By Holly Desrosier
Craven Community College (Craven CC) faculty and students recently spent some quality time replicating a broken piece of a historic clock located inside the North Carolina History Center at Tryon Palace. The part, designed and produced in the college’s 3-D printing lab, was replaced during a brief convergence of Tryon Palace and Craven CC employees on Sept. 1.
The 1911 Seth Thomas mechanical clock is currently located in the eaves above the inside entrance of the History Center. It served the city of New Bern until 1999, when it was dismantled and removed from the City Hall clock tower and taken to the Firemen’s Museum for repairs and upgrades. In 2010, it was installed in the North Carolina History Center in time for its grand opening.
The clock’s presence accentuates the History Center’s chronicled journey through the area and provides that extra pizzazz for first-time and regular visitors alike. Not only is its appearance striking, but it also possesses the unique sounds that can only be attributed to a mechanical clock.
“It catches guests in awe when they look at the clock and they’re standing 30 feet below where the clock is,” said Rob Jones, Network & Exhibits System Administrator. “Some people’s eyes light up—they remember their grandfather clocks, or they remember the old clocks that their grandparents used to have. These mechanical clocks are getting more and more rare. I’m up here every three months oiling, checking for signs of wear and tear, maintaining it, resetting the time and I’m still in awe of how it works.”
The latest project began last year but wound up taking months longer than anticipated due to the pandemic. It was initiated after a ticketing agent noticed a loud “clang, bang, and thud” coming from the clock and promptly informed Jones.
“So I came down and took a look at it, and it was quite obvious what was wrong with it,” said Jones. “The hammer arm that gets pulled back by the clockworks mechanism that strikes the bell broke in half. I’m looking at two pieces of a hammer arm in my hand, thinking ‘where am I going to start?’ You don’t run to Lowe’s, you don’t run to Home Depot. I know Mitchell’s Hardware has everything under the sun, but I doubt very seriously they have a 1911 hammer arm that would fit this bell.”
After a little brainstorming, Jones knew where to turn: Craven CC. Having attended classes there and instructing a couple himself, he knew the college had 3-D printing and CNC labs and that those technologies were really gaining traction. He reached out to Ricky Meadows, dean of Career Programs, and set up a meeting with the department in August 2019.
At the meeting, Jones showed them the pieces of the hammer arm and explained what it did. They discussed how and where it broke, as well as the processes of the clock. Right away, the mind of Jeff Brown, Computer-Aided Design (CAD) and Composites instructor, began ticking and he mapped out a plan of action for himself and his students.
“The first part was we needed to get a duplicate model of it, a CAD rendering,” he said. “We took a 3-D scanner and scanned all angles, all sides of the two pieces that broke, and from there we were able to render a 3-D model. We had to create a new CAD design off of that 3-D scan.”
Brown knew that modern technology such as 3-D printing was becoming more and more common as a solution for replacement parts no longer made. He noted that 3-D printing has become a key manufacturing component for most automakers and aviation manufacturers, and he pointed out that it’s common for the Navy to use a 3-D scanner to scan a room of a ship and use it to make modifications or repairs to another one. He was eager to get the project started and excited to involve his students.
They printed a test piece at about 20% density and brought it to the History Center to make sure the sizing was correct. After making a few slight modifications, they printed it out at 100% density, which took about five hours. On September 1, they reconvened with Palace staff at the History Center and officially installed it.
“The instructor took a bunch of notes from the prototype, went back, reconfigured some things and it fit just like a glove,” said Jones. “It installed smoothly, and we got everything tightened down and lubed up and it struck the clock right when it should, and it sounded beautiful. The tone was just like it was never broken.”
Brown explained that his students took pride in working on such a once-in-a-lifetime project and eventually seeing their efforts pay off. They look forward to seeing it in action once the History Center reopens to the public.
“The great part about it is the student involvement,” he said. “They did much of the work. They took part in 3-D scanning, then they rendered it into a 3-D CAD model and then we all printed it together and came here and hooked it up.”
Thanks to the quick thinking of Jones and the skill of Brown and his students, the historic clock is now fully operational and, with the help of modern technology, appears capable of withstanding the test of time.
“It was a great partnership between the North Carolina History Center and Craven Community College,” said Jones. “I couldn’t think of any better partner to get this clock back operational.”
For more information about Craven CC’s career and technical programs, contact Sarah Sawyer at 252-638-7372.
This article was originally published in the New Bern Sun Journal on September 16, 2020.