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Meet the maker: Matthew Read

By Andrew Gregory. Posted

Matthew Read is a conservator of the world’s earliest computers (clocks) and the world’s earliest robots (automata). He’s worked at the Royal Observatory Greenwich (where time was invented); on several objects cared for by the National Trust, and the Silver Swan, an incredible 18th-century automaton housed in the Bowes Museum in the charming County Durham market town of Barnard Castle.

More than that, he’s also an advocate for using modern technology, such as Arduinos in conservation, to take the strain off old, irreplaceable parts that are inevitably wearing away. We spoke to Matthew to find out what goes on when an expert fixes a broken clock, and learned a whole lot more than that.

“When you approach any broken object, I believe the important first step should always be the thinking rather than the doing.

“A lot of students will emotionally and physically rush up to an object and get their nose in there with all the cogs and sprockets and whatever.

“And, inevitably, without sounding critical, they’ll lose objectivity. I think one of the most important parts of [the process] is pushing [the object] as far away as you can emotionally, and then bringing it up really close. So you see those nuts and bolts and manufacturers’ marks and things.

“The first question is, where do we want to be at the end of this project? A lot of people would say, of course, we want to fix it, we want to put it back to how it was, we want to restore it – that totally meaningless word that we use the whole time.

“In terms of mechanical process, the first thing to do is to make the thing safe, so it doesn’t fall over, take your fingers off, that kind of thing. So letting down or letting off the power is number one – the springs inside clocks can cause a lot of damage, so they have to be powered down. Then after that, you have a process: take it apart, photograph everything, measure everything, look for damage or faults or wear as you go along and make notes, and then wash the whole thing in mineral spirits. Then reassemble – broadly, the reverse process, and oil; put it back together again, and you’re good to go. Then of course, somewhere in the mix you’ve got repairs, which usually entails making new components from scratch, as you can’t just go out and buy them – I’ve had all sorts of iterations of workshops with machine tools: a lathe and the milling machine and all that kind of stuff.

When is a clock not a clock?

“Let’s say, for example, that a clock ticks, it keeps time, strikes the hours on the hour; most would say that they want to restore those functions. So that means having the thing running within a reasonable amount of safety to the object and the person, keeping time striking the hours, that kind of stuff, within reasonable tolerances.

“So then begins the mechanical process. What is the minimum intervention we need to do to get to that state and nothing more, so no refinishing like you would on some of the restoration world.

“It’s disappointing for most people because there’s this kind of idea that you present the thing ‘restored’ and it’s OK. And of course, in the case of the Silver Swan, it’s never going to be OK – it’s 250 years old; it’s designed to break. It’s been through many different hands; the threads are all worn. I’m just one tiny bit of some ongoing, fluid process. I respect The Repair Shop on the BBC for bringing restoration to a whole wider audience. But they kind of present it like there’s a beginning here, there’s a history, and then we present it. Ta-da! There’s none of that in my practice.

“The whole conservation is built on cost/benefit. Not the [monetary] cost, but the wider cost of change to the object, and the benefit you’re going to get from that. The risk – there’s always risk in change. And the fact is that all things – me, you, the computer with the camera, and the building – are going into the North Sea, whether we like it or not. Somehow we are negotiating with that entropy.

“Since the 1980s, conservators have said that we’re looking after this thing for future generations. And we realise now that this is sort of conceited; it doesn’t work, because futures are fluid. We can’t speak for those people in the future. So there’s much more of a focus on the here and now, which of course is difficult. Because ultimately, when you work, when you’re doing your job, your vocation, it’s not actually about fixing clocks – it becomes about you. Then you get into existential questions. And they’re the really tricky things, which I think is why people either like to concentrate on the made-up past or the fluid future, because it’s a damn sight easier than the here and now.

“There’s a great book called The Wheelwright’s Shop, by [an author] called George Sturt. I think it’s from the 19th century, somebody who was an academic, they go to a wheelwright’s shop to see this process of learning, and they realise that it’s absolute hell: nothing’s written down, terrible conditions, grumpy people, lots of abuse, and the whole system of learning was really grim. And of course, it’s all   romanticised nowadays, the whole apprenticeship thing. My co-author John and I realised that there actually isn’t a book for beginners in clock repair, even though there are lots of books that say on the front ‘This is the book for beginners in clocks’. But actually, the minute you open them, you realise that they’re basically people showing off, or there’s a lot of assumed knowledge, or there’s a lot of language that nobody knows what the heck it means.

“We thought we would actually write a book that helps people get off the starting line, which does have to be quite prescriptive: ‘remove Part B, remove Part C, put it in G, and then you get your clock ticking’, that kind of learning by rote thing. But once you’ve done that, you’ve built confidence.

