I hope that with this page I will be able to describe a bit of my background work in trying to decipher a long lost astronomical clock who's only record now lies in medieval Latin manuscripts from around 1330 (as Nicholas Whyte points out the same time as Umberto Eco's "The Name of the Rose"). I have been at this on and off for many years now. Work of this nature can be tedious but is often very rewarding. In a way I liken it to forensics in that you only have a few clues to go by and yet you must reconstruct the big picture. It is not easy. The things that make it difficult are the fact that the clock was only partially described, in words, and Latin at that. Over the long march of time since the manuscript was written even the English language has changed and here we are dealing with a description of "new" non-standard technology with no standardized nomenclature. Describing a complex machine in words is very difficult at best and usually only successful if one is ruthlessly methodical. If one is not extremely careful writing the descriptive words it can lead to multiple interpretations. Unfortunately it appears that with the said manuscript we are dealing with translations of Richard's notes after his death by someone not fully competent with the subject matter.
Who was Richard? Richard was a blacksmith's son born 1291/92. At the age of 10 he became an orphan when his father died. He was then adopted by William of Kirkeby a prior of the Benedictine abbey of St. Albans, the most important abbey in all England. The abbey was built in 760AD on the very hill where previously in the 3rd century Alban was beheaded by the Romans for protecting the Christian priest Amphibalus. Richard was later sent to be educated at Oxford University. He went on to be elected Abbot of the monastery which was, at the time, in a bit of disrepair and financial chaos. During his reign he managed to restore the abbey's financial order. He also undertook the design and construction of a large astronomical clock. The cost of the clock was considerable and in fact Richard died in 1335 before it's 30 year construction was complete. The clock appears to have disappeared during Henry VIII's reformation and dissolution of the abbey in 1546. In order to gain a better introductory understanding of some of the history and background of Richard of Wallingford I would direct one to another Wallingford site by Nicholas Whyte. One can also visit the cathedral of St. Alban where the clock was located or simply view cathedral pictures here or view the location where Richard went to to have his election as abbot confirmed by the Pope at Avignon France (at the time the papacy had moved there from Rome).
It's hard to say exactly when my interest in this clock really started, likely the early to mid 90's. I had glanced by it many times, particularly the faded manuscript diagram in Henry C King's "Geared to the Stars, the Evolution of Planetariums, Orreries and Astronomical Clocks", as I studied many other astronomical clocks and mechanisms. There were several factors that led up to my study of it.
First, I had been studying mechanized astronomy for some time and through that study came a better appreciation of the merits of a successful clock. By all accounts this clock was second to none and going by it's described capabilities it took about 300 - 400 years before another technically equivalent clock emerged. My damped oscillation of interest between subsequent works and previous works finally settled on this clock as I began to realize the full achievement this man had accomplished.
Secondly it appears to have been made in a very transitional period in horology, near the advent of the escapement. This makes it one of the first true clocks as we know them today and certainly one of first self powered models of the heavens. I say "one of" as there had been the odd, previous, water powered exception. Prior to this models of the heavens had been manually activated. In fact I believe the manuscript diagram that is typically referred to as "Richard's clock" is in fact a manual instrument.
Thirdly it appeared the design was of the same form that I had wanted to make. Namely having a face like an astrolabe but a bit different in that it used the much much older concept of a rotating star map behind a fixed reference grid or grillwork, the opposite of an astrolabe (refer back to my "clocks" page background). I liked this as, in fact, it is a closer representation to what you see when looking up into the sky. I was also interested in the clock as it appeared to have successfully met the challenge of modeling the planets and that it did all of this in a geocentric way. This meant that whatever you saw on the clock face you could walk outside look up and, conditions permitting, see the predicted reality above you. Heliocentric theory may be best at explaining what actually happens but when it comes to what you actually see when you look up it must all be converted to a geocentric (Earth centered) reference. The clock also appears to have had all of its astronomical display on the one face! Unlike, say, Giovanni de Dondi who broke down the displays into 7 separate constituent faces. Further Richard's single large display was equatorial based and not ecliptic based as were Giovanni de Dondi's 7 displays. Again that's important as, in a general sense, we tend to reference ourselves to the "fixed" equatorial plane and not the "revolving" or "wobbling" ecliptic plane. This difference follows naturally from the wonderfully unified "one sky - one face" approach. If one considers combining all seven de Dondi faces (and attendant gearing) into one concentric face while at the same time referencing everything to the equator and not the ecliptic one can begin to comprehend what a challenge this masterpiece this must have been. While not trying to downgrade de Dondi's achievements, his is a more or less mechanically literal translation of Ptolemy while Richard's clock, and the principles he has demonstrated were used in it, indicate a much more refined and subtle level of mechanical mastery. While Richard's clock predated de Dondi's I believe it to have been technically superior. In fact as much has been said by contemporary observers.
