Keeping time: Stamford restorer preserves what once made industry tick
Upon his retirement, Dave Dietrich wondered how he would fill the very thing he now had in ample supply. It didn’t take long. Just a couple weeks, and he was right back to punching the clock.
“I was never into antiques, but the month I retired, after 30 years with IBM, I went over to United House Wrecking in Stamford and bought my first clock,” Dietrich says on a recent morning as he and a visitor take in the antique time recorder made by his former employer. “I have always been curious about how a clock works. So, I bought it and opened it up and saw it for the first time. I had so much fun with it that I ended up getting a couple hundred smaller clocks and taking them apart. I figured out how to restore the wood and get the mechanicals working again. I marveled at how well these things have held up after 90 or 100 years.”
After those initial buys in 2011, he directed his attention to the industrial master clocks that once controlled buildings full of “slave,” or secondary, clocks in the first half of the 20th century. Made by International Time Recording Co., the precursor to IBM, and other manufacturers, including Standard Electric Co. and Landis, they were the high-tech gadgets of their time. They synchronized the clocks used by factories and businesses and ensured that classroom bells would ding uniformly.
“They were the most accurate clocks you could find,” he says as he walks through his Stamford workspace. “If you ever sat there in class, as I did, and wondered why the clocks jumped a minute at a time, you were watching the secondary clocks, connected to the master that was sending out an electrical signal once a minute.”
As he talks, dozens of clocks respond on cue, sounding out clicks at different times. Still dutiful workers, they are now devoid of the dozens of remote clocks that when connected to the master created one of the first technological “networks” of the modern age.
A meticulous restorer, Dietrich has brought these clocks back to life. “I don’t strip. I don’t sand. I don’t refinish. All I do is clean and put some oil down, so the wood is restored and gets some nourishment,” he says. “I do, however, like to brighten up the metal. They clean up beautifully.”
He gets the pendulum swinging again and installs modern wiring, though they remain self-winding. He also lights them, ensuring that the beauty of the interior wood, largely left unscathed over the decades, is seen by passing eyes. In recent years, his business, International Time Machines, has brought master clocks to the lobbies of office buildings in Stamford (Landmark Square and 1055 Washington Blvd.) and Westchester County, N.Y. They are also stationed in bars and restaurants in the area, including the Red Rooster Pub in Newtown.
Prior to his career with IBM, he was a tinkerer, having studied mechanical engineering at Lehigh University.
“It’s a hands-on thing, which I really enjoy,” says Deitrich, 61. “I like working with the woods and metals, and, more than anything, I love figuring out how they work. They don’t come with manuals. I just recently had this shipped from Denmark and it comes as it is. You have no idea how it works.”
Why bother with an anachronistic technology when today’s digital universe automatically synchronizes everyone’s devices? With a knowing smile, he reaches for his smartphone. “Do you want to know what time it is?” he says, laughing, as he flips open the cover to his smartphone and, in seconds, has the time. “It’s 11:11.”
“So, why do I pursue this? I think these clocks are cool and interesting technology. These were the some of the first programmable machines that you could go in and tailor.”
He knows their history, loves the artistry and is passionate about keeping the engineering alive for generations who will likely never be scheduled by these objects. He sees a direct line to the very innovations that put that smart device into society’s collective hands and helped to shape today’s digital landscape.
One of the earliest time recording objects he possesses is a device made by tinkerer and jeweler Willard Bundy, who lived in Binghamton, N.Y. Bundy made night watchmen clocks, which were carried by security guards on their rounds. When they visited their stations, they would insert a corresponding key to record the time they visited. Bundy flipped the concept and mounted a clock on the wall. Each worker had a particular key, which would be entered into the machine to record all the comings and goings. It was Bundy’s brother, Harlow, who started International Time Recording Co. — the firm that Tom Watson joined in 1914 and eventually became CEO of when it was called IBM.
In retirement, Dietrich is chasing time, metaphorically, and making sure the art of these early inventions is not lost to, well, time.
“I have to do some real digging to find them,” he says of the clocks, which are not small. Some are closer to the depth and dimension of a grandfather clock, with a bit less decoration. “I’ve had them shipped in from California and Florida. I spend a lot of time driving around Virginia to North Carolina, Ohio and on up to Maine. They have definitely lost their value, but they are interesting pieces of history. I also think they are quite beautiful.”
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