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Minute Man 

Horologist Pat Boyden turns back the clocks -- literally

Published October 29, 2003 at 9:46 p.m.

Resetting your clocks after Daylight Saving Time isn't much of a chore in today's wired world. If you're like most people, you probably pushed a few buttons on your digital clock this past weekend; the timers on most computers and cell phones reset themselves. It's easy to forget that mechanical clocks -- with their weights, gears and pendulums -- still exist.

But they do, and someone has to adjust them when the time change rolls around. This can be a difficult task, especially if the clock in question sits in the tower of the University of Vermont's Ira Allen Chapel, perched atop 120 rickety wooden stairs. Someone has to climb up there and tinker with it. For the past 23 years, that someone has been Pat Boyden.

Boyden is an horologist -- a fancy name for clockmaker. He owns the Green Mountain Clock Shop in Williston, where he makes, repairs and sells clocks of all kinds. He's also responsible for servicing dozens of larger timepieces, such as the tower clocks in Montgomery, East Ryegate, Chelsea and Montpelier. Last Saturday, I went with him on his bi-annual trip to the top of Ira Allen Chapel, where he turned back time on the largest clock in the state. I also visited his workshop and learned why, in the digital age, keeping time is still an esoteric art.

You might think that clock making, dependent as it is on physics, machinery and engineering, would be pure science. But Webster's New World Dictionary defines horology as "the science or art of measuring time or making timepieces." The art part has something to do with looks. Morbier grandfather clocks, for example, aren't worth $10,000 because the gears are made of gold; they are beautifully designed.

But it's not just aesthetics that elevates horology to an art form -- there's the philosophical aspect as well. Horologists measure time, right? But what is time? Even St. Augustine, renowned philosopher and sage, couldn't define it. "I know what time is," said Auggie, "but if someone asks me, I cannot tell him." Creating and maintaining instruments to measure something so maddeningly intangible requires patience, ingenuity and passion.

Sometimes, it also requires courage. That quality comes to mind as I watch Boyden tromp fearlessly up the narrow steps in the Ira Allen tower. Even if you've visited the chapel, you've probably never seen these stairs, located behind a locked door at the top of the majestic staircase in the entryway. Boyden scoffs at my nervousness. This is the Cadillac of Vermont's clock towers, he says, despite the fact that the railings wobble and the stairs tremble with every footfall. "This is one of the nicer ones, really," he adds. "Some-times it's just boards nailed up on the side of a wall."

Today I'm one of five people climbing inside. Boyden's daughter and son-in-law have joined us, along with Boyden's friend Lynn Lang, an horologist who hopes to build a gravity-escapement clock similar to this one. We're all here out of curiosity, but Boyden also needs a hand; because of a recent operation, the 59-year-old is under strict orders not to strain himself. You'd never know it, though, the way he takes the stairs.

Near the top, we come to another locked door. This is the first clock room. A 14-foot, 300-plus-pound pendulum dangles from a hole in the ceiling, undulating back and forth. A tall wooden frame sits in front of it laden with pulleys, chains and two sets of weights. One set powers the clock. The other once powered the bell, which is no longer in use; a digitized carillon now sounds the hour through speakers mounted above the bell. The carillon, and the electric motor that raises the clock's weights every six to eight hours, are its only electric elements.

The mechanical body of the clock is one more flight up. The giant metal machine occupies most of the 10-by-15-foot space. Some of the brass gears measure a foot or more in diameter. The base is painted a deep green, with thin black and orange trim -- remarkably detailed for something that's only seen twice a year, and then only by the people who maintain it.

When approaching the clock, you have to duck beneath one of the four long shafts that radiate from the center. These control the clock faces, one on each side of the building. A smaller face mounted on the base shows the time that's displayed outside. When Boyden changes the time, he'll turn one of the shafts, and the hands on the small display will move backwards.

But before he turns back the clock, Boyden has to shut it off. To do this, he twists into the space near the pendulum and pulls out a small hypodermic needle. The needle is filled with clock oil, which he'll use to lubricate the hands, but now he uses it to throw a switch that stops the pendulum swinging beneath us. Despite its massive size, the pendulum is powered by two thin metal arms that tap against it, gently pushing it from one side to the other. I lift one arm out and let it strike the metal. It weighs no more than a few ounces.

Contrasts like this make mechanical clocks fascinating. Though they're one of the few machines left on which you can still see the wheels turning, their actual inner workings remain complicated and mysterious. The wheels on the Ira Allen clock are much easier to see than those on most of the smaller timepieces Boyden services. He repairs models of all sizes, some with parts thinner than a human hair.

