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Beloved clock ticks again
Experts in electronics are a dime a dozen on Stanford University’s campus.
But finding someone to fix the university’s antique mechanical clock was a much tougher challenge.
The famed “Tower Clock” near the main quad fell silent this spring, a casualty of wear and water. Built in 1901 and bought by Jane Stanford, it has announced time to generations of students and faculty.
Today the clock can be heard again — striking at the hour, and chiming every 15 minutes — thanks to Kevin Binkert, a San Francisco-based machinist.
An analog person in a digital world, Binkert is almost as rare as the clock itself.
Three things make him the perfect campus clock-master. One is his expertise with a special type of computerized machine needed to rebuild the broken innards of the metal clock. Another is his sense of reverence, even awe, for creaky old timepieces. Finally, he relishes the detective work needed to learn what makes them tick.
“I am honored to be allowed to touch the thing,” said Binkert of the clock.
Arriving at Stanford during a period of rapid campus expansion that then-president David Starr Jordan
nicknamed “the stone age,” the clock was initially placed in the original Memorial Church steeple.
Such clocks were hugely popular throughout America at the time; it is estimated that thousands were erected in courthouses, churches, city halls and campuses between 1890 and 1920. The Stanford clock was made by the best: the Seth Thomas Clock Co. of Connecticut, a prolific company with a reputation for designing and producing some of the country’s most-renowned tower clocks, including the tower clock at Grand Central Station in New York.
But it has experienced a series of calamities. In the 1906 earthquake, it tumbled from its perch atop the tall steeple. It was moved to a modest wooden tower, which was later razed. From there, it went into storage and was virtually forgotten. The clock was salvaged and put on display in a new 100-foot-tall tower at its current site in 1983. In 1994, an enterprising engineering student succeeded in getting it to run on time.
Time took a huge toll. Moisture had caused corrosion. The teeth on its gears were worn. Most recently, a
paint job had jostled the clock, causing a lever to get wedged into another component and impairing the
Stanford found Binkert, the founder of Standard Metal Products machine shop, in the industrial South of
Market part of San Francisco. Self-taught in clock repair, Binkert had successfully restored the long-dead
clock atop the tower of the Oakland Tribune building.
“There are fewer and fewer of these things around,” said Binkert. Most of the nation’s tower clocks have perished when old buildings are renovated or demolished. “It is truly from another era.”
Because Seth Thomas is out of business, replacement parts couldn’t be simply reordered. Nor could they
be salvaged from similar clocks, because so few survive. They needed to be made from scratch.
And there were no operating instructions, just a few historical notes. For advice on a specific part, Binkert
visited an octogenarian clock-master in San Francisco, who offered his opinion over an afternoon glass of
Jim Beam whiskey.
“This is really a unique thing,” said Binkert. “It is handcrafted. Now computers are part of everything we do — even my toaster has a circuit board,” he said. “There is
nothing about this clock that needs any electricity or any connection to power.”
Off and on campus, its fans had mourned the silence of its big bronze bells.
“It is a really big historic landmark of Stanford,” said Kathleen Baldwin, a campus facilities manager. “When it stopped, we got a lot of calls. It’s important not just for its physical presence, but its sound, as well.
“When you hear the clock, you check your watch,” she said. “If people are having a meeting and hear that it is 12 noon, they often say, ‘It’s a good time to stop and get a bite to eat.’ Someone told me that he walks his dog on campus every morning and the clock told him whether to hurry up or not.”
The leaks have been fixed, so the clock is now dry. It is secured to prevent earthquake damage. Binkert
replaced many small parts and adjusted others.
This week, Binkert came to campus to get it running again. He climbed a tall ladder to inspect the huge
bells, then descended to move the hands. The chimes were coordinated; the strike mechanism was
properly positioned. The antique clock was synchronized with a cesium atomic clock in Denver, its time
announced by radio.
Right on schedule, the clock released a deep, thunderous bong.
“There are easier ways to keep time these days, no doubt,” Binkert conceded.
“But this is such a thing of beauty,” he said. “I am thrilled to be involved.”
– By Lisa M. Krieger, Mercury News