For a town with more than a handful of clock towers, Grahamstown seems to be struggling to keep up with the times. Walking around the CDB, you only need to lift your gaze to spot one of our majestic clock towers. However, ascertaining the right time is more frustrating.
For a town with more than a handful of clock towers, Grahamstown seems to be struggling to keep up with the times. Walking around the CDB, you only need to lift your gaze to spot one of our majestic clock towers. However, ascertaining the right time is more frustrating. Maintaining the town’s clock towers, which form a significant part of Grahamstown's’ history, has also proved to be a challenging task, leaving many of these time-pieces abandoned and dilapidated. For many years, local time was calculated by the military and announced by the firing of a 9am gun at Fort Selwyn on Gunfire Hill, next to the 1820 Settlers’ Monument. This presented many problems as some citizens failed to wind their various time pieces. In 1853, the idea of paying for a clock by public subscription was raised, and 20 years later, the first clock tower was installed at the Cathedral. The “Cathedral clock tower” is not in fact a Cathedral time-piece. It is Grahamstown’s Public Clock which was built with the aim of setting a standard time for the city, so that people would know the opening and closing times of and offices. The Cathedral clock tower was then followed by the Settler Memorial Tower which was built in 1884 at the entrance to City Hall. The same year, clockmaker Henry Carter Galpin put a scaled-down version of a clock on the roof of what is now known as the Observatory museum. Monde Moses Lamani, who has worked at the Observatory since 1984, was one of those responsible for looking after this clock. “We used to come up here three times a week to wind the clock so that it would run on time,” Lamani said. “About eight years ago, the clock stopped working consistently and although many people have come here to try to fix it, none of them has been successful. The clock works for a little while, and then breaks again.” Because of height and limited access, it is difficult to take care of the clocks on a regular basis – an issue raised by Ettienne Mager, of Makana Municipality, who is responsible for the administration of the City Hall clock tower. “Repairing the mechanisms of the clock as it is not an option any more, it is very difficult to go up those steep stairs every second day to wind a clock,” he said. “It is also becoming more difficult to find the necessary parts for this old mechanism. This is why I am proposing that we replace the current mechanism with an electronic system.” However, making changes to the City Hall clock has also raised some concerns about preserving Grahamstown’s history. “I am not suggesting that we make any changes to the face of the clock” he said. “We just need a more modernised system of running it.” The city hall clock, which was erected in 1872 to mark Grahamstown’s 50th anniversary is currently in desperate need of maintenance. Not only does the clock not function, but the structure itself is falling apart and increasingly becoming an inglorious pigeons’ paradise. As the oldest clock in the town, the Cathedral clock, under the administration of Richard Grant, of Rhodes University’s Physics department, has undergone many changes. In a relentless effort to keep the Cathedral clock ticking, Grant has spent 25 years finding ways to modernise it. He began by replacing the old pendulum with a new electronic mechanism in 1983. However, the clock still had to be regularly wound, so four years later, Grant developed a more sophisticated system. He replaced a lot of the old clockwork, a mass of cogs and gears, with a small, battery-driven motor and computer. This allowed the cathedral clock to set its time in the same way as a digital clock. In 1989, Grant restored the clock chimes and programmed the computer so that the clock chimed every 15 minutes – but only between 7am and 6pm, so as to not disturb the sleep of Grahamstown residents. With a combination of old architecture and inventive modern engineering, the cathedral is the most consistently accurate clock in the CBD. One would never guess that the clock is currently running off a taxi’s windscreen-wiper motor that Grant found at a scrap yard in Port Elizabeth. The Cathedrals clock is now in the capable hands of Wayne Jayes. “The advantage of changing to an electronic control system is that it is potentially more accurate than a mechanical control system,” said John McKinnell, who used to maintain Rhodes University’s ivory tower. However, some residents are not keen about modernising the clocks for the sake of making them easier to maintain. “Grahamstown is a historic town, said the Observatory’s Lamani. “People come from all over the world to see this town because they want to see things as they were.”