Return to Golden Age
Chicago Tribune, November 28, 1886
Tower clocks were probably first invented by somebody who owned a Waterbury watch1 and wanted a clock to regulate it by. Chicago has six first-class tower clocks, and has towers for about thirty more if anybody cared to put them in. But six are enough. Nearly everybody in Chicago owns a watch—why shouldn’t he, indeed, when storekeepers are giving them away? “A suit of clothes, a hat, a pair of shoes, two shirts, a necktie, a pair of socks, and a nickel-plasted watch, all for steen dollars”—who would be naked or watchless with such offers going a-begging? The tower clocks have their uses, nevertheless. They enable one to tell the time accurately, which is one great point. The trouble with a watch is that it is always five to twenty minutes off, and takes a “ghoulish glee” in making its owner miss his train.
The Board of Trade clock is the largest and strongest clock in the United States and probably in the world. Philadelphia has been figuring for years on getting a clock for her new city-hall that will be big enough to take the shine out of Chicago’s Board of Trade clock, but the probabilities are that she would be too big for a city like Philadelphia to undertake—and coming within ten years of the Centennial Exposition it would be sort of crowding things, anyhow. The Board of Trade clock proper is much bigger than there is any call for. Its work is to carry the hands on the four eleven-foot dials of the tower on one six-foot dial in the Exchange Hall, and on one thirty-inch dial in the delivery room. But its dial-operating power is practically unlimited. It could carry the hands on 100 dials, each twenty-five feet in diameter, just as easy as on the four eleven-foot dials—so the maker says. According to the regular tower-clock schedule, dials should be at least one-foot in diameter for every ten feet of elevation in order to look well and show plainly. The Board of Trade clock should therefore have twenty-five foot dials instead of eleven. With this dial the time could be easily noted a mile off.
But tower architects and tower clockmakers are never able to agree. “Give us a tower wide enough for a decent dial-plate,” says the clockmaker to the architect; “it would spoil the beauty of the architecture and maybe endanger the stability of the building.” This is why the Board of Trade clock is too big for its shelf and is wasting its strength in the tower.
North-Siders have two tower clocks—one at Clark and Division streets, over the North Chicago City Railroad’s offices, and the other at the Northwestern Depot. The street-car company’s clock is probably intended for the use of the street-car conductors and drivers—when it gets around to 1 next morning they know that their day’s work is done, and that several hours must elapse before they have to go on duty again. If it wasn’t for that clock they might know no better than to work all night. What is the matter with Mr. Holmes and Mr. Cregier that they do not also put put tower clocks?
The Wells street clock is useful to let one know when he is too late for his train, so that he need not break his neck down the stairs in a vain endeavor to be in time. Of course it is also useful to let hi know if he has time to warm himself in an adjacent groggery before the train starts, and as trains are started by tower-clock time there is no reason for him making a mistake and getting left. It seems strange that the saloonkeeper around the railroad depots do not put up notices similar in those in saloons adjacent to the theatres, which announce that an electric bell will ring three minutes before the current rises. By this plan the fellows who go out to change their breath between the acts are able to stumble back into their places ten minutes after the curtain rises and just as people have settled down to enjoy the play. Why not, therefore, have notices in railroad saloons as follows:
- THIS ELECTRIC BELL WILL RING THREE MINUTES BEFORE THE OSHKOSH TRAIN STARTS.
The tower clock at Polk Street Depot has four nine-inch dials and a five-foot dial. The five-foot dial is inside. This clock is said not to have altered a second since it was put up, and probably the same is practically true of all the tower clocks in the city. During the first few months the Board of Trade clock got off time ny one-third of a second and nearly broke its maker’s heart, though none of the Board of Trade people ever discovered the dreadful discrepancy. At present it has electrical connection with Dearborn Observatory, and cannot play any pranks. Were it to get a second out of the way Prof. Colbert would probably be satisfied to have the Anarchists gut the building and stick a ton of dynamite in the clock and blow it to smithereens. A clock that knows no better than to slip up a second in a couple of years deserves no better fate.
The Rock Island Railroad’s tower clock used to be the boss tower clock of the city, but at present it is so crowded by new sky-scraping buildings and overshadowed by the big Board of Trade clock that it is almost ashamed to show its face. But it is a first-class clock, nevertheless; and when the company raises the building by two stories and erects a tower on each end, as it contemplates doing, the clock will have eight big new dials, of which any clock in the world might be proud.
