Remarkably, electric clocks predated home wiring

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If you told most Americans living today that at one time people had to actually wind their clocks and watches by hand, they’d probably raise an eyebrow in disbelief. Electric clocks and battery powered quartz watches are just about all that can be found today, as has been the case for decades.

The comforting tick-tock of a timepiece is heard no more, except in museums and private collections. Of course those of us of a certain age well remember mechanical timepieces, although most of us would be surprised to learn just how early the electric clock was invented.

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A rural newspaper in Massachusetts, the Ploughman, ran the following in its issue of June 18, 1847.

“Electric Clock — The clock is enclosed in a neat oak case, about 4 and a half feet in height and 1 foot 4 inches wide. Its face is of ample dimensions, very plain, and is furnished with second, minute, and hour hands.

“The pendulum is the same length as an ordinary eight-day clock. Here, the analogy ceases. True, there are some wheels and pinions, but these are few in number and do their work in a manner totally different from those in other clocks. The electric clock has neither weight nor spring to keep it in motion, and never requires winding.”

The story goes on to describe how the clock “… derive(s) its power of continuous motion” and launches into a detailed account of the coils, wires and permanent magnets that made up the inner workings of the clock — an account that was probably largely unintelligible to most Ploughman readers.

Power source

But then comes the part that I find fascinating, the description of the galvanic battery used to power the clock.

“Leaving the clock, we observe two copper wires, the ends of which are in contact with those within the case. Continuing their course along the wall, these wires pass out of doors, descend below the surface of the earth, and, at a short distance from the house, are connected, the one with a few bushels of coke and the other with five or six plates of zinc.

“These materials are buried in a hole in the earth, about 4 feet square, and 5 feet deep, the coke being placed at the bottom with a layer of earth above it, and then the zinc plates are laid thereon, and the whole covered up, thus forming a galvanic battery.

“Here consists the power which imparts motion to the clock; a current of electricity being induced by the coke and zinc, which, although of low intensity, is unlimited in quantity, its source being the earth itself.

“The pendulum being set in motion and the electrical current established, a beautiful arrangement of simple mechanism comes into operation, by which the circuit is broken and renewed at each alternate oscillation. Thus we obtain a time measurer of extraordinary accuracy that we believe will bear comparison with the best constructed chronometer.”

Inventor

The man behind the electric clock was Alexander Bain. born October, 1811, in Watten, a tiny village in the very northeastern tip of Scotland. Bain’s father was a small farmer with 13 kids and Alexander was apprenticed to a clockmaker in nearby Wick at a young age.

In 1837, he turned up in London, where he opened his own shop and attended lectures at the Polytechnic Institute. Already keenly interested in electricity, Bain worked, not only on his electric clock, but on electric telegraphy as well.

Badly in need of financial backing for his inventions, he met Sir Charles Wheatstone, an older scientist and famous inventor (I used a Wheatstone bridge to find faults in telephone lines many years ago).

Bain showed his clock model to Wheatstone, who told him the idea would never work. Before long, Wheatstone demonstrated an electric clock to the Royal Society as his own invention.

Fortunately, Bain had already filed for a patent on the thing and, after some controversy, got ten thousand pounds and a job as manager of the Electric Telegraph Company.

Other accomplishments

Over the years, Bain not only improved his electric clock, but he developed a method of controlling trains by telegraph signals. He experimented with an electric facsimile machine, but never got the bugs out of it.

He was an early proponent of using punched paper tape to send and receive messages over telegraph lines, and traveled to the U.S. where he was issued several patents for improvements in electrical telegraphy.

Bain made a lot of money from his inventions, but because of a string of poor investments, he ended up broke. In 1873 some of his prominent friends managed to get him a government pension of eighty pounds per year, which kept him until his death on Jan. 2, 1877, near Glasgow, Scotland.

Alexander Bain is considered the father of the electric clock and even has a building and a pub named for him. The main building of British Telecom in Glasgow is called the Alexander Bain House, and a pub in Wick, where the inventor served his apprenticeship as a clockmaker, is named the Alexander Bain.

Amazing

So, much to my surprise, long before homes were wired for electricity, electric clocks were available. Of course, a galvanic battery in a hole in the back yard isn’t quite as handy as a couple of AA cells from the local convenience store.

(Send suggestions, comments or questions to Sam Moore in care of Farm and Dairy, P.O. Box 38, Salem, OH 44460-0038; or via e-mail to: editorial@farmanddairy.com.)

About the Author

Sam Moore grew up on a family farm in Western Pennsylvania during the late 1930s and the 1940s. Although he left the farm in 1953, it never left him. He now lives near Salem, where he tinkers with a few old tractors, collects old farm literature, and writes about old machinery, farming practices and personal experiences for Farm and Dairy, as well as Farm Collector and Rural Heritage magazines. He has published one book about farm machinery, titled Implements for Farming with Horses and Mules. More Stories by Sam Moore

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