Fourth, it coincided with my interest in the ancient art of forging iron. This was the era of massive iron turret clocks. I will admit to a few daydreams of the slowly wafting coal smoke emerging from the clock makers shop as he, in the dark interior, and with a steady "ting - ting - ting..." of the hammer, gently shaped various parts while creating this masterpiece. Daydreaming aside I could not find anybody else using these techniques to make clocks! Perhaps I could learn the art of blacksmithing and be the first to make a similar clock using the same skills.
Lastly and perhaps most importantly it was still a mystery. There were many parts of it not understood and only speculated upon by many men more learned than I. Here was a challenge that perhaps I could help solve.
In taking up the study of Richard of Wallingford it doesn't take long to find that all roads lead to the 3 volume set "Richard of Wallingford" by John D North. I use this primarily (though not exclusively) for the Latin to English translations of the manuscript texts.
Once I took on the challenge of trying to digest the full complexity of the clock it soon became apparent that there were three main areas that remained enigmatic, namely the 24 hour strike mechanism, the lunar eclipse mechanism and most especially the planetary gearing. If I was to realize this clock I would have to tackle these areas. Alas, original research is hard to find. It has become a bit of a pet peeve for me. Most books are a rehash of existing ideas. The odd rare ground breaking publication is usually followed by endless echoes of quotes in other publications that offer no new ideas. This is what makes the North publication so good and, on this subject, so sadly alone. Unfortunately it had no definitive answers for the enigmas above. If I was going to solve them it would have to be on my own.
I think one of the keys to my success on this has been approaching the subject with reverence to both fields. Horology and Blacksmithing. The former, especially today, leans toward the use of complex mechanisms accurately made (mostly machined). With the latter there is the tendency to simplify, use materials and labour economically and expect a lower standard of precision. Unfortunately in the area of horology the two fields have long since departed. I could find many experts in horology and many experts at forging iron but as far as I could see I was alone in being interested in both. I think if one is going to try to recreate a forged iron clock one should abandon the machine shop and try to face the problem in the same way as the original creator would have. It really does change your thinking! A machinist used to shaving metal to thousandths of an inch will find different solutions acceptable than one hammering iron to shape on the anvil. That is not to say that a blacksmith, who even at the time was practicing a 1000-1500 year old craft, could not attain good accuracy just that his approach to the problem would be different.
Another has been to bring astronomy to the table in a full and proper way. That this is not a problem of classical horology per se (there is but a scant dismissive description of the actual timekeeping section of the clock) but rather one of modeling the heavens. One must go back to the first principles of the problem at hand. This is harder for me to convey as, for me, much of it is intuitively obvious but most importantly whatever path or theory is chosen, one must pursue it fully and then at the end of it stand back and check it for reasonableness. How well does it represent the astronomical principle at hand, is it functionally practical *and* does it fit with the manuscript texts? I've often had my forward progress stopped for a year at a time resolving those 3 points.
The following two proposals for the strike and the eclipse mechanism came relatively quickly to me, probably a year each in my spare time for full development.
My solution to the first of these, the strike, came to me one winter afternoon on the couch sketching a multitude of possible concepts. Sketching is something I do a great deal of. It's my way of capturing a spark of an idea and taking it through its first few steps.The diagrams above show my initial concept sketch (left) and subsequent fully realized proposal (right) for the 24 hour strike mechanism. One might notice some minor but important rearrangements & differences between the two. The sketch on the left while being the major breakthrough had, at that point, not been optimized and had not addressed all of the manuscript text. i.e. the "springum" on the right CAD drawing has a catch which which when released will enter a slot on the narrow 24 slot wheel (at the end of the front drum) and shut off the strike. The two drawings are fairly indicative of how my ideas develop.
I took a similar approach with the eclipse mechanism in that, while the full implication of what Richard might have been trying to do seemed obvious to me before I started, I went so far as to try to model it and in doing so found certain parts of the mechanism were inescapably led to be a certain way despite my wanting it to be otherwise for practicality. It was the fact that those resultant invisible parts then matched their unusual description in the manuscript that convinced me I was right.
The full article and argument for the case of the above 24 hour strike mechanism can be found in the Journal of the Antiquarian Horological Society "Summer 1998" while the article on the eclipse mechanism can be found in the Journal's "Autumn 1998" issue. It is not my intent to repeat them here.
The two articles, above, were originally to be part of a trilogy with the planetary gearing forming the third part however several colleges chastened me to publish sooner and likely rightly so for the third article, while close, still eludes me. It is a massive undertaking. In fact the third article if completed will likely be larger than the other two combined since making the case for parts of a clock whose descriptive texts are missing is challenging to say the least. I've been at it, on and off, for at least 5 years and still haven't fully solved it. It will also cover much more ground than the other two articles. It is interesting because while I have no preconceived notions of where the facts will take me they again appear to be bringing some unexplained things together on their own! Unfortunately they also, at present, appear to suggest some rearrangement to that shown in the manuscript diagram although this only a possibility and is not yet fully resolved. Stay tuned!