Time MachinesJul 30, 2020 11:25AM ● By Karey Solomon
Robert Doherty’s workshop at noon bursts into a concert. The larger clocks offer up the Westminster Quarters—the melody made famous by the chimes of London’s Big Ben. Little doors on cuckoo clocks open and the painted birds fly out to cuckoo a dozen times. There’s a small pause and other clocks...chime in. The staggered sequence is intentional, so Robert can watch the evening news or conduct an ordinary conversation without having to pause on the hour.
Robert is the proprietor of Global Clock Services at 5135 Wixon Road, Painted Post. He chose that name for his business with a sense of humor because his work on clocks is only limited to clocks located on the planet. He’s repaired huge clocks whose presence in a city is a matter of civic pride, and smaller heirlooms that matter to a family’s history.
A clockmaker with forty years’ experience, Robert was drawn into the field almost by accident. While living in Philadelphia, a friend and fellow judo enthusiast, John Biddle, suggested he try clock repair and offered to teach him. Between jobs, Robert agreed. At that time, his friend John’s bread and butter was the repair of time clocks, those devices used to stamp time cards as employees report for work.
On Robert’s first day at work, John took one apart as his student watched, then walked away, challenging him to put it back together. He did. The second day he was given more difficult clockworks, and was similarly successful.
It’s hard to explain the process, because Robert seems to intuitively understand clocks. “You can’t learn this on YouTube or from books,” he says. All those little gears and pinions and the tiny shafts that anchor them in the works are mystifying to the lay-person, but he knows what each does, where it belongs in the clock, and whether it needs cleaning or repair or replacement. He’s got two small lathes in his workshop to accomplish the latter, if necessary.
“If you know what’s driving a clock, you know what its purpose is,” he says in an attempt to clarify the way he learned to deal with a profusion of small gears and bearings. “I was getting paid to do a puzzle. It just made sense for it to go together that way because of what it had to do. Repairing a clock is like repairing an automobile. If there are symptoms, what is it supposed to be doing and isn’t?”
By the time he moved north, he repaired watches as well as clocks. In 1999, contemplating a career change and back in college to become a history teacher, Robert lost everything, including all his tools, in a devastating fire. He says now he wondered whether this tragedy signaled a personal change of direction. His plan had been to teach during the school year, then repair timepieces in the summer. But when rules about the requirements for teachers changed, and customers kept calling him for repairs, he decided to return full-time to clocks.
His workshop is compact, but it’s home to dozens of specialized tools, some packed into cases for specific sorts of jobs, others arrayed on his work surfaces. “In this business, you never know where you’re going to go,” he says. He also has trays and bottle caps to hold small parts, and multiple pairs of glasses, so he always has a pair close at hand. Even though he says he could fix many clocks blindfolded, he seems happier being able to see them.
One epic repair job was the Centerway clock in downtown Corning. The clock had been repaired at least twice prior to Robert being called. The first time, the out-of-state repair crew removed the original works and replaced them with an electronic movement. When this failed a few years later, the same company replaced the motor. Unfortunately, the second motor also failed within a few years. Robert was consulted, and learned another replacement motor was unattainable. Worse, the motor’s failure had deformed a critical, unreplaceable part. What to do? “I prayed for guidance,” he says. Then, seeing what needed to happen, he rebuilt the motor, and had new parts made to ensure its longevity.
Sandie Wilson, director of Administration and Operations for Corning’s Gaffer District, knows Robert, though her acquaintance with him came after that earlier, critical repair. She met him first when her own special clock could not be repaired by the first few people she consulted. Instead of giving up, she tried a Google search and found Global Clock Services.
“He fixed it ten or eleven years ago, and it’s worked beautifully ever since,” she says. Her respect for Robert’s talents increased after his work on the Centerway clock. “He’s definitely a treasure, highly knowledgeable and very professional,” she says. “He’s wonderful to deal with and a delightful man to talk with. He appreciates the history of the clock tower and what a landmark it is for our town. He’s been instrumental not only in fixing the clock but pointing out necessary repairs to the clock tower.”
In his own workshop, when he starts a job, Robert also begins a page in his log book where he details the time it takes (he keeps a digital stopwatch on his workbench to keep track), the repairs and parts needed, and includes additional notes and sketches. As his hands work, he might be making up jokes and puns to share with the next caller. “Jokes are in my DNA,” he explains. “They get pent up when I’m working by myself.” Or he’s mentally planning his next puzzle—he creates and crafts brain teasers to share with family and friends each holiday season.
A clockmaker’s work is naturally solitary. He begins early, to catch the morning light, and will get so caught up in the process he’ll skip lunch and keep working. Some of the clocks in his shop are ones he’s collected over the years and fixes when the business slows, as it has during the virus crisis. Some are already fixed and are being tested to make sure they run as they should.
“Think about you being taken apart and put back together,” he muses.
Once the case is off and the works are exposed, Robert can often see a lot about the health of a clock by the color of the brass parts. Before he begins, he is likely to know who made the clock—he knows clockmakers of previous centuries like old friends—and when, what it will take to get the parts cleaned and working, and how long it’s been since the clock was last repaired. He’ll know most of what he needs to do before removing a single screw, though some timepieces have surprised him.
He loves his work (he’s taught it to his sons, but they have no intentions to follow him in this field), and he has no plans to retire. “This is the job people retire and start,” he says. “Horology is low pressure. I got a forty years’ head start!”
If you have a clock problem, you can call Robert at (607) 937-5959.