Dean Karau column: the clock of the tower of Fred Francis


“When I was little I loved tools and machines, but I lived far out in the country, far from it all. ”

So wrote Frederick F. Francis in 1919. He was better known as Fred Francis, and he became one of the most famous – and eccentric – citizens of Kewanee.

Born in 1856 in a log cabin northeast of Kewanee, near the Bureau County line, Fred yearned to learn, even though he was too shy to ask many questions. But his former country school teacher saw his interest and told him about a new college where he could follow his dreams. The teacher gave Fred a catalog of the new Illinois Industrial University in Champaign (later to become the University of Illinois), and the die was cast. “How I loved the seal of the University, with its knowledge and its work, the engine, the anvil and the plow! “

Fred Francois, 1878
Fred françois

At 18, Fred became the first from Kewanee to enroll in IUI. Naturally, he turned to engineering. In four years, he graduated, having spent only a total of $ 225 on his studies. Fred made 10 horsepower steam engines in the University’s machine shop and sold them to pay for most of his materials and semester fees. When he ran out of funds for his last semester, he sold to the University an invention he had made on a steam engine. But before Fred and his classmates – the first class of four years – left college, they decided to leave behind a memorial commemorating their happy days there.

What could they leave? Why, a tower clock! But why in the name of heaven a clock tower?

Fred once explained that “a watch or a clock costs a lot of money. . . . We had to rely heavily on the bell in the tower to tell us the time. On windy days, even the teacher sometimes had to ask the class if anyone heard the bell. . . . Professor Robinson was so interested in her subject that he just couldn’t stop. . . . “So a tower clock that could be seen anywhere on campus was the class of 78 solution and an appropriate gift for future classes.

University room;  the clock in the tower is on the left.

But, as Fred asked, “[w]here could we get one, and who would install it? [However,] former teacher SW Robinson [the first mechanical engineering professor at the university] came to the rescue by saying that the thing could be built in the University store. They discussed the use of “dead exhausts”, but ultimately switched to “gravity exhausts” to give the oscillating pendulum the necessary equal impulses.

Fred did the pictures as part of his class work. And he worked many hours in the store after his fellow students returned home. “I was such an odd staff, anyway – I always liked these shiny tools better than human beings and never attended class reunions.”

Stillman W. Robinson, circa 1895

Fred and his classmates worked long hours but did well. Solving problems as they arose, they finally carried the completed clock up a dark, narrow staircase and set it on its foundations in the “dark belfry” of one of the towers of the city. ‘University Hall. Then they just gave the pendulum a “daring little push” to start it. After all of his classmates left, Fred and Professor Robinson stayed, “lest the wheels stop. But the ticking continued steadily.

However, both noticed that the pendulum did not swing enough to maintain a stable time. But they feared that if they stopped to fix it during the day, their reputation would be damaged. Instead, “the good old professor and I waited until the dark,. . . flew the stairs with a lamp [and fixed it] with no one wiser.

The clock had cost the class of 1878 $ 300.

As we know, after leaving college, Fred went to Elgin and started working for the Elgin Watch Company, where his success was praised. After 11 years, Fred had also earned enough money to retire to a property northeast of Kewanee where he started the life we ​​know so well.

When University Hall was razed, the clock was placed in a cupola of the Union Illini. It now resides in the university’s mechanical engineering lab where, through its clear face, the movement of the gears can be seen.

Extract from the 1870 university advertisement.

Thirty years after this class of 78 built the clock, Fred returned to college. The News of the Elders wrote about his revisiting the clock:

“His hands were shaking as he opened the dusty glass door of the clock case and stroked the aged wheels and cogs. He eagerly opened the pendulum and pointed to the slow 11 pounds. bob, which, if it ever came loose, would crash, he said, through all the floors to the basement.

“He was a man who had a real and vital connection to the University; who really left something of himself here and therefore had something to come back to.

Bruce Hannon, Professor Emeritus of Geography and Geographic Information Science at the University of Illinois and an amateur clock restorer, gave a tour of the various well-known timepieces on campus. But he prefers the 1878 clock: “I like to show it because it was the longest and the most difficult to repair and find a place. And because Fred Francis worked so hard on it.

While Fred Francis was perhaps a little eccentric, his early love for tools and machines set him on the path to difficult but inventive work. The next time you visit Francis Park, you will be able to see for yourself the creativity of this Kewanee native, a man of whom our hometown is justifiably proud.

(Professor Hannon kindly shared with me some anecdotes from his research regarding Fred and his clock that I included in the story. Thank you, Professor Hannon.)

About Laurence Johnson

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