The Elgin Bicycle Clock

In vintage bicycle terms (or vintage clock terms for that matter) we would say it is rarely used in mint condition. As a bicycle it would have been found hanging in the rafters, but as a clock we hope it sat in a mahogany desk. It was a thoughtful token, picked up by this Hero’s Hero at a garage sale not for its ability to keep time, but for the simple fact that it is a small brass bicycle (all Heroes appreciate small brass bicycles). Its importance here is the name it bears on its face: Elgin. Although it is likely a mass-produced new version bearing the Elgin name, it points back to a special place in the history of keeping time.

Based in Chicago, with a factory in Elgin, Illinois, The Elgin National Watch Company was founded in 1864. With a focus on mid-grade pocket and wrist watches, Elgin held a good portion of the American watch market by the turn of the century. As business grew the company expanded, at one point employing nearly half of the city of Elgin in a vast building aside the Fox River (crowned with nothing less than a giant clock tower).

While we certainly appreciate a nice pocket watch or even a clock tower, in our minds The Elgin Watch Company’s most remarkable achievement was conceiving the Elgin National Watch Observatory. Built in 1910, the domed two-story building housed a telescope and four hermetically sealed German Riefler clocks, synchronized to the stars to measure scientifically accurate time down to the hundredth of a second (picture a “spoke” inside of a fixed telescope registering time with each click of a passing star). With this celestial edge, a constantly ringing switchboard, and synchronized clocks throughout the nation, the Elgin Observatory became the standard by which all time was kept.

The observatory still remains, but after unwise expansion and the subsequent invention of the more accurate Atomic Clock, the Elgin National Watch Company closed its doors in 1964. Shortly thereafter the factory and its symbol of precision, punctuality, and prosperity was torn down to make room for a mass-produced new version of an American strip mall. The name Elgin is now stamped on alarm clocks at Walmart.

If, as Einstein said, the reason for time is so that everything does not happen at a once, we know the Elgin National Watch Company played a significant role in slowing things down. For now Elgin’s time may have passed, but small gold bicycles with its name still live on. We also have the stars.