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Horological Journal Article of the month
January 2002

The BBC’s First Master Clock

Geoffrey Goodship reports on this historic clock, an early Synchronome, that he has restored to full working order after saving it from being scrapped some thirty years ago*

Obviously, time has always been of prime importance to the BBC (in fact, broadcasting first started with the transmission of time signals around 1905) When the British Broadcasting Company was formed in 1922 it used a ‘Concert Room’ at Marconi House in the Strand. This studio had a slave dial clock operated by half-minute impulses from a Magneta master clock system installed by the Marconi Company in 1912. In the early 1920s mantel clocks with ‘Westminster Chimes’ were becoming popular, so the broadcast programmes started with the announcer playing the chimes on a set of tubular bells (now in a Surrey school) while watching the studio clock.

These early broadcasts were greatly appreciated and there was an increasing demand for longer broadcasts and a wider variety of programmes. The BBC therefore moved to larger premises leased from the Institution of Electrical Engineers at Savoy Place with the BBC entrance in Savoy Hill. The IEE had a Synchronome master clock system producing half-minute impulses, but the BBC had found that for giving time signals and general programme purposes, clocks giving seconds indication were essential. Accordingly a 19th Century clock maker’s regulator weight driven wall clock, probably a Fromanteel, was bought and mounted on the studio wall. Its large centre seconds hand and visible, seconds beating, pendulum gave the announcer the best chance of making an accurate time signal. It was corrected twice daily by wireless from Eiffel Tower. Such clocks were considered to have little, if any, historical value in the early 1920s, but it caught the engineer’s eye as a cheap and immediate solution to the problem. Unfortunately neither the clock nor any details have survived; I would dearly like to be informed, should any information come to hand.

On the 21st April 1923 Mr F Hope-Jones, Chairman of the British Horological Institute and proprietor of the Synchronome Clock Company, gave a broadcast talk on Daylight Saving. At the end he told listeners to set their clocks and watches forward one hour and concluded by counting out the six seconds from five seconds to 10pm by reference to his watch (he was a very confident man). This resulted in the abolition of the Westminster Chimes and the announcers counted out the last five seconds before tapping a single bell at the exact hour. These time signals proved very popular and led to a decision that master clock and slave-dial installations should be made in all studio premises. The Savoy Hill installation was completed before the end of 1923, 1. The Synchronome master clock was fitted with the William Shortt seconds-pulsing switch (the large version) fitted on the ‘A’ frame above the standard Synchronome switch. It fed the seconds loop to the studio Synchronome slave clocks with large centre seconds hands.

bbc1.jpg (16526 bytes)1. The clock installed at Savoy Hill from 1923 to 1932. (Picture courtesy of the BBC)

The clock was corrected daily by the standard procedure of adding or removing small weights on the pendulum tray by reference to the Eiffel Tower signals. This may not have been entirely satisfactory because the BBC in June 1923 made a contract with the Standard Time Company "for an hourly signal to a bell or relay at a cost of 5gns per annum". This service to the BBC continued almost to the end of 1928, but was used only as a back up from the end of 1923 when the time service was obtained by line from the Royal Greenwich Observatory. Hope-Jones made many visits to the clock and this led to a better regulating device being fitted in 1924. This consisted of a knob on the right hand side of the clock with "fasting" & "slowing" positions. It turned a shaft projecting into the clock, here the shaft was drilled to hold a silk thread carrying a small weight which was lowered onto the pendulum in the "fasting" position and raised off the tray for "slowing" without having to unlock the clock case for access. Later in 1929 the same firm fitted a William Shortt "hit & miss" Synchroniser to the clock whereby the six-pip signal from Greenwich automatically corrected the clock at regular intervals. (Unfortunately this replaced the NRA plate and the clock’s serial number was thereby lost)

The clock was taken to the New Broadcasting House in 1932. It controlled broadcast time for 14 years when it was replaced by two Gent’s Pul-Syn-Etic observatory master clocks regulated from the RGO by the automatic Gents See-Saw control. The Savoy Hill clock was then relegated to the humble duty of testing slave clocks in the Clock Maintenance Room for a further 22 years.

Around 1965 the London Museum decided to mount an exhibit to show the impact that the new design features of the 1930s Broadcasting House had on London design at the time. A replica studio was considered but space restrictions forced a settlement for a 1930s typical studio control cubicle. I was charged with getting suitable equipment and properties. One item was the distinctive 1930s BBC studio clock possibly the first domestic size clock to have ‘tablets’ rather than numerals on the dial, and one was found among some old props under the Concert Hall stage. At this point I was shown into the Clock Room and was amazed to see the old master clock, recognising it from Engineering Information archive photographs as the Savoy Hill clock. I emphasised its importance as an engineering relic to those in charge and it was agreed that BBC Engineering Information would be informed should the clock become redundant.

