James Library Clock Tower


Tower clocks have long been a source of municipal pride. As early as the fourteenth century, Italian cities used communal budgets to build and to maintain clocks. A city’s tower became a proud symbol of orderly government.

Tower clocks were built in America from the beginning of the eighteenth century. With movements laboriously crafted by blacksmiths, this clock told local time for their cities before the days of standard time zones. During these early times when much of America was rural, most citizens could not depend upon a tower clock whose bells were audible only within city or town limits. Instead, they would have used the sun to keep track of time.

Our Clock

The Hotchkiss tower clock division of the Seth Thomas Clock Company produced our Museum’s clock. The movement, dial, hands, and wire cords for the weights were ordered from a factory catalog, while the bell and weights were obtained elsewhere. Local craftsmen put the clock together. Before its function was automated in 1990, the clock was wound manually once a week.

By 1899, when this clock was installed, a standard time had been in common use for about sixteen years. This country’s railroad system, with its need to maintain schedules and reduce collisions, had spearheaded the movement to replace local time with the standardized time zones we use today.

Certainly, rail travelers passing behind the James Library building would have been impressed by the clock tower that symbolized the munificence of the building’s benefactor, D. Willis James.

The Many Aspects of Our Clock

movementThe 1899 Seth Thomas clock movement. Wire cords running upward from the movement pass over pulleys to massive weights in a shaft in the tower wall. These weights power the clock and the bell “strike.”

The silver-colored electric drill motors were added in 1990 to automate the winding of the movement and strike. A special control circuit was designed to prevent the drive motors from creating a drag on the clock.

nameDetail of the faceplate that can be seen affixed to the frame of the clock in the photo to the left.

We believe that Dec. 6th, 1899 is the date of installation, while 1030 may be a serial number. According to the Madison Eagle the clock first struck the hour on Saturday, Dec. 16th, 1899.

escapmntThe escapement (an upside-down V-shaped lever visible near the center of the photo) puts the “tick tock” into a clock. Controlled by the continuous swaying of the pendulum, the escapement controls the rotation of the gears and enables the clock to keep accurate time.

setdialsThe central dial is the time wheel. It allows the custodian of the clock to set the position of the hands on the clock dial. Above it is a smaller dial that measures the “tick-tocks” per minute. The wooden shaft of the pendulum is visible on the right.

gearsThe vertical shaft in the center of the photograph connects the clock movement (above) to the beveled gear assembly on the floor. These gears convert the rotation of the vertical clock shaft into rotation of the horizontal shafts that turn the hands on the two exterior clock dials.

bellThis 1800-pound bell, cast in 1899 by the Meneely Bell Company of Troy, New York, was procured independently of the movement. Poised to the right, at the flare of the bell’s mouth, is the hammer. A few minutes prior to striking, the hammer draws back in readiness. Released on the hour, it falls by gravity to strike the bell, then recoils slightly so as not to deaden the sound.

overlaySuperimposed on the Museum’s tower, an illustration from a late 19th-century Seth Thomas Clock Company catalog shows the arrangement of the clock movement and bell.