“In the institutional world of museums and things, a lot of the aim of the system is to defeat people. It’s not actually to encourage people to get involved. So we decided we’d write that book. And, the next book, one that we’re doing at the moment, is actually that next step: hopefully you’ve got some confidence, you’ve got a clock ticking, but actually, that is the easy bit.

“Don’t run your practice by listening to other people, by believing anything anybody says, because your practice is about you. And you’re developing your attitude and process, which is why on popular programmes and magazine articles where people say, yeah, this is the way to do it – this is the proper way. There is no proper way, unfortunately.

“Objectivity is really important. I think one of the foundations of conservation is that you don’t try and improve.

“The kind of people who get involved with clock repair… many of them are second-generation engineers or something like that. Really highly trained people, inevitably, they see an old thing, and they think they can make it better.

“And I say, ‘No, no, no, don’t make it better’. [There’s] a really simple answer to this, and it’s the relationship between craft and new making. If you’re powered to do something really well, just make a new thing. Get a Raspberry Pi, get some brass, get some cogs, buy some robotics, whatever, and make a new clock.

“Again, it’s like that thing of the here and now: it’s much more difficult to do that than it is to muck up somebody else’s work. And of course, the irony of this stuff is that the minute you say that’s wrong, I’m going to improve it or change it or put it back, which you can’t do. I bet you a pound to a penny the next day something comes along and makes you look like an idiot. I had a really good example of this with an 18th-century clock dial – a grandfather clock dial. They’re engraved, and the engraving is filled with wax, which is normally black to make the numbers stand out. This person who was teaching me said, ‘Oh, they’re never filled with red wax – you should take that red out and replace it with black’, which I did, [because] I was a student. Literally the next day, somebody walked in with an 18th-century clock with the same red wax.

“It’s too dangerous to impose that much on old stuff, because what you get is a normalisation. The minute somebody says, ’all steam-engines are green’, you’re stuffed really, because you get a normalisation. You get loads of 18th-century clocks that essentially all look the same. They’ve been normalised, and we know that life isn’t like that. 

Are all repairs equal?

“There’s no such thing as a bad repair or a good repair – as far as I’m concerned, those things don’t exist. What I would say is that, where there’s a public safety or damage to property issue, then, of course, you might want to look at that and say, well, this clock weight is gonna fall out of the church tower and kill somebody, then obviously you have to intervene. But if it’s something like a bit of welding or brazing that looks ugly – who says it ugly? Because one person’s ugly is another person’s beautiful, and the minute you start normalising things, it never ends. Because then you get a subdivision of the good, and then say, actually, yeah, we don’t really like that kind of thing. Because stick to this, and it never ends. It’s a slippery slope.

“If you want, say, a tune player to play again, look at the options: you can stick a Raspberry Pi in there, and you can record the music digitally, which is what we did with the National Trust pagoda clock. You can just look at the old mechanism; leave it as it is. Clean off the dust and the spider-webs, and move more slowly. What’s the great rush and imperative to have things finished, when nothing is ever finished?

“I worked on the pagoda clock about ten years ago. And it was right on the borderline of where we could use discrete electronics, or use a microcontroller. And we went with discrete electronics in that case, but today, I would definitely use a microcontroller.

“The National Trust was really brave there. It was a postgraduate student project, so it was just me and a master’s student working on the object, and the 18th-century automaton clock.

“We did the kind of traditional take it apart, clean it, photograph it, put it back together. But we found that one part of the module – the 18th-century stuff is modular, like new stuff is – was really worn. It had a lot of alterations in the 1930s. And yeah, we could make a whole lot of new parts, but actually, the Trust decided that it would create a new electro-mechanical module, which was sent over to me. We made it reversible (as in, we matched all the 18th-century screw threads and things), and we fitted it into the case so that it couldn’t be seen. It was incredibly groundbreaking at the time, but of course, it raises the question…

“When I used to work at the Royal Observatory, with clocks by John Harrison, really famous sea-going clocks, people would come from all over the world, and the first thing they would ask is, ‘are these the real thing?’ The minute you say yes, they’re happy – they’ve made the pilgrimage. But the minute you begin with microcontrollers and electromechanical stuff, you have to look at a different kind of picture.

“I think something like the Silver Swan is absolutely crying out for that kind of intervention. It was built in the 1770s – it’s 250 years old or something. And the mechanics were never meant to be seen – you’re meant to see a swan that looks lifelike.

