Not far from Vancouver’s waterfront, in the historic Gastown neighborhood, stands one of the city’s major crowd-drawer—a steam-powered clock. The 16-foot-tall clock displays the time on four faces, and every quarter hour it plays the Westminster chimes on four whistles with steam shooting out of the top just like in a locomotive.
Despite its antique look and archaic technology, the Gastown Steam Clock is of a much younger generation. It was built in 1977 by the renowned Canadian clockmaker Raymond Saunders as part of a rejuvenation of the Gastown area.
Back in the 1960s, many North American cities such New York, Toronto and Seattle had freeways running right through town or along their waterfronts. Vancouver didn’t have any, and the municipal government wanted to fix that by constructing a giant freeway linking the Trans-Canada Highway with the Lions Gate Bridge, bulldozing its way through the historic, and marginalized, neighborhoods of Strathcona, Chinatown and Gastown. The communities that lay in the path of the proposed freeway protested and the plans for Vancouver's inner-city freeway were shelved. Efforts, instead, were turned towards refurbishing the historic buildings that had fallen into disrepair.
By 1977 the regeneration of Gastown was largely complete, but it still didn’t have a focal point—something to draw people in. So local merchants and property owners banded together and raised $58,000 for Saunders to build the antique-looking clock. The steam theme was chosen as a reference to the industrial past of the area, where steam pipes once ran underground powering machinery. The Gastown Steam Clock became only the second steam-powered clock ever constructed.
The world’s first steam clock was built by an Englishman named John Inshaw in 1859 to draw customers to his newly acquired public house in Ladywood, Birmingham. John Inshaw, who had previously built steam-powered machinery for the railway and shipping industries, devised a clock where steam from a small boiler condensed into droplets of water and fell on a plate at regular intervals. Somehow, the plate then drove the mechanism. The clock was installed above the door, and the pub became known as the Steam Clock Tavern. Inshaw’s establishment did such a roaring trade that the tavern eventually became a music hall in the early 1880s.
Raymond Saunders’s clock in Gastown works differently, and it isn’t actually powered by steam; it’s powered by gravity. The clock consists a number of steel balls that descend by weight, driving a chain that moves the hands of the clock. The small steam engine at the base drives the chain lift delivering the balls to the top of the chain drive. The steam engine is also responsible for the whistles and, of course, the escaping steam.
Raymond Saunders has since built several public steam clocks for cities such as Otaru in Japan, Indianapolis in the United States, and the Canadian cities of Whistler and Port Coquitlam. Other steam clocks made by different makers can be found St Helier, in Jersey, an island off the coast of Normandy, France ,and at the Chelsea Farmers' Market in London, England.