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Monkey business

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Today I learned all about a double three-legged gravity escapement. When I say “all about”, that’s not strictly true. If asked to perform a TEDtalk on 19th Century clock mechanics, I would be struggling a little – playing for time. Still, a career in broadcast journalism would prove good prep for that.

Wheeling the bike along St Mary Street, I had a chance encounter with an engineer looking proudly on at Cardiff’s historic (yes, it is) Pierhead Clock. Made by W Potts and Sons of Leeds in 1897, it’s just come back from the menders. Condensation in its glass casing had fiddled with the workings. I won’t trouble you with the technicals here.

Now, after a £28,000 refurbishment it’s looking shiny and in perfect working order, back in its newly-sealed case.

Originally, it was housed in the Pierhead building in the bay, hence the name. But also known as the Monkey Clock, it features three monkeys (not real) swinging on the pendulums and striking the bell on the hour. They are reputed to represent the Third Marquis of Bute’s rebuttal to Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. Three monkeys of questionable wisdom, perhaps.  It is also said he saw monkeys as good luck symbols.

Oh yes, that double three-legged gravity escapement, I was talking about. Rotating 60 degrees at a time, the escape wheel lifts one of two legs on each side in turn and they alternately kick the pendulum. This mechanism is also a key feature of Big Ben.

My engineer friend told me the Pierhead Clock is set at five seconds fast and can be automatically adjusted by a device, I’ve forgotten the name of.

“Do you like it,” he asked as I examined the workings.

I told him I did. I enjoyed our chat and the evident passion he had for his job and his part in restoring a little piece of Cardiff’s history.

Time well spent, I’d say.

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