The tower on Seipp’s Brewery, near the foot of Twenty-third street, is another valuable piece of mechanism. People who live in that vicinity—for that is a residence district—have no call for clocks in their houses; and the husband who gets home at 4 a.m. and wants to make his wife believe it is not yet midnight has no show, for she is sure to pull back the window-curtains and look what time is by “Seipp’s Tower.” Many wise husbands have moved the bedroom to the other side of the house for that very reason.
All of these clocks, except that on the Board of Trade, have dials in whole plates; the dials on the Board of Trade clock are each i four sections. The dial plates were too big, it was thought, to be furnished in single sections. The joints in the plate are seen so plainly at night that one may mistake them for the hands. The clock is so defective in this respect that the maker has decided to put in new all-of-a-piece dials at his own expense as soon as practicable. The glass on the Rock Island clock is American-made; on the others imported French glass is used. It is alleged that the glass-makers of this country cannot make as perfect plate-glate suitable for large clocks as foreign manufacturers. What has Pittsburg, Pa., and Ottawa, Ill., to say to this?
Chicago Tribune February 23, 1896
The town clock of Chicago’s village days has multiplied with the growth into city estate until today its exceeding broad-faced, cloud-perched descendants number scores. And these tower-dwelling descendants have become absolutely reprehensible, according to the condemnation which attaches to two-facedness; indeed more, for some of these great latter-day time-tellers are even four and in some cases six faced. But Chicago blesses them for all four or six of the faces tell the same story—which pity it is, cannot be said of multi-faced people.
For broad, open countenances—countenances with an expanse of ten feet or more—the mammoth tower clocks of Chicago race unto themselves. True they are plain, but they are among the most popular faces in town. To their credit stands the fact that for them familiarity seldom breeds contempt. They tell their round if eventless story with an accuracy that causes much flattering comment. The steady gesturing of their ten feet hands seldom becomes jesting. Unlike the mechanism human and mechanical all about and beneath them these tower clocks have no need for rest. The passing of days, weeks, months, and years for them means no need for cessation from toll. They might, if they could, laugh at the strongest mortal or mightiest engine, both of which must needs a rest a big part of every four and twenty hours. “Wind us up once a week—that’s all!” is the simple request of these solemn-faced measurers of time.
How the Wheels Go Round.
Quite interesting is a look at the vitals of these high-placed sentinels of time in Chicago. The term ponderous is applicable to their machinery when compared to that of the household clock from which it differs in nearly every respect. The clock movement of one of these big tower clocks in the city consists of three combinations or systems of mechanisms:
- 1. Keeping the time
2. To move the hands
3. To announce the hours
All three systems of machinery are controlled by the time-keeping mechanism, the work of which cannot, however, be interfered with by the disabling of either or both of the other two systems. The necessity for their separate system for moving the hands is instanced at times in winter when the great hands outside the clock’s face become clogged with snow and ice, or are battled to a standstill by Chicago’s wild lake breezes. The separate system for striking the hours becomes necessary on account of the great force required which great separate force is, however, by a nicely adjusted connection with the time-measuring machinery controlled by the latter.
This combined three-system movement stands in a sold cast iron bed frame eleven feet long, five feet wide, and eight feet high. The movement has a pendulum fourteen feet long, which is attached a ball of iron weighing 550 pounds. This pendulum swings thirty times to the minute while that of the average house clock swings 140 times a minute. The clock is run by weight power. The main wheels of the movement are forty inches in diameter. The machinery of the time-keeping system follows closely that of the ordinary good make of house clocks. That part controlling the hands has its principal feature a cast iron drum twenty-four inches in diameter with groves for catching the wire cable that holds the weights. This cable is six strands of finest piano wire, seven wires to a strand, and the cable is 300 feet long. Once a week this cable is wound up with a key two feet long, and is so geared that one man does the winding easily.
