William Murduch - a good late C18th regulator in pillar type case and of 15 day duration, together w

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Lot 149
A fine, unique and historically important late 18th/early 19th century floorstanding regulator of two week duration.
Almost certainly designed and built by the great inventor and gas engineer William Murdock (1754-1839)

Sold for £ 28,800 (US$ 35,424) inc. premium

Fine Clocks

14 Jun 2005, 14:00 BST

London, New Bond Street

A fine, unique and historically important late 18th/early 19th century floorstanding regulator of two week duration.
Almost certainly designed and built by the great inventor and gas engineer William Murdock (1754-1839)
The case.
Of solid mahognay on an oak backboard with veneered crossbanded base, the hood of the 'drum head' type popular in Scotland in the late 18th century, set to the uppermost surface with a 'hip' to accomodate the top section of the pendulum bracket, the section of the backboard behind the hood is covered in green baize, the trunk composed of three sections of mahogany over 1 inch thick with deeply reeded carved decoration with alternating splayed edges, the centre section creating the lift-out door, located via two pins to the lower edge and locking into place at the top, set on a substantial rectangular base veneered to the front with a cross banded flame mahogany panel within a fielded surround, on a bracket base.

The dial
One piece silvered brass, 12 inches in diameter and signed in a horizontal line across the centre. The upper subsidiary dial has a counterbalanced seconds hand and is engraved with two 0-60 arabic scales divided into 100 divisions, thereby denoting that the movement beats 50 per minute.
The hour subsidiary is slightly larger and displays Roman numerals, the hand bearing a female square to take a male winding key.
The minutes are marked in arabic numerals around the periphery of the dial and marked with a central hand.

The rear of the dial is signed Donithorpe, Birmingham and carries an outer scale from 0 to 360 with a subsidiary dial marked 0-100 with the predictions Wet, Changeable, Dry and Extream (sic)

The movement.
Screwed to a cast and enamelled iron seatboard, the substantial brass plates each have tall feet and shoulders, united by four large knopped pillars to a distance of 1 5/8 inch thick rather than the 2 1/4 to 2 1/2 inch thickness of standard movements. Set at the apex of the plates is a cast brass support with heart shaped lower section that carries the escapement arbor. All wheels are light and the train count is as follows:

Wheel Diam. Tooth Count Meshing pinion
Great 7.75ins. 360 36
2nd - 180 30
3rd - 144 24
'Scape - 50 -

It should be noted that the pinions are of a much higher count and the great wheel of a much larger diameter than any contemporary regulator.

Maintaining power is effected on pulling a cord inside the case; this raises one end of a lever pivotted on the front plate; at one end of the lever is a vertical rod that carries a small weighted platform, at the other is a drop arm that has a bevelled tip that meshes with a wheel of 96 teeth carried by the second arbor; the pressure on the 96 wheel is enough to power the clock while it is being wound. Duration on one winding is 15 days.

The pendulum has a total length of 61.5 inches and comprises of a wooden rod suspended by a steel suspension double screwed to the apex of a pair of cast iron supports screwed to the iron seatboard, the cylindrical brass bob is held by a (replaced?) regulation nut 2.08m (6ft 10ins.) high


  • Provenance.
    The vendor acquired this regulator from a direct descendant of William Murdock in the late 1970s and while no primary source evidence exists to conclusively prove that this was designed by Murdock for his personal use, the volume of evidence is extremely compelling.

    It is unlike any regulator made by a traditionally trained clockmaker; the plates are placed much closer together than usual, the pinions are of a far higher count, the maintaining power is of a most unusual form and the greatwheel has 360 teeth, is much larger than normal and infact bears closer similarities to contemporary scientific and nautical instruments than horology. The cast iron seatboard and pendulum bracket have a distinctly 'engineered' feel to them and the latter is very similar in form to a bracket used on Murdocks oscillating cylinder engine of 1785, a replica of which is on display in the Science Museum, London.

    William Murdoch (1754 - 1839)
    William Murdoch was born in the village of Lugar, near Auchinleck, some 25 miles south of Glasgow. His father, John, was a miller and wheelwright with an original engineering mind. He constructed a wooden tricycle and in about 1766 designed and installed the first cast iron toothed, bevelled millgearing at Bellow Mill. The mill was situated just next to the Murdoch family home and it is highly likely that the 16 year old William helped his father with this and much of his other practical work. The local Laird was Alexander Boswell, the father of James, best known as companion to and biographer of Dr. Samuel Johnson. It is recorded that Boswell visited Matthew Boulton at his Soho House in Birmingham and it is quite likely that Boswell mentioned the local Murdoch family as gifted engineers.

    In 1777, the 23 year old William walked over 250 miles to the Watt and Boulton factory at Soho in Birmingham in the hope of employment, possibly following a recommendation from Boswell. He began his career working in the pattern shop on a wage of 15 shillings a week, rising to 18 shillings a week if he had to work away from Soho.