“It plays six tunes now (it used to play eight on twelve bells). You could record that you ‘retired’ the original mechanism, and you can play it digitally. Nobody can tell, so long as you are honest, and you say this is digital music that you’re hearing. But the really exciting thing about it is that, once you record it, of course, you can do what you want with it; you can make it play Happy Birthday. Or, more importantly, you can get people involved in education; you can put the Swan’s tunes on SoundCloud, for instance.

“But anyway, we took it all apart – that was the first time since the 1970s – photographed it, because they washed it, put it back together, oiled it. And then what you should do with good practice every year with working objects is basically to have a peek at that oil and check it hasn’t become contaminated with dust from the air, and so on. Twelve years later – it had been over a decade since we did the major project – the museum quite rightly said, this is getting to the point where we obviously have to consider doing that again. And then Covid struck.

“We agreed that we wouldn’t run it daily, and instead we’d make a film. So I popped along, spent a few days doing some strategic billing, fixing a thing or two. And then we wound it for filming. And we generated the film, which of course is great, because, you know, within reason, only a few people can get to Barnard Castle, but everybody can get online to see the film. So I think again, that’s a bit of democratisation.

“I strongly encourage conservators to do their work in public, which a lot of them understandably are reluctant to do, because it’s like a whole new scary learning process.

“When you look at other automata, you kind of look at them and think, well, yeah, that’s clever. There’s a lot of levers, cogs, and sprockets, but there’s no way that it’s lifelike. Whereas when you look at the swan, even to me, I’ve seen it hundreds of times working, and it’s still crazy realistic, and it makes the hairs stand up on the back of your neck. It was taken from real life – they had dead swans on the slab to inform the work of the silversmiths.

“A couple of years ago, I saw an X-ray of a swan that had been shot with a shotgun. There were 24 vertebrae in the swan’s neck. I said, ‘wait a minute’, and consulted my notes; the automaton has 24 vertebrae – they’d copied life that closely. Which is why it looks like it’s the world’s finest automaton of its period, because that’s what the maker was trying to do to simulate life.

“There’s something called a Fusee-driven movement, and it’s a mainstay of English clock-making from the middle of the 17th century until the middle of the 19th century. There are three of these inside the swan: one drives the water, one drives the music, and one drives the swan’s neck. The swan differs from all other automata in one respect, and that’s because the one that drives the neck is kind of like a racing car, where the engine and the gearbox form part of the structure of the whole – it’s called a a monocoque in cars.

“It’s crazy different from other automata where the maker got a clockwork motor and cut bits off and stuck bits on and used it to power their automaton. The Waddesdon elephant is a little bit like that.

From automata to computer

“So anyway, there are three clockwork motors. The main one has a single cam that has multiple cams on it; it’s also got five chains that run up the neck which makes the neck move.

“So it’s a single cam body with, I don’t know, ten different cams on it that do all the different things.

“Speaking of computing, Charles Babbage bought one of John Joseph Merlin’s automatons [the maker of the Silver Swan]. When I went to the Science Museum with my students to look at clocks, I was looking at the Difference Engine and realised, while looking at the cams, that they were just like the cams on the Silver Swan. Babbage probably got his inspiration for those rotating, sliding, twisting cams from an automaton like this one.

“There are rules to conservation; one of them is, anything you do should be reversible. So if you’re fixing an electric motor into a thing, for instance, should be able to undo that. The big challenge there is that before the 1850s, the threads on screws were not standardised, so you can’t go down to B&Q and buy a nut and bolt that will fit.

“So you’ve got to make all the threads, which is not impossible, it just takes quite a bit of time. Obviously, you want to be as transparent as possible about any changes you make. So, I think what the National Trust did was, they took the module that we had taken out and just had it at the side with a text panel putting it in context.

“There was a lot of resistance at first: the staff there were convinced that they would be able to tell that we’d changed something. When I installed the module and played the digital music, somebody walked into the room and said, ‘It’s so great to have our clock back! But come on Matthew, let’s hear this terrible jingle-jangling digital stuff’.

“A friend of mine is the country’s foremost turret clockmaker. So he services thousands of turret clocks around the country. And he fits them all, reversibly again, with sensors and a microcontroller that sends him a health report every single week. He deals with Salisbury Cathedral, Canterbury Cathedral, you name it, and they send him an email every week with a health check. So if you’ve got a problem with lubrication, which is a big deal with a clock, and it starts needing more torque to run, or there’s a fault with it striking, you don’t have to wait until it becomes a disastrous failure. You can ring up the museum and say ‘stop that object – we’re going to pop around and have a look and see what the problem is’. That’s not to say that everything is suitable for adding microcontrollers and sensors, but there’s a place for it. Let’s move things forward”.

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