Although the mechanism of the time system proper is similar to that of ordinary clocks, yet the dimensions of its four general parts is interesting. The main wheel is three feet and a half in diameter, the second wheel two feet in diameter. It has an arm four feet long at either end of which is attached a fan for relieving the jar of the machinery. The striking works consist of one main striking wheel three and a half feet in diameter, with lever attached that lifts the hammer that strikes the bell; also one second striking wheel that operates the striking rack and count wheel; and one fly shaft with fans attached to regulate the speed of the striking. The striking train is run by wire cables, as the time mechanism. In the plain hour clock only one hammer is used, such as the so-called Westminster chimes, four hammers are used in addition to the hour hammer.
The separate parts in these tower clocks number 135 not counting pins or screws.
Here’s a Fine Clock.
Chicago has one of the greatest and in every way most magnificent quarter-striking Westminster chime tower clocks that there is in the United States. It is in the tower of the St. Francis German Catholic Church, Twelfth street. The four ten-foot dials are 180 feet from the street and are automatically illuminating, the regular movement being supplemented with a mechanism by which the dials become illuminated at nightfall and the light closed off at daybreak. Every fifteen minutes there peals forth a chime from five great bells of considerable melody. This clock was built six years ago at a cost of between $5,000 and $6,000. These Westminster chime attachments for tower clocks vary from 2,850 to 11,000 pounds.
The largest tower clock that Chicago ever had was the Board of Trade timer (right), with four out-of-door dials, each ten feet and a half wide. It was bought from exhibits at the Centennial Exposition, ’76 although not bought until 1885. Additional to the four massive outside dials, it also had two others down below, one in exchange hall, and another in the delivery room, the latter dial being about 400 feet from the clock movement. Last year when the tower was taken down as a matter of safety the clock was considered too large to replace, and, with its 4,500 pound bell, was consigned to the lumber room. It cost $5,000.
In many instances the owners of these tower clocks—those on business blocks—have made sure of getting no inconsiderable amount of advertising by having the letters of their name or company printed upon the dial, in place of the numerals. But the majority of the dials show the owners appreciate the advertising, which is really considerable, coming from the plain-faced clock is enough for them. The eight-foot dial is a popular size for these clocks in Chicago.
Left to Right: Dearborn Station, Grand Central Station, Central Station, Rock Island Station
The second largest clock in the world is now building for the new city hall at Minneapolis. It will have a dial 22 feet 8 inches in diameter. Until this work is accomplished the San Francisco Chronicle clock, put up almost five years ago, and having 16½-foot dials, holds the belt for America. Chicago’s largest time-piece is that in the tower of the Grand Central Railway Station. Its dials are 13½ feet across. The Polk Street Depot clock is a 10-foot fial; so is the Rock Island. The Illinois Central’s is 8 feet. On a 16-foot dial the numerals are 2 feet and 4 inches long; on a 10-foot, 18 inches long; and on a 5-foot they are 9.
People have been heard wondering whether these tower clocks with more than one dial required “a clock” to each dial. No. One such complete movement as that described suffices for any number of dials. The shaft that turns the hands is a sold one running from the clock’s movement to the dial-room., where it is connected with a tower center, consisting of four bevel wheels operated by one on top that moves the four simultaneously. These four move the hands. A first-class tower clock should not vary more than five to ten seconds a month.
ST. FRANCIS GERMAN CATHOLIC CHURCH TOWER CLOCK
Chicago Tribune, June 9, 1896
Today was set apart some time ago for the presentation to St. Francis’ German Catholic Church at Newberry avenue and Twelfth street (813 W. Roosevelt Rd.), of a set of genuine Westminster chimes, the only ones in the Western country. Last December Adam W. Jaeger broached the matter to some of his fellow-countrymen. The result was an organization as follows: President, Peter Schneider; Vice-Presidents, Joseph Kilburg, HenryBrummel, Michael Thomatz; Recording Secretary, John Reuter; Financial Secretary, Adam W. Jaeger; Treasurer, John K. Niles. Several other gentlemen were added to the committee to arrange the purchase of the chimes. These gentlemen soon raised the necessary funds for the chimes. The bells will toll four notes for the quarter-hour, twelve for the three-quartersm and sixteen for the hour. The great bell weighing 4,500 pounds, will declare the time. The chimes cam be released from the clock at night if so desired.
Chicago Tribune, February 16, 1904
Fire destroyed the Roman Catholic church of St. Francis of Assisium, Twelfth street and Newberry avenue, yesterday afternoon. The building, one of the oldest ion the west side, was valued at $85,000. A number of adjoining structures were damaged by fire and water.
