“We were all awestruck when we first saw the clock house because it felt like we were looking at the large-scale manifestation of a wrist-watch. Though we all use it every day, most of us never really stop to wonder what the inside of a wrist-watch looks like. I felt as if I was actually inside a wristwatch,” says Mohammed Jubair, a technician with the Signal and Telecommunications department of the Southern Railways based in Kochi, Kerala.
The clock that confounded Jubair is a 1940s-era contraption installed at the Cochin Harbour Terminus railway station, established around the same time to primarily service freight trains carrying cargo from the Kochi Harbour to different parts of the country.
Back in 2004, when the station fell into disuse following the commissioning of the Vallarpadam container terminus and the damage of a railway bridge, the manually-run antique clock stopped telling the time too.
But 14 years later, the clock, a unique contraption of its kind, has been brought back to life with the efforts of a three-member railway team, including Jubair, who evinced extraordinary interest in its repair. The team, who had no prior experience of handling clocks, worked overtime, apart from their regular hours, often spending their Sundays inside the dingy clock-house at the station to bring the gadget to life.
The clock, that remained ignored for more than a decade, came on the path of restoration when technicians Jubair, Vinod and Ram Meena visited the CHTS to identify parts of the station that could be sold for scrap as it was being renovated.
“We walked into the clock hut full of various mechanisms that helped run the clock. When we cranked a lever out of curiosity, we saw that the clock hands moved slightly! That’s when we realised that this clock could perhaps be saved and that it would be a huge waste of such a relic to give it up without a fight,” said Jubair, the team leader.
They took their observations to a senior official of the department, who decided to support their decision to repair the antique clock after seeing the marvel for himself. The department’s initial plan to pluck the old clock and install a new digital one in its place was paused.
According to the officials, the clock is a weight-driven, manually-run contraption that had remained untouched and unserviced since 2004. Four feet in diameter, the clock is propelled by the downward movement of a 25-kg metal topped stone weight and needs to be wound up every eight days. Khalid, a driver working with the Railways for the past 30 years, reminisced, “Back when the station used to be functional, there were no people specially assigned to wind the clock; either one of us drivers, porters or peons would climb up and do it when necessary.”
Starting March 2017, the three technicians and the senior official started spending their Sundays at the clock-house trying to identify why it stopped working. Experimentation along with trial and error was the only way to go about it, they realised. For weeks, they would climb up to the roof of the desolate station building and perch themselves behind the clock to tinker with the mechanisms.
It was not easy.
“The entire mechanism was caked with dirt and old grease, all of which had to be first wiped off; it was only then we could clearly see how the whole system worked,” said Jubair.
His colleague, Vinod, said, “When we first tried to remove the clock’s mechanisms, it wouldn’t even budge a bit! We knew then that it was made of very high-quality materials, and if restored, could run for another hundred years.” The railway team, however, have no clue where the clock was manufactured, whether it was even British-made or how it came to be installed at the railway station.
The clock’s mechanisms were made of brass, needles of cast iron and the dial face of porcelain, all of which was contained within a thick glass slab held together by wooden frames. But decades of wear and tear had rotted through the wood, flecked away the paint and broken the glass in two places. “We removed the damaged porcelain and glass and replaced them with acrylic sheets, and swapped the wooden frame with an aluminum one and repainted everything; this would ensure that the clock would stay damage proof for a long time to come,” said Jubair.
Through the process of repair, the trio quickly discovered that the main reason the clock was unable to operate was that the pinion responsible for ticking the seconds’ hand had eroded away from age and use. Replacing this was difficult indeed; no time houses in Kerala possessed a suitable pinion due to its outdated style.
“Most watch houses we enquired in told us of the futility of our attempt because there existed neither parts nor the specialists required to repair this ancient machine,” said a senior railway official.
Jubair then decided to take matters into his own hands and fashioned a pinion wheel himself by cutting, grinding and soldering thick embroidery needles, which yielded results when the clock proceeded to work for 15 minutes. “This was a positive sign; now we knew for sure that we were on the right track,” he said. He then fashioned another pinion, this one finally proving their calculations right; once the weight was cranked, the clock ticked for eight days, following which the weight touched down indicating the completion of one cycle.
By January 2018, the clock was fully restored and is completely functional save for lights, which will be installed before the station commences operations. For now, one of the three men go to the station every eight days to crank the weights that run the clock. There are talks to install a motor that would automate this cranking process which would offer convenience to station personnel without affecting the authenticity of the clock.