Please let me introduce myself.
I was born in 1921 at Atoka, Tennessee--a then small town of about 500-people
(three groceries and a post office/dry goods store) in a farming community
North of Memphis, Tennessee. This was one of the many towns that were
created when the Illinois Central Railway placed a depot every few miles
along its tracks. These became the supply points for packages (Railway
Express) and mail for several surrounding towns. Highways were virtually
unknown and rail was also the predominant mode for distant travels. Most
main roads were gravel, but many were dirt with ample mud holes. It was not
unusual to see a farmer using his mules to pull an automobile from a mud hole.
My mother was a homemaker and my father was a dirt farmer, who specialized in
the raising of sweet potatoes. My father was completely non-mechanically
minded. By the time I was old enough to understand what was going on, the
great depression was in full swing. One day, I remember my father saying
that he has seen a silver dollar and it looked as big as a wagon wheel.
Cotton was 10-cents per pound and farm labor was 50 cents per day, if it
could be found. Hoboes, asleep and awake, lined the tops of railway boxcars
and frequently knocked on local doors offering to do any sort of work for
food. Being on the farm, we had plenty to eat but little else. For a Red
Cross project, I once sewed petticoats from flour sacks to be given to needy
women. Gingham Girl flour was very popular; women could make dresses from
the printed cloth.
Electricity had not reached the small towns, and kerosene lamps and lanterns
were the basic sources of light. The better homes were heated with coal
burning fireplaces and the stores by coal or oil burning pot-belly stoves.
Buggies and wagons were quite prevalent, but T-model Fords were also in use
by then. Most farmers raised and cured their own pork. Homes had a "kitchen
clock" on the mantle of the living room. Most houses had 10-foot ceilings
and none were insulated. Feather beds and warm hearth warmed bricks for the
feet were the norm at bedtime in the winter. Fresh and canned garden
vegetables, cornbread, homemade biscuits, dairy products, salt-cured pork,
and red-eye gravy were staple items of the diet. The better homes had a
"parlor" containing the family's best furniture. These were immaculate, kept
locked, and used only by guests. Edison cylinder phonographs and
stereoscopic viewers were marks of the better homes. "Jaada" (Jaada, Jaada,
Jaada's got a jing, jing, jing. Sp ?) and "The Preacher and the Bear" were
songs of the day.
My grandfather, a merchant, farmer, and mayor of the town, was so thrifty
that he retained in a large wooden hopper, the year's wood ashes from the
cook stove. This he leached with water to obtain lye for making hominy from
shelled corn or soap from stale hog lard. Farm work was by hand, mules,
plows, and hoes. Tractors were unheard of. Hand dug wells averaged 60-feet
deep and were lined with brick walls. Cisterns were also popular.
Year-around, well diggers cleaned the wells and restored the brick work at
the bottom. At that depth, the temp was a steady 55 degrees F and it was only
when the well digger reached the surface in winter that he really became
cold. Thus the expression, "As cold as a well digger's butt in January."
The main entertainment on Sunday was sitting on the front porch watching
people walk or ride by in their buggies or on horses, and wondering if
someone was coming by for a visit--no phones to let one know what to expect.
Often, people went to watch the afternoon passenger train arrive to see who
were arriving for visits or were returning from visits to other towns. News
came only by letters, newspapers and word of mouth. A bench outside one of
the stores had an always in use checker board build into its seat. Only one
store in town could afford a telephone and a typewriter. It was said that
the local blacksmith could make anything as long as it was curved. He carved
the hooves of horses, shod them, and then checked the grit size of cornmeal
from his grist mill with the same un-washed hands. The town barber was also a
shoe cobbler and sharpened reel-type, push lawn mowers. Ice boxes were
common; only one home in town had a refrigerator. My dad once had several
ice routes and I delivered ice during the summer months. Some of the places
I went to in the river bottoms could not possibly have been on a map. We
were probably the only people they saw from the outside world in days.
