Kane County History: Blanford's Astronomical Clock Is Aurora's Most-Astonishing Treasure

Kane County History: Blanford’s Astronomical Clock Is Aurora’s Most-Astonishing Treasure

  • Editor’s Note: This article is part of a weekly series on Kane County’s amazing history. Today’s article was submitted by Mary Clark Ormond, president of the Aurora Historical Society. All images are courtesy of the Aurora Historical Society.

“During the first thousand years of operation the clock is calculated to operate without impairment.”
— Newspaper article c. 1913

A thousand years? A clock? Is this some chronometer of the future to be put aboard a space ship for a very long ride into space?

No, it’s a big, beautiful, incredibly complex floor clock built in Aurora between 1900 and 1905 which has been a source of awe and an object of admiration ever since.

As for the claim to operate perfectly for a thousand years? Maybe that’s a bit of hyperbole. The newspaper writers of the time were inclined to, shall we say, enthusiasm.

It’s been 114 years now and “already” a few little tweaks are needed, according to the Aurora Historical Society. But that takes nothing away from the Blanford Astronomical Clock. It was the magnum opus of an immigrant British clockmaker and remains a treasure of Aurora.

A Young Genius

William Blanford, born on Feb. 14, 1838, in London, England, came from a long line of clockmakers and was exposed early to the wonders of mechanical timekeeping and the beauty of orreries which, by clockwork gears and cranks, mimicked the movement of the sun and planets.

As an apprentice in his father’s large shop, young William once persuaded an elderly gentleman with a damaged watch to let him work on it, even though his father had just refused the job, saying it was too far out of repair.

After manufacturing several missing parts, young Blanford succeeded in getting the watch working again and his reputation was launched. The customer, by the way, was George Cruikshank, Charles Dickens’ illustrator.

His career in London included not just repairs to watches and clocks but work with fine optical instruments and improvements to many kinds of machinery that filled England’s factories during the Industrial Age, from steam engines to sewing machines.

His model of a steam brake controlled by a locomotive’s engineer is in a London museum.

Immigration to The U.S.

One must wonder if, when he immigrated to the United States in 1879, possibly with his first wife, with whom he had seven children, he truly found satisfaction working at the Elgin National Watch Company.

Blanford Home on Douglas, c. 1915 (Aurora Historical Society photo)

He may have later worked for the Aurora Watch Company, which went out of business in 1890. Memoirs written by Elwyn and Gladys Sperry, his neighbors, mention that he was a small, pleasant man and lived quietly with his second wife, Mary, and her sister, Margaret Simms.

He seldom appeared outside the workshop in the back yard of his little house at 902 Douglas Avenue (560 at the time) where, he wrote to a niece in England, in retirement he maintained “a fair business cleaning and repairing watches and doing experimental work.”

Although clearly a mechanical and scientific genius, he was nonetheless a poor businessman, and the family lived very modestly.

William Blanford had, however, a grand personal ambition: to build the perfect clock.

Keeping Time

Keeping perfect time was the first goal for a perfect clock, of course, but that meant he needed to solve some problems which scientists of the day believed could not be solved.

He needed to keep the pendulum swinging evenly despite weather-related expansion and contraction of the metal (he felt that mercury, which other clockmakers would place in an attached tube, responded too sluggishly), and also he needed to provide enough power in the time train to keep the clock running at an exact rate even while being wound.

Blanford also tackled the troublesome problem of the equation of time, which seeks to reconcile the time given by the ever-moving Sun and Earth (as with a sundial) with the time given by a clock, which operates in isolation.

By developing a device whereby the clock mechanically adjusts for the movements of the Sun, his clock kept pace with apparent solar time, a scientific breakthrough of the time.

Astronomical Features

Having solved those problems, he turned to the astronomical features he wanted for his grand work, which included showing the position of the earth as it revolves around the sun and also the times it enters the various constellations, which he designated by Zodiac signs.

He also contrived to show the correct time in 127 major cities and observatories east and west of the Greenwich Meridian.

A calendar that projects 10,000 years into the future is carefully thought out, and even the double leap years are figured in.

Artisan As Well As Inventor

He manufactured with his own hands every single part of the great clock except for the beveled glass plate on the door. This meant that he created all the wheels, pinions, dials, pendulums, weights and faces, as well as the mahogany case and decorative carvings.

The case, made mostly of mahogany, rivals for beauty the steel and brass of the clock works and faces. At 9 feet tall it commands attention in any room, but only up close does it reveal its many elegant details.

