Stanford Report Online

Stanford Report, June 13, 2001
His Ph.D. beckoning, Clock Tower caretaker winding down his volunteer duties


Rob Bernier was a clockmaker-turned-engineering graduate student seven years ago when he began riding his bike past the Clock Tower near the School of Education. And what he saw inside the concrete tower pained him.

Behind the glass were the antique pendulum-operated clockworks that hung atop Memorial Church before the church's massive steeple was destroyed in the 1906 earthquake. The clockworks had survived the earthquake, but were struggling when Bernier spotted them.

The clock frequently showed the wrong time or was stopped altogether, Bernier noticed. "It hurt me that such a beautiful clock movement wasn't working."

Rob Bernier, a Ph.D. candidate, has maintained the 100-year-old clockworks in Stanford's clock tower since 1994. But he’s completed his doctoral thesis and is leaving campus -- and he hasn’t, so far, been replaced. photo: L.A. Cicero

So Bernier, who completed an apprenticeship at a clock repair shop in San Carlos before heading off to engineering school, began to ask around campus to find out who was in charge of maintaining the clock.

One of the people Bernier asked was mechanical engineering Professor Dave Beach. Beach, it turned out, not only had a key to the tower but had helped patch the clock together years earlier.

After the earthquake, the clock sat on a wooden tower behind the church. After the wooden tower was razed, the clockworks went into storage in various places on campus. One day a Facilities Operations employee called Beach, advising him that the clockworks were in storage at Bonair Siding. He said that if anybody wanted them, they better come get them, Beach recalled.

"They were kind of sitting around all over the floor," Beach said. A handful of engineering professors dragged the clock parts over to the Product Realization Lab and set to work at putting them back together. By using the landings and stairwell as a makeshift tower, they figured out enough to put the clock back into "marginal" service in the Terman Engineering Building, Beach said.

A couple of years later, trustee William Kimbell donated the money to build the tower. There the clock sat, keeping more or less accurate time, until Bernier came along and asked for the key.

"I can fix that clock," Bernier told Beach.

Bernier's first notation in the clock's yellowed logbook comes on March 17, 1994. "The Tower clock is far out of beat" begins Bernier's six-line diagnosis of the clock, which he signed with his name and a little drawing of a flower. By April 4, Bernier was recording the reconstruction of some of the clock's gearboxes, and within a month, he had finished designing new parts. On May 3, he noted the time: "8:00 p.m. It's dead on."

Bernier made a strong first impression on Beach as a determined kind of guy ­ he initially planned to climb the clock tower and rappel down its side to make clock repairs, the professor said. Beach was able to persuade Bernier to wait for the loan of a tree-pruning truck from the grounds crew.

Over the years, Bernier's enthusiasm for the clock has never flagged. On most Mondays for the last seven years, Bernier carefully has wound the hand-cranked clock and checked the time against a battery-operated radio tuned to broadcast Greenwich Mean Time. Bernier has shared the twice-a-week chore with Bursar Jon Erickson for the last five years.

When Bernier's notes showed steady fluctuations in time caused by temperature changes, he traced the problem to rising temperatures that caused the wood and metal in the pendulum to expand. Bernier presented the clock's pendulum to a precision engineering class as a design problem. The class, with Bernier as coach, came up with a temperature-compensated pendulum. The pendulum, installed in 1997, uses two kinds of metal that expand in different directions at different rates, leaving the effective length of the pendulum unchanged.

The new pendulum greatly improved the clock's time-keeping prowess. An old gearbox, however, remains a problem, Bernier said. He has been on the lookout for a replacement for a part he specifies as a "Seth Thomas tower clock gearbox" for the four dials up in the tower.

As is, "the gearbox will last 30 to 40 years. But with a new one, it will last for a couple more centuries."

Bernier, who has completed his doctoral thesis and is leaving at the end of June, also is looking for his own replacement. "It would help if they were a clockmaker," he said. The main qualification, however, is to be able to pay attention to when the clock is not working, he said.

Hand-cranking the clock is "a good physical workout," added Erickson, who will continue to help wind the clock. It's a labor of love ­ but still pretty hard work, he said.

Bernier, who plans to travel the world for a while, is thinking of a way to take the old clock with him. He's considered putting up microphones near the clock hooked up to a computer server. Then, wherever he travels, he could log on to a website and hear the clock chime.

"I love the clock and I'm going to miss it," he said. "It's a mechanical thing in a computerized world."