Clocks and Watches | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Clocks and Watches

The manufacture of clocks and watches in Canada may have begun as early as 1700; however, practising watch and clockmakers through the 18th and much of the 19th centuries did not make the movements.

Clocks and Watches

The manufacture of clocks and watches in Canada may have begun as early as 1700; however, practising watch and clockmakers through the 18th and much of the 19th centuries did not make the movements. A watch or clock mechanism would originate in England, continental Europe or the US, arriving in Canada as an ébauche (basic, unfinished movement). This was finished by the local horologist, and would thus bear his initials or signature, or the stamp of his silversmith. From these beginnings, retailers of clocks, and especially watches, were closely associated with silversmiths and jewellers. This arrangement was logical as the 2 groups were dependent on the same market and required one another's skills. Jean Filiot of Montréal and Thomas Gordon of Halifax were well-known watchmakers of the 18th century. The picture began changing about the time one Jordan Post (b 1767) arrived in York (now Toronto). He was apprenticed in Connecticut and worked as a clockmaker in Massachusetts and Vermont, but from 1802 until his death in 1832, Post made his living as a clockmaker in Canada.

Since the 15th century, a town's public clock was a matter of prestige. Canada's oldest surviving public clock (ca. 1701 though later modified) is the St. Sulpice Seminary clock in Montréal; however, the old Town Clock in Halifax (1805) is better known. The works for both were imported, from France and Britain respectively.

From the early 19th century the pride of many homes was the grandfather or long-case clock, which would be passed from one generation to the next as a treasured heirloom. Frequently, on economic grounds, only the movements of such clocks were imported and were then mounted for local merchants in pine cases made by local cabinetmakers. Some complete clocks came from the US, eg, the grandfather clocks sold by the Twiss brothers of Montréal, who flourished ca. 1821-50. Recent evidence suggests that the five brothers may have attempted fashioning a few movements and indeed their father held two US patents for clock innovations. Certainly some long case clocks from the Twiss family survive; these were mounted in Québec-made pine cases and are now eagerly sought by collectors.

Watch and clockmakers were frequently listed as having worked in several places, since they tended to try out several towns before settling down. In some cases, the second generation would set up shop in another town as an expansion of the family business. Several generations of the Hutchinson family of Saint John, NB, served the community in horological matters for a century and also served mariners by repairing and rating marine chronometers. Richard Upham Marsters, in Halifax, New York, and Falmouth, NS (ca. 1820-1835) successively, appears to have been the only Canadian to make chronometers. One survives at the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic, Halifax. Also a maker of unusual time pieces was Nathan Fellowes Dupuis, a professor of natural science and astronomy at QUEEN'S UNIVERSITY, in Kingston, Ont. Examples of his tower, regulator, and multi-dialled astronomical clocks, including a wooden clockwork mechanism, are preserved at Queen's. Over the years Canadians have received a number of patents (both Canadian and US) for innovations in horological practice, eg John Colquehoun (24125, 28877), Howard Felt (US 494919), George Hess (30429, 32485), and Stephen Willcock (36532, 51032 and US 451353, 557040).

Before the appearance of clock manufacturers, many individual clock and watchmakers advertised in city or provincial directories for eastern Canada, although the level of their training and skills is not always evident. Many, we may assume, were formally trained in Europe or the US but we lack a systematic study of their training and apprenticeships and how this knowledge was passed on by first-generation immigrants.

After the completion of the Canadian Pacific Railway, there was extensive migration west, which undoubtedly included horologists to serve the growing population. However, the discipline is not currently well researched for western Canada. We know that members of some communities (eg, the HUTTERITES) brought with them watches made entirely of wood by their own craftsmen. Wooden movements and cases continued to be made by such craftsmen, though these artisans did not play an active part in the development of watch and clockmaking technology.

The first large-scale Canadian clock manufacturer on record was the Canada Clock Company of Whitby, Ont, which began production in 1872. The operation later moved to Hamilton, Ont, and continued to produce clocks as the Hamilton Clock Company until 1880. The firm changed management and the name back to Canada Clock Company but failed in 1884. The largest and most successful clock company, that of Arthur Pequegnat, began in 1904 in Berlin (now Kitchener), Ont. Pequegnat clocks have unsophisticated movements mounted in many models (for marketing reasons carrying names of Canadian towns and cities or royal personages) of table, shelf, wall and standing clocks. These sold throughout Canada until the company ceased production in 1941. Pequegnat clocks are desirable collectors' items; a nearly complete collection is preserved at the CANADA SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY MUSEUM in Ottawa.

In 1890 the Canadian Horological Institute was established in Toronto by Edward Beeton and Henry Playtner (born Ploethner of German parents) of Preston, Ont, though Beeton left after only 2 months. This excellent school of watchmaking and repairing produced many fine craftsmen in programs that lasted up to two years. The highest level of achievement was A1. Other levels were A and "Improvers," or students with previous experience who stayed for 6 or 12 months, and non-diploma students. Playtner's book, Canadian Horological Institute (1904), contains an interesting account of the early days of an apprentice. The school lasted until 1913; shortly afterward Playtner moved to Ohio to help found the Elgin Watchmakers' College. Occasionally, the "masterpieces" made by the Institute's 14 graduates at the highest level (of three) may be found. These watches were required to be of unique design and represent a very high grade of horological craftsmanship.

Two 20th-century technical advances attributable to Canadians are of note. Working at the Bell Labs in New Jersey, Warren Marrison of Inverary, Ont, developed a time keeper based on the vibrations of a quartz crystal in 1927. His quartz clock became a critical element in scientific time keeping and later found its way onto the wrists of many Canadians. For the commercial market, Bowmar Digital Products of Ottawa adopted its electronic expertise to make an affordable digital watch in 1973. The US-made Pulsar digital watch sold for $2100 US; Bowmar's sold for $150 in a gold case. Like electronic calculators, foreign mass production of quartz-based digital watches rapidly reduced the cost a further 10 times; in 1974 Bowmar sold its designs and technology to a US firm.

An interesting, although fictional, account of the social aspects of clock marketing in the early 19th century is given by T.C. HALIBURTON in The Clockmaker; or The Sayings and Doings of Sam Slick of Slickville, a novel describing the travels of a somewhat disreputable man who sold clocks door to door in Canada and the US - a widely practised means of marketing clocks in rural Canada in the early to mid-19th century.


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