Boyden got his start as an horologist during his stint in the Army in Berlin. His friends would bring him broken clocks they'd found at local flea markets, and he would tinker with them and bring them back to life. He put his hobby on hold while serving in Vietnam, but after he returned to the States as a civilian, he hooked up with Ben Finkenbinter, a clockmaker with a shop in Kileen, Texas. Boyden took over the shop when Finkenbinter left. After a few years, he moved back to Vermont, first to Winooski and then in 1980 to his current Williston location.

The Green Mountain Clock Shop is attached to Boyden's home. Inside are hundreds of timepieces, new and used -- Lathem time-card clocks, grandfather clocks, a commemorative Dale Earnhardt clock, a cat clock with a swinging tail pendulum.

I point to a green one shaped like a farmhouse. "That's the farmer's daughter," he tells me. It's a German variation on a cuckoo clock featuring automatons -- animated figures that act out a scene. On the hour and half-hour, a girl (Boyden calls her Gertrude) comes to one of the second-story windows. Her beau, "Hans," tries to climb a ladder to reach her. Meanwhile, the girl's farmer father waves a pitchfork at Hans. "He's trying to stab him in the ass," says Boyden. "I thought it would be the ultimate wedding gift, but not too many people were interested." I think he's joking.

Through the door that leads into their kitchen, I spy Boyden's wife Louise making breakfast. We have to walk through it to get to the basement workshop. "We don't have a clock shop in our house," he explains. "We live in a clock shop."Sure enough, clocks spill over onto the kitchen counters and into the living room, where Boyden keeps some of the "problem children" for observation during his off-hours. He spends most of his on-hours in the basement, which he calls "the dungeon.

"Given this description, the workshop is surprisingly well lit. Bright fluorescent lights illuminate the three workbenches at which he and his three employees labor. But the workshop, like his storefront, is magnificently cluttered. Clock parts, tools and papers cover nearly every inch of space. What's left is consumed by a motley collection of antiques and music boxes, which Boyden also sells.

He complains that an administrative assistant recently quit and he hasn't had time to vacuum, but it seems a shame to tamper with such a glorious ecosystem. After all, it works for Boyden. He and his mechanics service roughly 1000 clocks each year. Since his start in the early '70s, he figures he's tinkered with 15,000.

They're not all broken, though; horologists recommend mechanical clocks be cleaned and lubricated every few years. How often depends on the type. To clean a clock, it must be removed from its case and then replaced. Unlike most modern repair jobs, this doesn't happen overnight.

The actual work might take two hours, but it might take two weeks to get to it, Boyden says. Then, once the clock is back in its case, it needs to sit for two weeks to make sure it runs like, well, clockwork. The turnover time is generally 30 to 60 days, though some clocks have stayed several months, Boyden concedes. He points to one cobwebbed model in the corner that's been there two years. "It's close," he says, "but no cigar.

"This time frame can drive customers crazy. But as Boyden's senior mechanic Michael Martinez explains, if people want their clocks fixed right, "speed is not necessarily their ally." You can't fast-forward the days to gauge how far off a clock will be after a week. You just have to wait.

We don't have to wait to see if the Ira Allen clock is running on time -- Boyden just has to turn it back, oil the hands on the faces, and start the pendulum swinging again. After shutting off the clock, he turns one of the shafts until the hands on the display rest at 12 o'clock. Then the five of us climb the last flight of stairs to the balcony that overlooks Burlington. Ostensibly we're checking that the big hands point to 12, but while we're here we survey our domain. The chapel is one of the tallest points in town, and we can see for miles.

As we gawk at the view, Boyden checks his work. Before we leave, he gives the bell a tap with the striker to show us how it sounded years ago. The floor beneath me vibrates. I decide I'm ready to get down.

As we descend to the clock room, the carillon chimes strike, playing a song. They're still going when Boyden resets the new time and starts the pendulum again. By the time we reach the bottom of the tower, the chimes have stopped. Boyden takes us into the chapel to shows us the carillon keyboard. Behind it is a stereo system that can record and play back the tunes. Its red digital display shows the time. At the top of the tower, Boyden had noted that the chimes were a little late. Sure enough, the digital clock is a couple minutes slow. "I don't take care of that one," he says.

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About The Author

Cathy Resmer

Cathy Resmer

Deputy publisher Cathy Resmer is an organizer of the Vermont Tech Jam. She also oversees Seven Days' parenting publication, Kids VT, and created the Good Citizen Challenge, a youth civics initiative. Resmer began her career at Seven Days as a freelance writer in 2001. Hired as a staff writer in 2005, she became the publication's first online editor in 2007.


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