Mrs. Theresa Thiele, mother of the pastor, was in the church when the fire started. She is blind and infirm, and was helpless. When she was missed two neighbors rushed into the building and found her unconscious. She was soon revived. A panic in the parish school across the street was averted by the coolness of the teachers, who marched 540 pupils into the street.
Fire Starts in the Belfry.
The fire started in the church belfry and was caused, it is believed, by friction in the machinery operating the tower clock. All the nearby engines were out when the alarm was sent in and it was fifteen minutes before a fireman reached the church.
By that time the steeple was a roaring furnace. First the big church bells went crashing down and the tower itself collapsed.
The church was founded in 1853 by German Catholics who lived in the vicinity of Twelfth and Halsted streets. A frame structure was built on the present site of the church and was used until 1866, when the building that was burned yesterday was erected.
THE PROPOSED CARSON, PIRIE & SCOTT CLOCK
Proposed 1906 drawing of a clock to be built and placed on the Carson, Pirie, Scott building.
THE MARSHALL FIELD CLOCKS
The original clock as shown in 1904 on the Singer Building II (1878-1905).
Chicago Tribune, November 24, 1897
Commissioner McGann has called the attention of the Law department to the complaint filed in his office by Alderman Coughlin against the large clock being erected in front of Marshall Field & Co.’s store at State and Washington streets. Commissioner McGann requests the Law department to supply him with an opinion as to whether or not there is anything in the city ordinances forbidding the hanging of a heavy iron clock from the second story of a building. The clock which is causing the trouble is a large iron one, weighing about 500 pounds. It extends over the sidewalk about nine feet.
Chicago Tribune, November 26, 1897
The immense clock, with four great dials, which has been erected at the corner of Marshall Field & Co.’s building at Washington and State streets is attracting much attention. It is almost cubical and is hung from the cornice at the second story by ornamental iron work. Projecting as it does, several feet clear of the building, it will be very conspicuous, especially at night when it is lighted from within. There is no scarcity of timekeepers along the busy thoroughfare.
Chicago Tribune, September 24, 1907
Commissioner of Public Works Hanberg yesterday stopped the erection of two clocks projecting over the sidewalk on the Marshall Field & Co, building. A protest was at once made on the ground that the council had passed permits for them, but the commissioner held that they came under the same head as projecting signs. He also notified Spalding & Co., Lewy Bros. and J. Florsheim to remove their clocks within five days.
Chicago Tribune, September 26, 1907
The decree against public clocks on State street was revoked by Commissioner of Public Works John Hanberg yesterday, following a conference with representatives of Marshall Field & Co. Work on the erection of the clocks had been stopped by Commissioner Hanberg on Monday on the ground that they could only be classed as projecting advertising signs. Representatives of Field & Co. agreed to omit advertising features from their clocks and the work was allowed to proceed.
Another note, no clock was installed on State and Randolph (built in 1902) until the new State and Washington building was completed in 1907. It was at this time that two new clocks were installed on the corners. That has been confirmed by the controversy discussed in the Tribune articles. The original clock remained on the Singer Building II until it was torn down in 1905.
The clocks were designed by Pierce Anderson in 1906 and built by A. E. Coleman Company in 1907.
BOARD OF TRADE II CLOCK
Architects John A. Holabird and John Wellborn Root Jr. designed this conventional clock (below) clock and gave it a prominent position above Chicago’s financial district. It rests on on the peak of the building’s nine-story facade, below the relief structure of an eagle and between an Indian holding a bag of corn and a bearded figure bearing a sheaf of grain.The group pays tribute to the history of grain agriculture as well as to the role timing plays in making millionaires or paupers out of helping commodities traders.
GIANT CLOCK SET BACK; DAYLIGHT TIME ENDS
Leonard Venturono and Edward Hoyer pushing- back hands of mammoth timepiece on Board of Trade building. Chicago returned to standard time at 2 o’clock this morning.
September 30, 1934.
1 Waterbury Watch (1877-1898) quickly fell into bankruptcy due to poor sales techniques, where jobbers and salesmen gave away much of the products as loss leaders with little regard to the company’s future, thereby cheapening the products’ perceived value.