Travel Shot: The Mechanical Clock

The gentle whirring and the polite clicking sounds coming from the… contraption was fascinating. What is it, I wondered, as I walked around it. What were the ropes for, ropes that ascended to the ceiling? And the slowly moving wheels? And why was it cordoned off with a “Please do not touch” sign?

That July afternoon of 2009, I was at Salisbury Cathedral wondering what this contraption was all. A simple information plaque on one side enlightened me and I did a double take when I read it. This… contraption was a clock? A clock without a face? And that too 700 years old?

The Mechanical Clock. One of the stone weights can be seen hanging on the left, behind the clock. Note the ropes going out of the frame of this  photo—these are attached to a bell, which strike at the hour every hour.

I was standing before the oldest Mechanical Clock in Europe. There are even claims to this being the oldest working mechanical clock in the world. Dating back to 1386, this clock was re-discovered in the Cathedral in 1928 and restored back to working condition in 1956. Most of the parts of the clock are original as is its wrought iron frame.

A single-strike clock, i.e. it makes one strike for every hour of the day, the power to run it is supplied by two large stone weights. As the weights descend, ropes (which are attached to a bell) unwind from the wooden barrels. Before the weights reach the floor, they have to be wound back up again. For more technical details on the working of the clock, please click here.

Though the Salisbury Cathedral had many other attractions on offer—an impressive 400 feet tall spire and an original copy of the Magna Carta, among others—it is the simple (?) mechanical clock that remains with me after 3 years. A clock that works even today after so many centuries and is accurate to within 2 minutes.

Not bad for a 700-year old clock, eh? :-)

PS: For more photographs of Salisbury, please click here.

30 thoughts on “Travel Shot: The Mechanical Clock

    • Yes, Jaish. It can only tell the hour and the sound of the bell is really nice and deep. One that resonates for a while. I found it fascinating that the clock is so accurate and still working after all these centuries. :-)

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  1. very interesting, Sudha!! I would have loved to see this too.. as to it still working accurately, well, old machines which ran on simple principles worked much better for the reason that they were simple… easily worked, easily repaired.. unlike our gadgets of today which have to be used for a while and then thrown off… look at our sundials.. they still work!!! except that you have to go and see the time there… they dont ring and tell u the time :D

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    • Anu, a 2 month-old watch of mine is not working and its branded, expensive, etc. etc., made with a technology that rules the world today blah blah.

      In the light of the above the simplicity and accuracy of the Salisbury Cathedral’s mechanical clock, not to mention its age, just takes my breath away. And I’m pretty sure it will be working for centuries to come, as will our sundials. :-)

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    • There is no information on who made this clock, at least none that I came across. But there is information that it is one of the many mechanical clocks made across Europe in the 13th and 14 centuries. England has 3-4 of these clocks, though none as fine as this clock. For me the wonder is after restoration, it is working like it used to–this 700 year old clock !

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  2. Very interesting! Is it the same principle on which the Swiss cuckoo clocks work? Of course,they have battery operated ones also. Well I’ve found that old mechanisms stil work smoothly.For eg.,sewing machines, Your writng reminded me of “Hugo”..

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    • I really don’t know, Ilakshee. But thanks for giving me something to chew on. And talking of sewing machines, my mother still has her 40 year-old Singer sewing machine. It works well even today ! And Hugo … hmmm…. you’ve made me think. :-)

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  3. I wonder how the mind which imagined of such a machine would have been … How could they even visualize something which never existed before ! Anyway, any chance we can get that copy of Magna Carta for a book review ? :P

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    • That is the beauty of invention, of minds that seek to push the barrier, to constantly fiddle and research, but most of all, I think, is never to fear failure.

      As for the Magna Carta, I have an English translation of it, and you are most welcome to borrow it and review it. Fullto entertainment guaranteed ;-)

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  4. Not at all bad for a 700 year old clock :)

    One fact struck me about its striking the hour — people must have had a different parameter for measuring time. They weren’t running to catch a train at the precise minute or shut off the oven at the precise second. Also that things took time in hours — to travel, to cook, to do other things that take mere minutes today. Which is why they didn’t bother about the minute and the second, not because they couldn’t have done it. What do you feel?

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    • That’s a brilliant point you have brought up, Zephyr. And thank you so muchfor that. Most local churches/cathedrals in any city in Europe also doubled up as market places and centres for trade, for teaching… The bell was not so much for the church as it was for the local people to get up, start work, stop work, go to sleep, etc. All this was done by the hour. And the pace at that time was never as frenzied as it is today where even a nano second matters so much !

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  5. I tried reading the Wikipedia article to know “more” about how it works… ended up with cartoon eyes (u know the ones where they turn in their own sockets with the characteristic “boink boink” sound in the background …)

    But cartoons aside, its a FASCINATING clock. Makes you wonder where has all the creativity gone off to these days? Ppl in 13th century (or 14th, 15th and 16th for that matter) were busy creating Mechanical Clocks and scientists today are busy building weapons and bombs and God-Particle… would our successors 700 years in future look up to OUR inventions with THIS much wonder????

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    • Now you know why I provided the link to the Wikipedia article instead of attempting to explain the clock mechanism myself :-P

      Creativity has not disappeared, it never can. The expression has changed, the demands have changed and most importantly, our needs have changed.

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