Secret Scotland

If it's secret, and in Scotland…

Slaves to time at the Glasgow School of Art

I really will have to get around to making a long overdue (first) visit to the Glasgow School of Art as a ‘tourist’.

Sadly, for me, it’s one of those places that falls into category of never having been paid any attention simply because it lies virtually on my doorstep. Even though I once worked only a few streets away from it for many years, and walked along Sauchiehall Street past the foot of the street leading up to it, I never thought to go there, and didn’t actually even know exactly where it was for years.

Worse still, although I did eventually manage to get along for a look at the exterior and grab some pics, I wasn’t aware that it was open to visitors and ran tours – when I get thing wrong, I do it properly. But then again, I never thought to check since it is an active school, it never occurred to me that it would have folk wandering around.

I also have to admit that I used to think it was a weird mishmash of styles, even for Mackintosh… until I caught a documentary that analysed, and learnt what a fool I was, and what a genius Mackintosh had been. The School of Art is an architectural gem, packed with surprising detail.

Still, when I do eventually drag myself through the doors, the good news is that the clocks should all be working.

Wrongly described in BBC reports as having been designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh for his distinctive school (he most certainly designed their appearance, lest anyone think this I am referring to that aspect), the clocks comprised a master and slave system, in which a single, highly accurate master clock was used to maintain time, while the building was populated with a number of slave clocks – 19 according to the BBC. The slaves were not clocks, but merely displays synchronised to the master, and simply repeated the time it showed. Inside the slaves was not a clock movement, but a system that responded to pulses generated from the master, delivered by wire. and causing the hands to step around the dial at regular intervals.

Mackintosh clocks to tick again at Glasgow Art School

Mackintosh clock system keeps time in Art School

As regards the BBC report though, I’m being picky only because it states that, “The clock system, designed and installed by Mackintosh in 1910, was a rare and important technical innovation at the time“. While this is generally correct – master/slave system were just becoming common at the time – and there is no argument that Mackintosh designed the appearance of the clocks in his unique style, and he saw to it that they were installed at the school, he was an architect and a designer, not an electrical engineer or inventor. He clearly did not design “The clock system“, but specified a commercial product, and the BBC video even lets us identify it.

The system was a Synchronome Clock Power Station Model, and from the video seems to be an unpainted mahogany cased early Mk I model. A distinctive Y-shaped piece can be seen, matching the Mk I detail photograph on the web page, as can the “NRA” plate below (used for advancing and retarding the clock). Later models had a different release mechanism to that which can be seen in the video, and the cases were more usually finished in a heavy black paint.

You can see one working in the following video, said to show a 1920’s version:

The Glasgow School of Art was completed in 1909, but the site dedicated to the Synchronome Master Clock has date pages: Synchronome Serial Number Dating and Synchronome Serial Number Dating 2, showing the production numbers for the clock, and this only goes back to 1914. That’s not a suggestion that the clock wasn’t installed in 1910, since Mackintosh could have been dealing with the company then as a favoured client, installing the system in a prestigious project, so was favoured with one of the first – this system only began to become common around 1910, and the installation could have been something of showcase for the company.

Their popularity grew for places such as schools and factories, since many clocks could be installed, with no need for anyone to keep winding them, or setting them. This requirement had made such multiple installations of clocks impractical in earlier times, and was why factories and similar had clocks on towers, where everyone could see them/

Reliable as these systems were, the original system installed in the School of Art failed “decades ago”, probably due to lack of maintenance,and was never repaired.

A grant of £16,800 and a year’s work has seen the system restored to working order.

Just in time for me to see it (the school), and them (the clocks)… soon.


April 23, 2013 - Posted by | Civilian | , , , , , ,

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