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Searching for Slocum's clock

Jan 1, 2003

To the editor: “At Yarmouth, too, I got my famous tin clock, the only timepiece I carried on the whole voyage. The price of it was a dollar and a half, but on account of the face being smashed the merchant let me have it for a dollar,” so says Joshua Slocum in Sailing Alone Around the World. Slocum’s well-known volume whimsically chronicles his three-year voyage, the first solo circumnavigation, between 1895 and 1899. He met famous people and fought off cannibals. He weathered storms, sickness, calms and hallucinations. But of all the interesting and telling parts of his fascinating story, Slocum’s choice of a timepiece stands out. He left his “real” chronometer on shore, and chose a cheap “tin” clock instead. Although he states that this was because his chronometer was in need of a $15 overhaul, it was really to make a point about himself and the state of seafaring at the time. He used the tin clock to belittle the contemporary trend toward reliance on technology. Slocum wanted to show the world how an old salt could do the impossible and with less equipment than thought necessary for a far shorter foray, with far fewer crew.

Slocum’s clock was symbolic of his disdain for the way the world was going. The age of working sail was winding down. During that era, he had worked his way up through the maritime ranks with wits and courage, and he had retired with experiences and abilities that future generations would know little about. On the outside, he was modest. He professed to be a lesser sailor. But he made his trip around the world in a re-built 37-foot oyster sloop at age 51, and the only chronometer he brought with him was a timepiece more suited to a nightstand in a landlocked city apartment. Slocum showed that even without his real chronometer, and so without any accurate sense of time, he was fully capable of determining his position on the globe. He tells us, “If I doubted my reckoning after a long time at sea I verified by reading the clock aloft, made by the Great Architect, and it was right.” And the great sailor is referring to his use of the lunarian method, which was fast becoming a lost art.

Modern technology was turning Slocum’s world around and turning him into a living anachronism. While he might have to give way to the new age, he was not going to concede without a statement. Slocum’s statement was his amazing voyage and the equipment he chose to take with him. He didn’t need an iron steamer, a polished crew or a fine timepiece to do what had never been done before.

Slocum’s tin clock intrigued me for some time, and I’m not alone. It is usually mentioned in chronicles of the great sailor’s exploits as Slocum’s Chronometer. On one reading of Around the World, I found myself marveling at the engraving of the timepiece, when it occurred to me to ask the question, “Is this a real clock at all?” I wasn’t sure if the sketch could be a whimsical representation of some generic model or an accurate representation of Slocum’s actual item. The first clue to that question lies in the statement by Walter Magnes Teller in his introduction to a later edition of Sailing Alone Around the World. He says of the artists in the original Century publication, Thomas Fogarty and George Varian, “Their sketches are authentic as well as delightful, for Slocum worked with them.” Another clue to the accuracy of the sketch comes from President Theodore Roosevelt’s son, Archie Roosevelt. When he went sailing with Slocum in August of 1906, he noted the clock aboard Spray and wrote, “Of course we saw the famous alarm clock, which had to be boiled before it would run.” Well it’s not an alarm clock, but sort of looks like one. Archie recognized it and from where else than from the Fogarty⁄Varian sketch in Slocum’s book? The implication of Slocum’s choice of a tin clock for a timepiece was not lost on Archie. He said of the great sailor’s navigational prowess, “Beyond my comprehension were his sheets of calculations for the lunar observations he had made single-handedly — a feat, I believe, which is supposed to require three people to work out.”

So it seemed to me that the sketch was an authentic representation of the actual Slocum Chronometer. And since the sketch was most likely one of a real clock, I thought perhaps I could identify it and then obtain one of my own. The original was lying at the bottom of the Atlantic, along with the bones of Sprayiand her skipper. He had taken it on a later voyage, which turned out to be his last. But by knowing the make and model, I could have a clock that was made in the same factory as Slocum’s. Maybe one inspected by the same shop foreman, its case stamped from the same die. Maybe I could have a sister of the Slocum Chronometer ticking away on my piano.

