by Dave Yanko
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
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
It was Galileo in the late 16th Century who first discovered the
timekeeping properties of the pendulum. But Britannica.com 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
"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
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
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).
"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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