 1700s.

Asked for an estimated value of his prized jeweler's regulator, Wilkie fetches a Waterbury guide from the back office and thumbs through it until he finds his model. When it was manufactured in United States in 1912, it sold for USD $133.50 - a hefty price in those days, he says. Today, it's valued at $6,000 ($8,500 Cdn).

Deadly accurate.

"But I don't want to sell that clock,'' says Wilkie. "You give me 10 grand and I won't sell it.''

The dozens of timepieces in Wilkie's shop range from "Napoleon hat" and black-marble mantel clocks to wall and floor pendulum clocks. The oldest is an ornate Boulle clock, made in France in the 18th Century. The clocks range in price from $100 into the thousands.

Every clock Wilkie buys must be complete in every aspect. He reconditions the movement of each timepiece he purchases, whether or not it's operating well. When the woodwork requires reconditioning, the clock is sent to a respected Saskatoon furniture maker.

Among his favorite pendulum clocks for buying, selling and trading are ones made by the Arthur Pequegnat Clock Company, of Kitchener, ON., and American pendulum clocks made by the Seth Thomas company of Plymouth Hollow, CT. Pequegnat was a Swiss clockmaker who brought his trade to Canada in 1874 and swiftly built a reputation as a maker of quality timepieces. The Seth Thomas company, established in 1813, is also well represented at Wilkie's. Both companies, not surprisingly, made jeweler's regulators.

- courtesy Ken Wilkie
French marble mantel clock.

After 20 years in the business, collectors now account for the majority of Wilkie's clientele. That's because he's most interested in collecting and selling clocks he admires. And his tastes have become refined over the years.

"This stuff isn't easy to find,'' he says.

And occasionally, as with the old Dodge truck out back, it's not easy to part with, either.

For a nice, concise history of timekeeping check out the National Insitute of Standards and Technology's A Walk Through Time.

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