I made a new line drawing of the Slocum clock and emailed it to as many experts as I could find. I contacted the members of the National Association of Watch and Clock Collectors and showed them the sketch. I posted on forums and emailed dealers. I didn’t point out the Slocum connection; I wanted to go in clean. I didn’t want any identification to be tainted by the time line of Slocum’s use of the clock in question. If there were a clock that looked like the sketch, it needed to have been made pre-1895, before Slocum left.

I admit I was actually surprised when I got a positive answer. One collector wrote me and said he had seen a picture of the clock in a dealer catalog. He thought it was an E.N. Welch carriage clock called the Little Lord Fauntleroy and manufactured around 1890. It was another 18 months before I found a photograph of the clock and could confirm it was the Slocum clock. So at this point, both the age and the look fit perfectly with the time line and the picture, and I knew the clock was real.

Once I confirmed its identity, I simply had to have the clock. It became an obsession. After some time, I tracked one down on eBay at a dealer in Ohio and ended up paying about four times what the value guides say it is worth. The Little Lord Fauntleroy had not been showing up on the market, and I didn’t want to miss my opportunity. Compared to waiting another couple of years or never getting the clock, four times the book value seemed like a good deal to me.

The Slocum Chronometer, rather than being tin as the sailor wrote, is actually brass, nickel plated. As he had a new model, the nickel plating may have thrown off his identification. Or perhaps he was just being general; i.e., all sheet metal is sometimes slangily identified as tin. Whatever the case, the clock is a fairly unimpressive model. This was the biggest surprise to me, how small it is. The Fauntleroy measures only about 2 inches high, by about 2.75 inches wide. The face is only about the size of a large watch. I think the assumption most make after seeing the Fogarty⁄Varian sketch is that this must be a larger, more substantial model. A drawing by the artist Robbert Das, in R. Bruce Roberts-Goodson’s book, Spray: The Ultimate Cruising Boat, shows the Slocum Chronometer in a representation of Spray’s cabin. It’s a wonderful sketch, but the clock is shown proportionately much larger than it is in reality. It is shown almost as high as Slocum’s mug, and at least as wide as his pipe is long. In fact, Das drew it much like I imagined it before I saw the clock in person and held it in my hands.

The E.N. Welch company of Forestville, Conn., was founded by Elisha Niles Welch and began manufacturing clocks in 1834. After Elisha’s son, James, took over the company, they ran into hard times. Eventually they were bought by the Sessions Clock Company. This means that if you want to bring a modern equivalent of Slocum’s chronometer on your next circumnavigation, you only have to walk into your nearest pharmacy, and plunk down $9.95 for a Sessions wind-up model.

The clock I have runs and not badly after almost 110 years. The ticking sounds like the lively gait of a small metallic pony in a tin can. The clock is not restored or adjusted, but a quick perusal of the mechanism would tell anyone this is not navigational-grade timepiece art, in any condition. And there is no second hand, anyway. This clock, at its best and brand new, just might place you in the proper ocean, or at least in a neighboring continent. But we knew all this already, didn’t we? Slocum wasn’t trying to fool anyone, just foisting a bit of good Yankee wit all around.

I knew long ago I wasn’t going to own a Spray replica, although I understand there are upwards of a thousand built so far. And the wide ocean is not beckoning to me, either, for more than a day trip. I may never follow in the great man’s wake, as so many have. But now that I found a sister to the famous tin clock, I can pick some stormy night and ensconce myself in my living room with one yellow desk lamp glowing, reading Around the World. And while the wind rattles a thermopaned “port” or two, I’ll wind up my Slocum Chronometer, and settle back. While its gentle ticking reflects around the room, I know I’ll be hearing just what the old man heard while moored off the rocks of Fortescue Bay some lonely night, 100 years ago … the simple heartbeat of Slocum’s lone companion as he sailed off into maritime history.

Richard SantaColoma is a maritime historian, having researched and written on subjects ranging from the history of early submersibles to modern iceboat design. He lives in Putnam Valley, N.Y.