As a five year old, Philip Kuchel AM, pulled an alarm clock apart, and reassembled it. Despite hurting his fingers in the ‘deconstruction’ of the clock, it did little to dim his enthusiasm for clocks. The Professor (Biochemistry) is still actively involved in clock and watch making and repairs. His retirement is ticking along nicely. Read his remarkable story here.
What is your professional background?
I graduated in Medicine from the University of Adelaide having taken a year out to study for an Honours degree in Biochemistry. Things chemical have always fascinated me and understanding the molecular basis of disease has been the guiding passion in my life. After a year as a Resident Medical Officer at the Royal Adelaide Hospital my wife and twin daughters, then only 3 months old, headed to Canberra. I went to the John Curtin School of Medical Research where I undertook research for a PhD in Physical Biochemistry. I worked on enzymes that are involved in making urea in the liver and generated a computer model to describe the control and rate of the process; this was the first such model that could predict the metabolic outcome of inherited defects in the enzymes of the pathway and how various biochemicals build up to cause clinical signs like epileptic fits from too much ammonia in the blood.
Accompanied by my wife and now three daughters, in 1975 I headed for Oxford Medical School, Department of Biochemistry. I carried out lots of interesting projects but the “career forming” experiments involved amongst the first use of nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy to study metabolic reactions in whole cells. This methodology has the same foundations in Physics as does modern magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) which was yet to develop back then in 1977.
My first permanent academic appointment was in the new Medical School at the University of Newcastle. I was a Senior Lecturer in Medical Biochemistry. We took in the first students in 1978 in a revolutionary education programme that introduced the students to patients in their first week of study. It was an exhilarating experience to be mixed up in this educational whirlpool were basic biochemistry that I taught was intercalated with other subjects like Physiology, Anatomy, Psychology, Public Health etc, all with a focus on a patient-based problem but understood down to the molecular level.
In 1980 I was invited to apply for a Chair in Biochemistry at the University of Sydney and luckily was appointed; and it is here that I have stayed ever since! “When you are onto a good thing stick to it!” Here I taught students in the Medical courses, and students studying for a BSc in Biochemistry. You will have guessed that by this stage I had long since substituted a plan to become a surgeon, for one in which I would use mathematics, physics, and biochemistry coupled with NMR spectroscopy to study “what makes cells tick!”
I officially retired on December 2012 and was appointed Emeritus Professor of Biochemistry. This means I still have an office and laboratory and continue to carry out my own experiments; and I also collaborate with other scientists here and overseas. This means my wife and I travel the World quite extensively.
Is there a link between your scientific work and clock making?
Yes, the link is very strong. Clock – and watchmaking can involve coming to grips with the science of time measurement. Many practitioners, of course, treat the production aspects as purely technical. This of itself is a challenge; in essence it is mini/micro-engineering. It requires the understanding and use of some rather tricky, delicate, expensive machines that have reached a mature state of development after, in some cases, hundreds of years of evolution. Some of my friends in Horology derive a lot of their satisfaction simply from pursuing and refining these machines.
In my own case, I like to encompass the mathematics and physics of Horology in addition to surrounding myself with and using the essential machines (instruments really). In reality, making a watch with these tools and machines at times feels like playing a Wurlitzer Organ, with its myriad pedals and stops and keys all working in harmony!
To “close the loop” on my technical activities I usually aim to write up a description of whatever timepiece, and inventions I have introduced while making it, for an international horological journal. These include the Horological Journal HJ; (~160 old) of the British Horological Institute (BHI), or the Clock and Watch Bulletin of the American National Association of Watch and Clock Collectors (NAWCC). So, to this extent it is like what I do in my “day job” – design and carry out experiments, analyse the results and then form conclusions and then write it up the discoveries for publication in a peer-reviewed journal.
Why did you take up clock making (horology)?
It is not a new thing. I have enjoyed pulling things apart all my life and my first “deconstruction” of a clock was when I was 5 years old. I pulled an alarm clock apart (along with hurting my fingers putting the spring back) I managed to reassemble it. My Mother most probably gave some positive feed-back but I don’t really recall that; I was simply fascinated about how things worked and it was no more complicated than that and that passion luckily persists.
Did you study to become a clock maker?
