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How BIG is Big?

How big is big? Ask this question and you’ll likely get more answers than you can imagine, and all of them will be correct. It all depends on what you relate “big” to. So, I’ll ask the question a little differently – what do you think of as big in relation to Westclox? Will I get as many answers? I think not.

Probably the first thing that comes to mind is Big Ben, Westclox’s world famous alarm clock. Good answer, but it comes with a number of related questions. Some of the most common of these is, “Did Westclox make Big Ben in London?” Simple answer – no. The big clock in the London tower was made by clockmaker Edward John Dent and his stepson, Frederick Dent. It was completed and installed in 1859, more than a quarter century before Westclox existed. This answer usually brings about the follow-up question, “How could Westclox get away with using the same name for one of its clocks?” The answer is: Big Ben is not the actual name o

f the London clock. It is merely a nickname that came about over time as Londoners were heard to exclaim, “There goes Big Ben again!” when the clock’s huge bell sounded. Depending on who you ask about this, you might be told this was in reference to Sir Benjamin Hall, a former Member of Parliament, who oversaw the installation of the bell or English heavyweight boxing champion Benjamin Caunt. Either way, it is only a nickname. To add to your possible confusion – Westclox’s Big Ben was named after Big Ben in London. (More on that in a future column) The name Big Ben was then trademarked by Westclox.

Now that we’ve covered that Q&A session, let’s move on to the other possibilities. How about the biggest (largest) clock factory in the world? Yes, Westclox, right here in little old Peru, Illinois was the biggest clock factory in the world!

I don’t know how many of you were around to attend the 1933 – 34 World Fair, A Century of Progress, in Chicago. If you had, you likely would have seen a very large Big Ben alarm clock displayed in the Textile, Jewelry and Cosmetic Building, commonly referred to as the Jewelers Building. In the height of the Great Depression, Westclox was thinking big when they decided to enter a display booth in the fair. The company felt that good advertising was essential, even in a time when few people had extra money to spend. For their prime corner booth space in the Jewelers Building, they chose to impress visitors with a giant replica of the current model Big Ben Chime Alarm. Today, you might think of it as “Big Ben on Steroids”! Built in the engineering department of the plant (except for the case), the finished replica stood 42 inches high and weighed in at an impressive 300 pounds! It was mounted on a revolving base, with a button that visitors could press to hear the sound of the chime alarm. The booth was framed with black glass and a curved entrance, above which were two more big Big Ben clocks, though these were only 18 inches tall. All of these big clocks continuously displayed the accurate time. Yes, they were fully functional clocks, not just mock-up models, thanks to the skills of the Westclox engineers. Needless to say, the Westclox booth drew thousands of visitors at the fair. I have no information on what became of this clock after the fair closed.

Twenty-five years later, Westclox began work on another BIG clock. On August 7, 1959, the “World’s Largest Indoor Clock” went into service. Not only was it the biggest indoor clock, it was placed where an estimated 12,720,000 people saw it every month. This Big Ben was installed above the south passageway into the main concourse of Grand Central Station in New York City. The clock was mounted with surrounding advertising panels and measured 28 feet wide by 16 feet 8 inches high. It weighed about three-quarters of one ton. The clock had two identical dials, 13 ½ feet in diameter, with numerals 15 inches high. The hour hands were four feet, nine inches long, and the minute hands were seven feet, five inches. The clock was designed to be an exact replica of the current household Big Ben model, except many times the size. (The design specifications were done by the Westclox engineering department, but unlike the World Fair clock, sub-contractors were employed to assemble the clock in New York.) Total electricity required to run the clock was about 18,000 watts per hour. This giant replica of Big Ben cost well over $10,000. I’m not sure how long this clock remained in service or what finally became of it.

Aside from the aforementioned BIGS in Westclox History, there are several other bigs that you can see in the museum. Take for instance the wrist watch movement made 5X actual size by one of the Horology classes. You’ll also see an escapement (part of the clock movement) 30X actual size and the drawing for it made by a student in one of the Horology classes. These were made with such finesse that they could be considered works of art. If you look up at the wall as you enter the building from the deck, you’ll see a large clock we believe was made by some of the engineers in the model shop section, sometime in the mid-twentieth century. It features a hand-cut brass dial and hands, mounted on a wooden square and operated by a Westclox electric clock movement. You can view some of the old films we have of the factory in operation to get a glimpse of the big machines used here, and our resident machine and tool designer, Don, will be happy to tell you just how big some of those machines really were.

To close, I want to mention the not-quite-as-big clock above the main entrance of the factory. Generations of Illinois Valley residents could always rely on it to tell them the accurate time as they drove by. Everyone was saddened when the clock stopped in 1980, and we’ve heard numerous comments of how the clock is missed. If you still live in the Illinois Valley, take a glance at that clock next time you drive by (it’s still there). You might not know it, but it has been running and showing you the time again for nearly two years! Oh, and don’t forget to watch for more big things happening around the old “clock works”. New life is being breathed into this grand old dame of historic industry in Peru!

“You never know what you might find at the Westclox Museum!”

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