In the 1970s I took over the duties of Engineering Liaison Officer, one of my duties was Curator of Engineering Relics, a collection started in Bristol by the late Peter West. The important items were sent to the Science Museum, other items were housed by Bristol Museum although there were some unofficial collections in BBC premises. When visiting by chance the electrical store in the Langham basement (the BBC leased part of the old Langham hotel for many years) I was astonished to see the Savoy Hill clock in a very distressed state piled in a corner with bits of electrical junk all destined for scrap. I had words. The clock was cleaned, broken glass restored and the clock then sent to EID for photographing, measurement recording, and allocating to Bristol.

However some time later when the clock was about to be taken to Bristol, higher authority deemed it was not broadcasting plant and therefore did not qualify to be kept as a relic and I was to dispose of it. After some discussion it was agreed that I could take the clock with a view to its restoration when I retired in 1978.

The Restoration

A detailed examination some years later showed that all the "fasting/slowing" mechanism apart from the escutcheon plate on the side of the clock was missing, together with the seconds indicating dial and hand. The rest of the clock including the synchronising mechanism was intact albeit dirty and worn. Unfortunately I could find no archive photographs of sufficient detail to define the missing parts. So as many as possible of existing master clocks of the same make and period were examined including the reserve collection at the Royal Observatory Greenwich, where we were able to photograph a suitable seconds dial and hand for subsequent replication. But the "fasting/slowing" mechanism appeared unique to the Savoy hill clock and I had to obtain a consensus of opinion from the experts as to its detailed construction.

The surviving escutcheon plate carried a long (16mm) bush which indicated that the operating rod was not supported by any end bearing within the clock case, indeed there was no trace of any other support. The inner end of the bush bore was turned out to a larger diameter for about 5mm which was thought would have accommodated a small spiral friction spring bearing against a collar to provide positive friction for keeping the rod in its operating positions. The inner end of the rod was assumed to go just past the centre line of the clock and would have been drilled with a hole at the clock centre line for securing the thread. (There was much discussion as to the possibility of thread or fine brass chain, since the weight of the latter would form a variable regulating weight but this seemed counter to the practice of the time). The thread would carry a small brass weight to rest on the square pendulum tray in the "fasting" position and be raised off the tray by the thread winding around the rod in the "slowing" position.

Confirmation of this mechanism was sought by lengthy correspondence to a score or so of engineers who had served at Savoy Hill. Fortunately Ken Newson, retired BBC Engineering Recruitment Officer, was able to remember the details and confirm our surmises were largely correct.

It was not until the early 1980s that the actual restoration, 2, could be started and this in turn took many hours extended over most of the 1980s with most valuable help from both retired and serving BBC colleagues.

bbc2.jpg (19899 bytes)2. Geoffrey Goodship with the restored BBC Master Clock.


Fortunately a suitable ‘Hope-Jones 1920s knob’ was found in my spares collection and this was fitted with a pointer made to the same size and shape as the standard Synchronome advance and retard pointer. It extended exactly to the original stops on the escutcheon plate. The rod diameter of 5mm was, of course, obtained from the bore diameter of the bush; silver steel rod was used. A suitable friction spring and collar was made and fitted. The rod was drilled 1mm at the clock centreline and a small split brass eye fitted to which was tied 180mm of natural silk embroidery thread at the end of which was attached a chemical balance weight of 4g. The small seconds dial was made and engraved by the BBC Research Department Workshops; I silvered it by the old chemical method. It was fitted to the original fixing holes in the count-wheel cock and a matching hand was found in my collection.

All this took several years. The clock was then assembled, lubricated, adjusted and ran on test for several months driving a Synchronome 1920s 15 inch dial with a large centre seconds hand which had been recovered from the Brookman’s Park transmitting station.

It could not, of course, easily be provided with the six-pip signal direct from Greenwich for the synchroniser, but fortunately I had found that the ‘Wavetime’ small plastic LCD radio-controlled alarm clocks can provide a six pip signal, so a simple circuit was devised using a 555 timer to extract this signal from the clock and amplify it sufficiently to drive the Savoy Hill synchroniser and this happily keeps the clock corrected to atomic time. So it was able to see in the New Millennium with precision.

It has always been my intention that the clock will return to the BBC, if and when I am convinced that it will be properly conserved and exhibited according to best museum practice. In the meantime it will always be available on loan for any suitable exhibition and can be shown to any interested person if they will contact me through the Editor. I spent a great deal of time in my final years with the BBC arguing for the setting up of a general BBC Museum in one or another of our redundant magnificent transmitter buildings in tourist areas. But there always seemed to be a financial crisis that provided a good excuse to do nothing. However the situation is looking more hopeful now that BBC Archives are compiling a register of BBC Relics (an unsuccessful proposal of mine to BBC Engineering Direction some 30 years ago). And better still, have appointed a Head of Heritage with funding to conserve BBC historical items.



I should like to acknowledge with thanks the valuable assistance from: Jonathan Betts, Curator of Horology at The Royal Greenwich Observatory for advice and access to the reserve collection and for the photographs of the Synchronome small seconds dial; to Andrew Harper, retired from the BBC Planning and Installation Department for the high precision fabrication of the mechanical parts of the "fasting & slowing" regulator; and to Mick Holmewood and his team at the BBC Research Department Workshops for the production and engraving of the small seconds dial.

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Last Updated 6th January 2002

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