    By 1779 Boulton had enough confidence in Murdoch to send him to Wanlockhead, the highest village in Scotland to erect an engine to pump water from the bottom of a lead mine some 120 feet deep. On 22nd March 1779 Boulton wrote to the mine owner "We have this night dispatched William Murdock by the Sheffield coach with orders to proceed through Carlisle to Wanlockhead without delay.....He hath a good deal of experience in our engines and is capable of putting your people to rights in any matter they may not understand and we doubt not but he will acquit himself to you and to our satisfaction as he is a man we have a good opinion of. Pray don't keep him longer than necessary as we want him in Cornwall."

    Cornwall was crucial to Boulton and Watt; not only was the copper mined there the main raw material for their mint and other foundry work, but they had supplied a huge number of engines to the mine owners that had to be kept running. If a machine failed, it could literally be a matter of life and death for the miners and financial ruin for the mine owners. It was Murdochs job to keep this part of the country running efficiently, furthermore, in such a competitive market, he had to ensure that no other owners were using engines that violated the company patents. The latter part of this work could often lead to trouble for Murdock; he was required to submit affidavits against mine owners and there are known instances of Murdoch physically coming to blows with members of a disgruntled mining community. James Watt had overseen Cornwall before Murdock and had personal knowledge of how high tempers could rise; in a letter to Murdoch in 1789 he advised "We think that you should not stay at Redruth but at Truro or Saint Austle until these rogues are quieted and take care not to be in their way at night....". Despite some minor local risings, Murdock had a great affection for Cornwall and was a shareholder in some of the mines that used the Boulton and Watt engines.

    When not beset by human problems, Murdock was paid to sort mechanical ones and in several instances it is understood that he modified some of Watts engines to improve performance. In the 1790s Boulton wrote to Watt "Murdoch seems indefatigable....everyone seems helpless in comparison of him" and "We want more Murdocks, for of all others he is the most active man and best engine erector I ever saw....when I look at the work done it astonishes me and is entirely owing to the spirit and activity of Murdock..."

    Murdochs father had designed a tricycle and William wanted to take this a stage further and apply steam power to a road contraption. In 1784 he constructed a three-wheeled carriage, a replica of which is currently on display in the Birmingham Museum of Science and Discovery. It is now known that despited little encouragement form either Boulton or Watt, Murdcok went on to make various other carriages, but the concept never really captured the public imagination.

    Other inventions and discoveries of note include the 'Sun and Planet' gear system, the long-D slide valve, the oscillating marine engine and various coal tar products such as aniline dyes.

    Murdocks greatest single contribution to the world is his discovery of gas lighting. It had long been noted that when particular types of coal burned they gave off a flammable gas. Murdoch conducted many experiments with various types of coal combined with pipes and apertures of differents designs and by 1794 had reached the stage where he could illuminate his own house with gas light. Just as he did with his steam powered tricycle, he approached his employers for encouragement, but again, they either failed to see the potential or felt that their energy was better spent on their core business. Disappointed, Murdock returned to Scotland for a brief time but in 1798 returned to Birmingham to take up the post of manager of the Soho Works on a salary of £1000 per annum.

    In this new role, he pressed ahead with gas lighting and within 3 years had rigged the Soho building to be lit entirely by gas; a public demonstration using over 2500 lights was given in March 1802 to celebrate the Peace of Amiens. In 1805/7 he installed gas lighting in the Salford cotton spinning mill of Phillips and Lee. In a report to the Parliamentary Commission in later years, Lee wrote "..the cost of gas was not more than 50% of that of oil and 70% of the cost of tallow while the light obtained was much more brilliant, much steadier and cleanlier in use." (sic) In 1808 Murdock was presented with the Royal Society Rumford gold medal as "the author of the most important or useful discovery which shall be made published.. in heat and light."

    William Murdock died on 15th November 1839 and is buried near to James Watt and Matthew Boulton in the crypt of the Church of St. Mary, Handsworth

    As the 19th century progressed, so did the spread of gas lighting, in Britain and on the World stage; it changed the working and leisure lives of countless thousands of people and proved to be one of the major innovations of the 19th century. It is tempting to imagine the great man checking the time of this regulator by gas light of an evening.

    Literature sold with this lot:
    'Antiquarian Horology' ~September 2003, vol 27 number 5 pages 502-508.
    'The Scot who lit the world, the story of William Murdoch inventor of gas lighting', Janet Thomson, 2003
    Catalogue of the International Bi-centenary Exhibition, 'William Murdock 1754-1839', City of Birmingham Museum of Science and Industry.
    'Men of Invention and Industry', Samuel Smiles, John Murray 1884.

    Other related works:
    'The Lunar Men' Jenny Uglow, Faber and Faber
    'Cornish Inventors' Carolyn Martin, Tor Mark Press
    'The Third Man - The Life and Times of William Murdoch 1754-1839 The Inventor of Gas Lighting', John Griffiths, Andre Deutsch
    'William Murdoch Mechanician, Maverick and Medallist', John Richard Taylor, Midlands Gas Association
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