The Great Historical Clock of America, the smartwatch of the 19th century, had been completely forgotten. Despite being 13 feet tall and more than six feet wide, with moving parts showcasing key aspects of American history—Civil War veterans marching; a tiny boat at the bottom of Niagara Falls; Paul Revere on horseback; George Washington emerging every hour to wave hello; and Robert Fulton’s steamboat racing ahead on its moving paddlewheels—the Great Historical Clock of America sat alone and forgotten in a New Hampshire barn.
“I was the one who rediscovered it in the early ‘80s,” says Carlene Stephens, curator of clocks at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. “And it was really dusty. And my colleagues thought: ‘What do we need this for?’. . . . But my belief is, at the Smithsonian, what we’re doing is selecting items for posterity. What is one period’s oddity is another period’s treasure. That’s what we’re looking for.”
Built in about 1893, possibly by C. Chase of Boston, the timepiece exemplifies the clock-making industry’s efforts to provide public entertainment and education before the age of radios, television and the internet. It was also intended to spark interest in the significant moments of American history.
Or, as the influential education reformer and social philosopher of the age John Dewey, put it: “Democracy has to be born anew every generation, and education is its midwife.”
The clock explored America’s difficult and romantic ideal of democracy by giving viewers a distilled version of the nation’s evolving history.
Now, for the first time in nearly a century, the clock is back in public view, reminding people of the great experiment that is American democracy. It’s a centerpiece of the National Museum of American History show “American Democracy: A Great Leap of Faith,” which is part of the re-opening of the museum’s shuttered west wing.
The restauration team kept discovering new secrets about the clock as they worked. “It was designed to travel,” Richwine says, “so it can be dismantled and packed in travel crates. It’s amazing.”
The conservators also discovered that the various dioramas on the clock, from Pocahontas pleading with her father to spare John Smith’s life to the Pilgrims’ landing at Plymouth Rock, all run off of a single central shaft powered by three weights that total nearly 100 pounds. “It’s all connected,” says Richwine. “There’s even a music box inside. It’s just a remarkable feat of engineering—and planning.”