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November 11, 2001
As we went through the biannual ritual of changing our clocks, I wondered about the process for the huge outdoor clocks on Oakland City Hall and the Tribune Tower.
“Either Quasimodo lives in the tower or there is a modern solid state brain that controls the clock,” quipped Kevin Binkert, the machinist who takes care of the Tribune clock. “In this case, it’s a modern solid state brain.” Quasimodo, you might recall, was the Hunchback of Notre Dame.
Binkert described the Tribune clock as a marriage of old and new. The four faces, the gear trains and the neon arms are the originals from 1915. In fact, neon was a novelty when the arms were installed; the clock was an advertisement for the new product. On the other hand (I couldn’t resist it), the computer brain that runs the clock was installed by Binkert when he got it running again after it had been stopped for 10 years.
“You could say the old clock had lost it’s mind.” Binkert is what newspaper reporters call quotable. “It had rotted away. The most rewarding thing for me was getting it going again. When the hands started moving, I was on the street checking it out and a guy told me I’d done a great thing for Oakland. It felt good. It makes people proud. It’s an important thing for the clock in the center of town to be on time.”
Since October 28, when we went off daylight saving time, three of the tower’s four clock faces have been on time. The fourth is still on daylight saving time. Binkert said that face isn’t running correctly because it needs some maintenance.
“There is a pigeon infestation,” he said. “Pigeons or wind can make it get off time. A big clock like that is harder to keep on time than a wrist watch.”
Each of the faces is an independent clock but they are all controlled by the computer brain. Binkert said originally a huge shaft connected all the clocks to a central mechanism.
“The clock is one of a kind,” he said. When he refurbished it, he had to figure it out as he went along without the benefit of drawings or anyone’s memory of how the mechanism worked.
– Brenda Payton writes for ANG newspapers.