The top is a replica of the Roman Forum, and at the front are two bas relief carvings in boxwood. One is of St. George slaying a dragon, a reference, perhaps, to Blanford’s English ancestry. The other is of Father Time surrounded by cherubs playing baseball, which he admitted was a reference to the national pastime of his adopted country. An American eagle commands all.

The highly polished finish of the case was the work of a piano finisher.

He was about 62 years of age when he began the project, and he estimated that overall he spent 18,250 hours over a period of five years in the clock’s creation. It was completed in 1905.

Although Blanford spoke often of his wish to have the clock on display in Aurora for the children of the city to see, it stood instead in the parlor of the house on Douglas Avenue until his death of pneumonia in 1920. It was already known far and wide as a mechanical wonder and a work of art.

It had been on public display, notably in the Sylvandell Amusement Palace, visitors from all over the world had come to Aurora to see it, and it was reputedly sought by the University of Chicago, but Blanford had not wanted his crowning achievement to leave his adopted home town. No one in his lifetime purchased it or donated it to the children of Aurora.

A City Treasure

After his death, numerous schemes for the clock were proposed. They included placing the clock at East Aurora High School, at City Hall, and even outdoors, in a glass case with a big canopy on the lawn near the GAR Hall.

In the end, it went to the Aurora Public Library in an agreement with the newly-formed Blanford Clock Association which had raised the necessary $5,000 thanks to the efforts of Gertrude Parker, Emma Mason, and Grace Bliss.

The first trustees of the association were T. J. Parker, Mrs. Eloise Schoeberlein and Mrs. J.T. Mason, later followed by other notable citizens like Larkin Mead, John Plain, L.R. Hood and Frank Weisgerber.

A heartfelt note from Mary Blanford to these philanthropists conveyed both relief that her debts could now be paid off, and pride in her husband’s accomplishments.

Mary said her husband was doing nothing less than conquering the problem of the equation of time “which text book writers had repeatedly said could not be done. He put the utmost skill and finish and durability into the works, to preserve this discovery for future time. … You ladies have saved from neglect the mantle of genius which Mr. Blanford let fall.”

When asked for his opinion on the clock, Axel Levedahl, president of the Independent Pneumatic Tool Company (he was one of the engineers who developed the Thor motorcycle), wrote about the difficulties of moving it.

“Obtaining the money for its purchase is the least of the considerations … the greatest task will be to find a man who can properly take this clock apart, safely move it and set it up … and properly look after same. Unless this is done in the proper manner you would have no clock after it is purchased and moved.”

By 1944 the association had just one surviving trustee, and the library needed the space which, they then pointed out, was actually in the adult room and not the children’s room. Thus was the clock given to the Aurora Historical Society and placed in the Tanner House Museum at 304 Oak Ave., a place visited, in those days, by every school child in Aurora.

In the 1990s, with the opening of the David L. Pierce Art and History Center in downtown Aurora, the historical society relocated the clock there to take advantage of the longer hours of opening.

Today the Blanford Astronomical Clock stands there in quiet dignity, ticking away with the accuracy that its maker knew would always define it, while day in and day out people swirl around, coming and going, pushed and pulled by cell phones and smart watches, versions of horological perfection that William Blanford, the 19th century mechanical genius, could never have foreseen.

The clock can be seen, and heard, from noon to 4 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays at the Pierce Art and History Center, 20 E. Downer Place, Aurora. The telephone there is 630-906-0650.

Taking Care of a World-Class Clock

Over time there have been several caretakers of the clock.

Shortly before he died, the citizen philanthropists raising funds to purchase the Blanford Clock had attempted to interview Blanford regarding the secrets and proper care of the clock, even bringing a stenographer along to record the conversation, but he was already too ill to speak on the subject.

It seems ironic that such an advanced scientific instrument should have been left without written instructions for the future, but to be fair, William Blanford was a modest man with many interests and, perhaps, great faith in the genius and the creativity of the clockmakers who would follow him.

An expert clockmaker, George Ruby, became the first caretaker, assuming responsibility in return for an annual fee of $25. Following Ruby, Robert Brown, horologist and wholesale jeweler in Aurora, signed on in 1945 to maintain the clock in good mechanical condition at a yearly salary of $35.

As late as the 1990s, Brown was still coming down to Aurora from his home in Elkhorn, WI, to maintain the clock. More recently, David King and John Buchner, founding members of the Fox Valley Clock and Watch Collectors Guild, cared for the clock until David’s passing.

John Buchner helped to disassemble the clock and move it within the Pierce Center gallery in 2014. Looking ahead, the Aurora Historical Society feels the time is coming when the clock should be given a thorough checkup, as not all the functions are working perfectly.

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