By Nancy Koeneman
Bruce Hannon works in two worlds. One is intangible comprising computers, numbers and what-ifs to create possible outcomes.
The other world is that of wheels, levers, gears and balances where success is measured by a stately sound of ticking and good time-keeping.
Hannon is a professor of geography and a Jubilee professor of liberal arts and sciences. In his spare time, he fixes mechanical clocks.
"I find it a very satisfying alternative to the esoteric work of computer modeling," Hannon said.
Twenty-seven years ago, Hannon bought his first mechanical clock from a farmer in Minnesota. "It ran about a week," Hannon said. "I took the works out and took it to a jewelry store. They said to me 'What is it?' and I knew I was in trouble."
So he slowly took apart the works, piece by piece, and taught himself how to repair it, he said. He also went to an expert, Bill Smith at Parkland Community College, who shared some of the papers he's written on mechanical clocks. Smith also periodically gave Hannon tips on clock repair.
Since those years of trying to sort the gears, springs and other parts, Hannon has worked on everything from pocket watches to tower clocks, and on timepieces more than 300 years old.
He's learned one cardinal rule.
"It's an ecological lesson, really," he said. "It's rule
No. 1. If there's one thing I've learned, it's save all the parts."
Of course, he's gained a little more insight than knowing the leftover pieces are probably needed.
"I have fixed a couple of thousand clocks now and run across a lot of different maladies," said Hannon, who sometimes has more work than he can handle. He doesn't advertise his service, but people still find him to fix their clocks.
"I work on clocks with an average age of 85 to 90 years," he said. "Every year the pool of old clocks gets bigger. People inherit family heirloom clocks they want to hear strike again. People want to keep maintaining them because they are relics of their ancestors. Clocks outlive their owners. They'll outlive me."
Hannon's career choice takes him far from the hands-on experience of mechanical workings. He left engineering to become more involved in environmental work, he said.
"There's a reason why I got into engineering," he said. "This [clock repair] helps me keep a finger in it."
It's work he likes because of the concrete results.
"I fix a clock and say, 'I think I've got it running,' and it lets you know whether or not you have," Hannon said.
There's also another kind of pleasure in fixing a clock and hearing it tick off time again.
"It's the pleasure of restoration and really fixing something, when it runs well, long and accurately," Hannon said. "It's restoring craftsmanship of the past, restoring a labor of the past."
An example of clock repair he's done can be seen in Urbana. The tower clock in the Urbana courthouse was restored by Hannon and Smith in 1975-76 for the bicentennial.
Hannon also helped with the restoration of the clock built in 1878 by the mechanical engineering students and their professor as a class gift. The clock was in the tower of the administration building where the Illini Union now stands. It was removed when the building was torn down and placed in the north Union tower. The class of 1989 took on the restoration of that clock as a class gift. It is now running, and awaits placement on the first floor of the engineering research laboratory. The clock will be placed in the southwest corner of the building, viewable from the engineering quad through a large picture window.
Hannon is now working on a clock for The Discovery Place, a children's museum in Champaign. Made entirely of wood, with the gears and weights visible, it should clearly demonstrate to children how a clock works, he said.
Hannon has become an aficionado of clocks: the kinds of clocks made in different countries, how the invention of mechanical timekeeping [by a monk in the 1300s] eventually had enormous impact on wage labor and the industrial revolution, and the history of various kinds of timepieces.
But he doesn't collect clocks.
"I sold them all. I'm not a collector, I'm a fixer," he said.
What he has collected is a wealth of knowledge and documentation on fixing most any type of clock. He has 25 years worth of journals and trade catalogs, and a collection of papers, which all help him identify and work on different kinds of timepieces.
And now he's looking to the future of the clocks he's been taking care of for more than 20 years.
"Nobody is doing it. I'm worried about that," Hannon said.
He hopes he can find one or two people to whom he can pass on this legacy. He doesn't want to teach a class, but does want to take time to help someone learn this craft. The work takes patience, a steady hand, good eyes, an inclination toward mechanical aptitude, and even a little numeric aptitude, he said.
"I want to show people what I know and how to do this, slowly. I want it to be a one-on-one situation," he said.
"This could be a vocation for a person with the right business attributes," Hannon said, or a good retirement occupation, or even simply an avocation for someone with the right kind of patience and love for the complicated artistry of mechanical clocks.
Repairing mechanical clocks is a legacy he feels he has to share, knowing that these timepieces will be around and need the attention of skilled hands, long after he's gone. Now he's just hoping that someone with the right skills will learn the craft. Then pass on the legacy themselves.