The first broadcast radio in town was a battery operated thing with
headphones and about five tuning knobs. I used to con traveling salesmen out
of a nickel to watch me climb its antenna pole, a guyed steel pipe about
30-feet high and within sight of "downtown." With my homemade crystal radio,
I was able to receive a Memphis broadcast station 29-miles away. Not knowing
why, I had to pour water on the ground rod each night to get good reception.
Probably a little added salt would have avoided the need. Ghost stories
were so frightening they made me afraid to reach from under the cover to lay
my headphones aside!
One night, about 1927, a tornado blew away the entire town, except for our
house, which only moved about 6-inches on its foundation. One person was
killed and many injured. This spawned a mass of storm cellars, in one of
which I spent many wet nights with the frogs and other varmints.
Being financially quite well healed, the town banker had a Delco System, for
which he ran a gasoline engine driven generator during the afternoon to
charge a bank of batteries so his family could have electric lights that
evening. One or two homes and several churches had acetylene-generating
systems (carbide) for their gas light fixtures. Cotton was the main crop of
the area and, being on the railroad, our town had both a cotton gin and a
sawmill. By the mid-thirties, my father was raising about 5,000 bushels of
sweet potatoes each year and had a specially built, insulated house in which
a fire had to be kept going all winter to cure them.
Showing considerable mechanical talent early in life, by age 10 I became
involved in the wiring of houses during Roosevelt's REA (Rural
Electrification Association) program--my fathers, my grandfathers, my aunts,
and the houses of several others. This was the days before Romex and
required that two holes be bored through each rafter in the ceiling and a
porcelain tube inserted through the two insulated wires were passed.
Rosettes were used for the ceiling drop cords that ended in sockets with pull
chain switches. All joints had to be soldered and taped (no wire nuts), and
wall switches were virtually unknown. These were the days of the knob, tube
and loom wiring, but most homes finally had electricity.
At this time, 1931, I also became involved in ham radio--still W4PAL. During
those times, few radio amateurs could afford on/off switches for their
transmitters and solved the problem by pulling the plug from the wall socket.
Lacking meters, transmitter tuning was done by holding a
wire-loop/series-flashlight-bulb near the tank coil. Life was hard but
simple. By then, I had made my own copy of a Vibroplex speed key for sending
code, and had also repaired guns, automobile engines, etc.
At age 14, I was given a pocket watch by a merchant who wanted to see if I
could "fix" it. Using a homemade screwdriver and my mother's eyebrow
tweezers, I managed to take the movement from its case, remove the balance
cock, clear a hairspring loop thrown over the Breguet overcoil, and get the
watch running again. This convinced me that I should become a watchmaker.
Attending such a school was out of the question. Thus, with my $15.00 life's
savings, I bought less than a hand full of tools and started a 29-mile, every
Saturday (rain or shine), hitchhiking routine from my home in Atoka to
Memphis, Tennessee to ask questions of any watchmaker willing to help me. To
the man, they were always willing to stop their work, answer my questions,
show me how to solve my latest problem and allow me to read their books and
magazines. I was forced to work with the simplest possible tools and
techniques until money could be earned for better ones. However, the memory
of their kindness has long influenced my desire to help others in a like
manner. It is toward this end that I design clocks, write article and
serials, publish clockmaking workshop manuals, make workshop videos, and
lecture at NAWCC Nationals, Regionals, and Chapter meetings.
During my high school days, I repaired watches in my spare time, being the
only watchmaker within a 30 mile radius. Following graduation, I was offered
a job in Memphis where I worked in a 10-man watch repair shop that did trade
repair work for Sears. Although I have never attended a watch- or
clockmaking school, the 4-years of hitchhiking to visit numerous watchmakers
and my years in the 10-man trade shop exposed me to, not only the best, but
the widest range of skills the trade had to offer. I was also given much
guidance by V. E. VanHousen, the Memphian "George Daniels" of his day. It
was he who, working in his own Memphis workshop, showed Hamilton that the
detent for their marine chronometer could be mass produced--they being
previously convinced that they could only be handmade by their three finest
craftsmen. He thus broke the production bottleneck that allowed Hamilton to
fulfill its military chronometer contract. Buried several years ago, to this
day he remains without credit for that feat.
