Courtesy of the Vancouver Public Library and the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.
Our Victorian forefathers were the ones for strange mechanical devices but surprisingly enough, even they did not ascend to the dizzy heights of a Steam Clock. We have seen or heard of Steam Radios, Gramophones, Sheep Shearing machines and even Kitchens at Traction Engine Rallies, but never a Steam Clockand we are not likely to, either. The only Steam Clock in the world is a recent innovation and , is located at the corner of Cambie and Water Streets in the old Granville Townsite area, known as Gastown, in Vancouver, B.C., Canada. It was designed and built as a feature of the newly rehabilitated district by a local horologist and sculptor, Raymond L. Saunders, who collects old clocks and watches as a hobby he has around 300 of them.
In the area of Gastown, the Central Heat Distribution Plant provides a continuous supply of steam to various properties in the vicinity for heating purposes and an existing vent from their underground main was harnessed to provide the power for the clock. This vent would otherwise have been an eyesore or inconvenience when the rehabilitation project was completed and the question was what to do with it? Various ideas were put forward and the clock was an idea of Vancouver City Councillor. It was this which finally came to fruition, but not without many problems having to be overcome.
Raymond Saunders had to turn to Great Britain for assistance with the clock's mechanism and this was built for him by Gillett and Johnston of Croydon from an 1875 vintage design and has a pin wheel escapement which drives a 42-pound gold plated pendulum on a hickory shaft. Gillett and Johnston previously had connections with Canada as they supplied the mechanism and carillon for the Parliament Building Peace Tower Clock in Ottowa.
Three single cylinder vertical steam engines (one duty, two standby) were supplied by Stuart Turner, Reading, and were specially modified for this somewhat arduous duty to minimise maintenance as, naturally, the engine has to run 24 hours a day. A special 'plastic' piston and slide valve have been fitted to the engines and all moving parts have special sealed bearings. The steam engine is used to power a vertical chain drive which is loaded with steel ball weights. About every five minutes one weight rolls off the chain on one side, across a track at the bottom and is carried back up to the top by a chain on the other side, driven by the little Stuart Turner engine, thus providing an interesting spectacle for observers whilst also giving controlled motion under gravity to the clock's mechanism.
The clock itself is designed in the Edwardian style, weighs over two tons and stands some 16 feet high. It has 'see through' smoked glass bullet-proof side panels so the mechanism can be seen by curious onlookers and the four clock dials are highlighted by handmade enamelled copper dogwood flowers. The opalescent dials, which glow at night, are surrounded by a 24 carat gold plated frame. The basic construction is bronze and of necessity, because the area on which it is situated is filled in land, special arrangements had to be made to ensure external vibrations could not interfere with the working of the clock. Five whistles are mounted on top of the clock, one in each corner and one in the centre, and these are controlled by pins on a drum, similar to a barrel organ mechanism. These play the Westminster chimes every quarter of an hour on four of the whistles, by means of small switches and solenoid valves, whilst the large central whistle sounds once, on the hour. This fine chime whistle once graced the paddle steamer 'Naramata' which cruised the interior lakes in British Columbia in days gone by. If the wind is in the right direction, every hour one can get a small shower of warm rain from the clock as it goes through its cycle and many visitors delight in this. During the hours of darkness, the whistles are silenced so as not to disturb the local residents. Four bronze plaques form part of the base and these record details of the clock's inception, dedication and the public subscription which paid for it. The whistle playing mechanism is located behind these plaques.
Why has a project like this not been tackled before? Everyone, even our Victorian ancestors, said that steam and clocks don't mix and it was not until 1974, when Jon Ellis of the Vancouver City Council's Gastown Special Projects Committee combined with Ray Saunders, the clock's builder and the Gastown Merchants and Gastown Lions Club, that the project got underway. At that time, Ray Saunders was a clock and watch repairer as well as a creative metal sculptor and he didn't know Steam and Clocks don't mix so he said he'd tackle this project. He subsequently achieved the well-nigh impossible by actually constructing this unique Steam Clock which is now a big tourist draw as well as being a feature which has given him a new name for his business, a trademark and worldwide fame.
Drawing up the plans, obtaining the parts and the manufacture of the structure took some two years and the clock was first put together in Saunders' workshop which had to be specially modified to take the tall structure. It was erected on site inside a construction 'cube' in a continuous working 'day' of 28 hours by Saunders and his assistants in order to meet the contract deadline of 24th September, 1977. The mechanism was initially electrically driven, finally going fully 'On Steam' in July, 1978 although the whistles have been on steam right from the start. The total cost was in the order of 57,000 dollars. Although this seems a lot and it is well over the initial estimate of 25,000 dollars for a modern day sculpture which is useful in masking the steam vent beautiful and a great tourist attraction, it is a relatively cheap price to pay for such a magnificent object. The citizens of Vancouver can be, and are, justifiably proud of their unique time piece which is a remarkable achievement both in the horological field and from an engineering aspect as well. In Vancouver they no longer say to their children, 'The mouse ran up the clock, the clock struck one', as there it toots and the ferries on the nearby Burrard Inlet hoot back.
Information for this article has been extracted from the following Canadian papers and magazines: Vancouver Province, Vancouver Sun and Western Living, to whom thanks are extended.