No, and in fact I had not read a book on clock- and watchmaking until after I graduated in Medicine. I always treated this interest as secondary to my ambition to become a Dr, so the passion was put aside while I studied. When I had my first job (as a Resident Medical Officer at the Royal Adelaide Hospital) for the first time in my life (since being a child) I had some spare time in evenings and then I began reading books on horology. My first book was by Eric Bruton “The History of Clocks and Watches” and the second and most influential was Clutton and Daniels’ edition of “Britten’s Old Clock and Watches and Their Maker’s”. I read these avidly and aspired to make my own versions of items that were shown in those pages. To do this I would need the requisite tools so I set about acquiring these. This process has taken over 40 years!
Is it difficult to learn? Can you learn it, or is it skill that is acquired?
At a technical level for simple devices, clockmaking is relatively easy. However, it is sufficiently demanding of things like precise gear cutting, making gears concentric, drilling straight holes in the right place in the plates etc, to make it a very satisfying hobby. After all, for the clock to work and tell the correct time, a whole train of events has to have been carried out well, to reach the desired end point. And for the clock to perform for a long time it needs to be made of fine materials. So, there is a lot to explore before setting out on a Project.
What is the most challenging part of clock making?
I think it is making the gears. In Horology the larger ones with lots of teeth are referred to as wheels, and their teeth are cut in a very regular array around their circumference. Even harder to “get right” are the smaller gears with only a few teeth (usually 6 – 12) and called pinions in horology. Both types of toothed object are cut on a wheel/pinion cutting engine or on a special device that can be fitted to your watchmakers lathe.
Fortunately, I have such a wheel and pinion-cutting device that fits on my 1913 Lorch-Schmidt 6-mm watchmakers lathe…a treasure! I bought this in Adelaide from the estate of an elderly gentleman, Sid Jones, whose widow let me choose whatever I wanted to buy (at a touchingly low price!) from his workshop before it went to auction at the Horological Guild. I ended up buying all the tools to equip me to start making clocks and watches. This was an enchantingly thrilling lucky break for a beginner in the art, technology and science of horology. I had watched Sid at work but it was a path of self-directed discovery and lots of reading and thinking for much of what was needed to make going clock and watches.
How many clocks have you made?
Only 12 clocks and 4 watches. I also collect watch and clock mechanisms (called movements) and repair those as an ongoing project. So I have worked on hundreds of clocks and watches over the years. In fact, by doing repairs I (we all do) learn a lot about how to make my own versions of these mechanisms.
Do you have any favourites? (Why?)
I think my all-time favourite is the ‘Descending Pendulum Clock’ that was made in the 1980’s and featured on the front cover of the HJ in December 1989. It was my first clock article to be published. The clock was entirely novel and the idea had been hatched “in the ideas wilderness” (before I had any formal horological connections) so it was a surprise to mainstream horologists. It involved some tricky mathematics, computing and practical clockmaking like the wheel-cutting I referred to above. On the strength of that clock, I was invited to join the Sydney Clockmakers Society. This has meant a wonderful association with some brilliant technicians, scientists, engineers and professional horologists. It has meant that my watch- and clockmaking has been lifted to an entirely new level of refinement.
The Sydney Clockmakers Society has ~60 members with some being in the country as Corresponding Members. We meet on a ~6-weekly basis to swap ideas and plans. Through its Members we have truly international connections via the NAWCC and the BHI and beyond.
What are your next projects?
I have almost completed a facsimile version of a skeleton clock that was first made in ~1850 in Liverpool UK, by James Condliff. The clock however would make James turn in his grave. In a quest to explore new ideas and materials, while the clock looks like James’, it is “laced with” things like silicon nitride mini ball races, Tensator constant-torque springs, and a novel strike system etc. Of course, it has been made by using modern free-machining steel, engraving brass, and tungsten-carbide cutters etc. All this has been the result of advances in materials, tools and techniques over the past 150 years.
Do Professors and Clock Makers ever really retire?
No. You knew I would say that!
With all your clocks around, the question has to be asked…….’ Are you always on time!?
No. But I try. My problem has always been, and still is, having too much that I feel I need to do…including writing to you, but this was made easy since you had so neatly constructed the entrée.
Now I must dash off and set up the NMR spectrometer for my next experiment…
Pbilip’s retirement is ticking along nicely