From the Collection: Riefler Clock

1903 Riefler Clock

1903 Riefler Clock Face

While a telescope may be the most valuable piece of equipment found in an observatory, a close second is the clock.  Through most of Dudley’s history, the type of astronomical work it was doing required precise, consistent timekeeping.  Not surprisingly, Dudley has owned some of the best clocks available.  Sometimes they were adventurous attempts at timekeeping, like the Polsey Clock by Moses Farmer.  Other times the director played it safe by simply purchasing the most reliable clock on the market.

This is one of the latter: a clock by the Clemens Riefler Company of Munich, Germany, built in 1903.  Started by Sigmund Rielfer, the company made the most accurate clocks in the world during the later 19th century until the invention of quartz timekeeping in the late 1920s.  At their best, Riefler clocks could operate with a variance of only 10 milliseconds per day. The US Bureau of Standards used a Riefler clocks to set the standard time from 1904 to 1929.

Full Riefler Clock

Full Riefler Clock

This accuracy required a bit of work.  Dudley’s clocks were mounted inside glass cylinders.  These cylinders then had the air pumped out using a foot pump (you can see the handle of the pump in the bottom right of the photograph here.)  This protected the clock from changes in atmospheric pressure, which could alter the motion of the gears enough that a few milliseconds could be gained or lost.  These cylinders were fitted with an iron collar and bolted to a stone pier that was anchored in the ground.  This protected the clock from vibrations.

Dudley owns two Rielfer clocks, both purchased during the years when Dudley was working with the Carnegie Institution. Dudley was the Institution’s Department of Meridian Astronomy, working to produce the most accurate star catalog to the early 20th century.  This task, probably more than any other task in astronomy, require precise time.  Even more, it required consistent time, as the job went on, night after night, for years.

If this clock looks familiar, it’s because it was recently part of the “Capital Region in 50 Object” exhibit at the Albany Institute of History and Art, where it sat between a giant metal butterfly from the Albany Pinebush Preserve and a gorgeous Dutch Kas from the Schenectady County Historical Society.  I thank the good folks at the AIHA for inviting us into the exhibit, and also for letting us use one of their old vertical mummy display cases, which makes me feel strangely honored.

From the Collection: Polsey Clock

Polsey ClockThis piece is a bit of a mystery. It comes down to us simply as the “Polsey Clock.” Our other clocks come from famous makers, but Polsey is virtually unknown. It’s also very plain, somewhat battered, and missing a few pieces. Still, in its way, it’s the most interesting clock we have. It may be the lone surviving remnant from an ambitious project created by Moses Farmer.

Here’s where I get to put on my miSci cap. Moses Gerrish Farmer was one of the countless electrical inventors that appeared during the nineteenth century, before the giant corporations like GE and Westinghouse formed and sucked up all the oxygen. Farmer, from New Hampshire, is one of the most important of these inventors, and some of his contributions were long lasting.

For example, in 1856 Farmer demonstrated a duplex telegraph between New York and Philadelphia, sending two signals down the same wire. In 1872, Thomas Edison took his technique, combined it with some other ideas, and created the duplex and quadruplex telegraphy system, sending two signals down the wire and two signals back. He sold the idea to Western Union, one of his first major sales.

(Being Thomas Edison, he then also sold it to Jay Gould’s Atlantic and Pacific company. This is probably the incident that caused the editors of the New York Tribune to dub him the “great professor of duplicity and quadruplicity,” one of the more colorful insults that Edison ever received.)

But before all that, Farmer was working on a fire alarm system in Boston that would work much like systems we use today; there would be a central alarm with signal boxes scattered throughout the city, all connected by telegraph cable. In 1855, he ran into the director of Dudley, Benjamin Gould, who must have liked the idea of a central system that could communicate through telegraph. But rather than fire, Gould was thinking clocks.

New York State Capitol Building with Time Ball, ca. 1860

New York State Capitol Building with Time Ball, ca. 1860

So in 1855, Moses Farmer, along with an assistant named John Polsey, came to the Dudley Observatory to create a clock system. The clock was set into a niche near the entrance to the observatory, and it was wired to other clocks throughout the building through telegraph cable. This allowed the main clock to send signals to the other clocks that would keep them all synchronized. And the telegraph cable also ran out of the building, allowing the clock to send accurate time to distant places.

That last part was part of Gould’s plan to sell accurate time to buildings throughout the capital and down to New York City. It was an ambitious plan, which would have meant telegraph cables running to the government buildings and railroad depots along the Hudson, all reaching back to Dudley Observatory to keep every clock running accurately.

The system was finished in 1856, just in time for the inauguration. It became a centerpiece of Gould’s inauguration speech:

The clock for mean time has been made by our accomplished fellow-citizen, Mr. Farmer, of Boston. Its pendulum has no weights, and needs no winding. […]On the right is the great marble dial, three feet square, which shows the Observatory time, beat by the beautiful electro-magnetic pendulum which is swinging on the left, and which is not only to supply this city with its time correct to the fraction of a second, but is to flash it along the electric wire till its little tick be heard upon the lakes and at the ocean, and in all the rail-road stations lying between — the stay of the navigator, the guardian of the traveler, the safeguard of human life, and the promoter of human welfare on land and sea.

It never worked out the way Gould wanted it to. His successor, George Washington Hough, did send accurate time to the state capitol, but it never became the large scale (and lucrative) operation that Gould wanted.

Farmer’s clock system disappears from the record soon after the inauguration. When the original observatory building was vacated, the system was dismantled. This portion of the system, most likely one of the secondary clocks in the system, was set up in the central dome with the Pruyn telescope. It appears to be the only portion that now survives.