Underneath Vancouver, Canada, there runs a series of steam pipes connected to a generating plant at Georgia and Beatty Streets. The system provides heat to most of the downtown core, and provides the steam for the whistles of the Gastown steam clock.
Despite seeming like a remnant of the Victorian era and being located in Vancouver’s “Gastown” (which was the original townsite from which Vancouver grew in the 1870s), the Steam Clock is actually from a hundred years later, built in 1977 by horologist Raymond Saunders and metalwork specialist Doug Smith.
Saunders was hired by Gastown’s local merchants to build the clock as a monument. It also had an alternative purpose: Placed over a steam grate above one of the aforementioned pipes, it kept local homeless from sleeping on the warm spot. The clock is likely only the second steam clock ever constructed, the first having been built by Englishman John Inshaw in 1859, to draw customers to his tavern.
Because Inshaw’s clock was small and very inaccurate as a timekeeper, Saunders had to reinvent the steam clock from scratch. The new clock proved to be finicky and hard to keep running and required additional funds to get it working properly, around $58,000.
Saying the clock is “steam-powered” is a bit of a misnomer, as the clockworks itself is powered by descending weights. The mini-steam engine at the base of the clock case takes up the role of the human “winder” by raising a series of ball weights and delivering the weights to the clock drive train. But the steam engine is connected by a rubber belt to an electric motor hidden from view - much more reliable than steam power.
Every quarter-hour, the two-ton Steam Clock shows off a bit, whistling and shooting steam from its five whistles in its version of the Westminster Chime. On the hour it marks each hour with a toot from each whistle.
There are six other working “Steam” Clocks in the world. The lesson was learned, though – only the whistles are steam and the clockworks are electric.
The clock is a key tourists destination in Vancouver. It’s also the near the start and a finish line of the Gastown Grand Prix, a single-day cycling race.
- Exploring Vancouver: The Architectural Guide