Modernizing A 170 Year Old Antique Grandfather Clock

Frankly, we let out a yelp of despair when we read this in the tip line “Antique Grandfather clock with Arduino insides“! But before you too roll your eyes, groan, or post snark, do check out [David Henshaw]’s amazing blog post on how he spent almost eight months working on the conversion.

Before you jump to any conclusions about his credentials, we must point out that [David] is an ace hacker who has been building electronic clocks for a long time. In this project, he takes the antique grandfather clock from 1847, and puts inside it a new movement built from Meccano pieces, stepper motors, hall sensors, LEDs, an Arduino and lots of breadboard and jumper wires while making sure that it still looks and sounds as close to the original as possible.

He starts off by building a custom electro-mechanical clock movement, and since he’s planning as he progresses, meccano, breadboard and jumper wires were the way to go. Hot glue helps preserve sanity by keeping all the jumper wires in place. To interface with all of the peripherals in the clock, he decided to use a bank of shift registers driven from a regular Arduino Uno. The more expensive DS3231 RTC module ensures better accuracy compared to the cheaper DS1307 or similar clones. A bank of RGB LEDs acts as an annunciator panel inside the clock to help provide various status indications. The mechanical movement itself went through several iterations to get the time display working with a smooth movement of the hands. Besides displaying time, [David] also added a moon phase indicator dial. A five-rod chime is struck using a stepper motor driven cam and a separate solenoid is used to pull and release three chime hammers simultaneously to generate the loud gong sounds.

And here’s the amazing part – he did all of this before laying his hands on the actual grandfather clock – which was shipped to him in California from an antique clock specialist in England and took two months to arrive. [David] ordered just the clock housing, dial/face and external parts, with none of the original inner mechanism. Once he received it, his custom clock-work assembly needed some more tweaking to get all the positions right for the various hands and dials. A clock like this without its typical “ticktock” sound would be pretty lame, so [David] used a pair of solenoids to provide the sound effect, with each one being turned on for a different duration to produce the characteristic ticktock.

At the end of eight months, the result – christened Judge – was pretty satisfying. Check the video below to judge the Judge for yourself. If you would like to see some more of [David]’s clockwork, check out Dottie the Flip Dot Clock and A Reel to Reel Clock.

28 thoughts on “Modernizing A 170 Year Old Antique Grandfather Clock

    1. Yes, I must admit the misappropriation of an antique sours it for me. I’d find it more impressive if he’d bodged together a long case clock out of folding door panels, or cardboard, or MDF, and I hate MDF.

      Then having decided to vandalise an object that he should be a mere custodian of for the future, he has not accorded it the respect of making it a high quality build. Maybe this is prototypical for execution of a mechanism in brass and making the electronics a hell of a lot tidier, but he seems to convey the impression he’s done and off to the next novelty.

      1. Though is this a particularly valuable antique clock to start with? Considering it is missing the mechanism, I can’t see many people wanting to be “mere custodian of for the future”. If it can be put into use, much more likely to survive.

        1. “Considering it is missing the mechanism”

          Read the article. He ordered the clock, minus the mechanism. The mechanism was ripped out by the seller.

          We have an antique grandfather clock in our family. At some point a genius relative had the guts ripped out and replaced with a quartz movement, making the clock worthless.

      2. This was my first reaction too, watching the video he did mention that he makes clocks so I just hoped this is something he has considered. I’ve battled with this myself were I have choosen not to chop up parts of history for hacking, with the sad result of it being scrapped instead.

  1. Nice build, although having gotten it working, I’d be looking to replace the breadboards with PCBs.

    It’d be interesting to interface the contemporary movement with more modern innards for time-sync purposes… for instance having the clock wind itself back up on a regular basis and perhaps a small solenoid or two to make the pendulum swing faster or slower to keep the mechanical clock in sync with a RTC, but that’s about as much as I’d want to change.

    Then again, shipping would have been expensive enough without the movement.

  2. Can’t abide by this one. It WAS an antique. Even if he built a cesium clock into it it would still be ruined even if the wiring and assembly were pristine and perfect.

    Please leave all the old removed parts in a box inside the unit. Someone in the far future will treat it lovingly once again and will need those parts when restoring it.

    1. The guts are still in England. There probably wasn’t much to remove and save when he added his electronics.

      Personally, I think he could have done a tiny bit more to make it a bit more “professional” over using Meccano and LEGO pieces to put it together, but whatever. Not my clock.

      1. Oh!? Very Kewl then! Antique shell saved by being re-purposed!

        The LEGOs? I can understand that. Kids gone, LEGOs all repurposed. Great for custom stands on the kitchen counter. Hard to find places to use them and he managed to HIDE them! Good job!

        My apologies. Should have observed more closely.

      1. At the very least, the builder should place paper copies of a schematic, the source code, and a datasheet for the Atmel chip. But I wouldn’t give it even five years with those horrible breadboards. Perfboard or even deadbug construction has a much longer life expectancy.

    1. If you look at his website, you’ll see that he got the clock with _NO_ movement inside. Not even the pendulum. I’m still a little confused that he got all those perfectly preserved dials and things, up to and including the original hour, minute, and second hands, without the gears to turn them. But given that that’s all he had, I guess you do what you can with what you’ve got.

      Still and all, I think I’d have tried harder to give it a real pendulum, even if it didn’t actually do anything but swing.

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