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Preserving Punctuality: The Old Supreme Court Clock

Image: Willard Clock (Cat. no. 54.00002)

On the morning of March 31, 2009, time stopped in the Old Supreme Court Chamber. The minute hand of the 1837 Simon Willard gallery clock was found lying on the mantel below the clock, broken in two pieces where an old repair had given way. Fortunately, plans for conservation treatment of the clock were underway in the Office of Senate Curator, because a condition assessment of the Senate’s historic clocks done the previous year indicated its movement was in urgent need of repair. A conservator was quickly enlisted to conserve the clock.

The conservator arrived at the Senate on May 29 to remove the clock’s movement and transport it to his workshop in Massachusetts. First, he carefully removed the clock’s dial, revealing the beautifully made brass movement. The gallery or banjo style of clock was invented by Simon Willard in the late 18th century as an alternative to the tall case (or grandfather) style of clock. His ingenious design made it possible for the weight and other clock parts to fit within a 24-inch diameter space and still run for eight days between windings.

After the conservation work was completed and the minute hand was repaired, the clock was reassembled in the Old Supreme Court. During its six week absence, the Curator’s Office received many inquiries about why the clock was gone. The level of interest expressed inspired the Curator to revisit the clock’s history and search for evidence to verify some of the popular stories told in the Capitol about Simon Willard’s gallery clock.

The clock currently hangs above the fireplace in the Old Supreme Court Chamber. Over the years it has moved location several times, but it has always maintained its association with the Supreme Court. When the clock was delivered in 1837, it was placed in the Supreme Court Chamber in Capitol (S-141). In 1860 the Supreme Court moved upstairs to the present-day Old Senate Chamber, and the timepiece was transferred to the Clerk of the Court’s Office, now part of the Republican Leader’s Suite. In 1935, when construction on the Supreme Court building was complete, the Willard clock traveled across the street and was placed in the Clerk’s file room. The restoration of the Old Supreme Court Chamber in the Capitol during the 1970s brought the clock back to its original location in S-141.

Today, Chief Justice Roger B. Taney is credited with requesting the Simon Willard clock; however, early reports state that Justice Joseph Story was responsible for the order. An 1888 article from Frank Leslie’s Popular Monthly entitled “The United States Supreme Court and the New Chief Justice” highlights Justice Story’s frustrations with “laggard” justices and states his response to this problem: “I’ll fix this,’ said Mr. Justice Story, ‘and we’ll get a clock that we can all go by.'” The article continues: “Mr. Story was one of the prompt ones. And he had this clock made.” Other early 20th-century articles credit Justice Story with the purchase of the clock, but a 1935 article from The Evening Star Washington attributes, for the first time, the ordering of the clock to Chief Justice Taney. The article refers to the timepiece as the “Old Taney Clock” and ascribes frustrations to Taney, not Story. Justice Story served on the bench from 1812 until his death in 1845, and Chief Justice Taney held his position from 1836 to 1864. The clock was ordered in 1836, so the dates of service of both justices make it possible that either could have been responsible for requesting the clock.

Modern accounts also credit Chief Justice Taney with having the clock set five minutes fast to improve the timeliness of the associate justices. Today the clock is still set five minutes ahead in honor of this practice. However, historical accounts describe the clock’s timekeeping as either one or two minutes ahead of the hour, and attribute the desire to improve punctuality to either Justice Stephen Field or Justice Story. The 1935 Evening Star Washington article recalls that the clock was set two minutes ahead to ensure that the justices arrived at the bench in timely fashion. Another article, “Centenary of a Clock,” from a 1937 issue of the New York Times Magazine, states: “Long ago it hung in the robing room of the justices and there was a change made in the mechanism—tradition says by Justice Stephen J. Field. Since then it has struck its one note at exactly one minute before the hour of twelve, thus warning the black-gowned justices to be ready and waiting to ascend the bench precisely at noon.”

Although we have no primary sources (such as an invoice for work to adjust the clock mechanism or a firsthand account of setting the clock fast) to verify the truthfulness of these claims, the articles lead one to reasonably assume that the clock was set ahead at a calculated increment during its time in the Capitol. The report written by the conservator after he completed treatment of the gallery clock interprets its history on the basis of physical evidence preserved on its parts. While reassembling the clock, he mentioned that the movement is aligned so that it strikes one minute before the hour, rather than right on the hour. If you are watching when the clock is about to strike, you can see this for yourself. Perhaps there is something to the 1937 story, and over the years the one minute change has grown to five. The Curator’s Office continues to search for historical evidence to help interpret this exquisite artifact that is an integral part of our nation’s history. With proper care and conservation the Willard clock will continue to be a valued centerpiece in the Old Supreme Court Chamber in the U.S. Capitol.