War clouds were gathering. During the day I worked as a watchmaker and in
the evenings attended a government sponsored aircraft instrument school. At
the start of WW II, eight of us from the school volunteered for the Air Corps
and, unbelievably, stayed together throughout the war. I was sent for
additional instrument training to a school in Chicago and later to a Bendix
aircraft drift meter factory. Following that, our 27th Air Depot Group
headed for Brisbane, Australia. After provisions were gathered there, we
went to Port Moresby, New Guinea. There, from our own sawmill and jungle
wood, we built a huge aircraft repair depot, which included a large 15-man
aircraft instrument shop for the repair of mechanical, electrical and gyro
instruments, including automatic pilots.
For the first two years of my stay in New Guinea, I repaired electrical and
mechanical aircraft instruments and timepieces. However, during this period
the capabilities of the shop were greatly hampered by the lack of test
equipment. I thus designed and built 40+ pieces of equipment that were
desperately needed but unavailable from any of the Air Corps Stores.
Because this effort allowed our Air Depot to put instrument-grounded fighter
planes back into the air, I was awarded the Legion of Merit by General
Douglas MacArthur--the military's highest non-combat medal.
During the first part of our stay in New Guinea, there was no entertainment.
Drawing on my long time involvement in magic as a hobby, I made equipment
from scratch and did a number of shows at various bases on the island. At
one show, I wowed the boys by stringing the stage with panties and brassieres
borrowed from Port Moresby hospital nurses and pulled as a string from a
"Levanty" production. The shows were discontinued only when the USO groups
finally started arriving. Though rusty at it, I am still fond of palming
coins and thimbles.
Assigned to our Air Depot were a number of test pilots. However, there were
more of them than there were planes to test. Thus, some of them finally
broke away and formed a squadron of C-47's for flying cargo between bases.
By then, our depot had moved to a Finschhafen and had been absorbed into
another group. Because of my ham radio background, I joined the C-47 group
and flew as a radio operator during my third and last year in New
Guinea--about 200+ hours per month. We were the squadron's odd-balls--coming
and going at all hours of the day and night, never meeting roll-call,
sleeping during the day, etc. These flights were to almost every allied held
air strip in the pacific, including many flights to Australia. However, much
to my sorrow, the only chance for a flight to New Zealand was canceled
because of bad weather.
After discharge, I married and enrolled in mechanical engineering at the
University of Tennessee, Knoxville. During this period we lived in a 125
trailer village created by the university for returning war veterans. I
continued to repair watches in our 17-foot trailer home, in which we had a
watchmaker's bench, a 600 Watt ham station, a spinet piano and a rather large
safe, and a folding dining table!!
Following my BS degree I worked at the three atomic plants in Oak Ridge,
Tennessee, where I spent the first 25 years as a high energy accelerator
design engineer. The last fifteen years of this period were served as Chief
Engineer of the ORIC Cyclotron Project--the world's first sector focusing
(strong focusing) cyclotron. This was followed by another 10-years as a
technical writer/editor for the Union Carbide Nuclear Corporation's K-25
Plant's Safety Analysis effort. During the earlier part of this 35-year
period, I also worked part time at watch and clock repair.
The advent of Citizens Band Radio in the late 50's found the Knoxville area
lacking people with the FCC 1st or 2nd Radio Telephone licensed required to
do transmitter repair work. To fill this need, I spent three evenings per
week for over 25 years doing part time CB sales, service, and manufacturing
in my home basement. My CB product was a vacuum tube microphone
preamplifier, trademarked "The Windjammer"--the first of the microphone
preamplifiers. For this work, I had a 14-ton punch press, 8-sets of dies,
and worked a 14 man assembly line when assembling a batch of 1000 units.
As hobbies, I have done photography (since age eight), skating, tennis,
magic, have studied and written in the field of medical hypnosis, done
automotive, aircraft, and lawn mower engine rebuilding, have written poetry,
produced workshop videos, and built and installed many of the early Hi Fi
systems. I rebuilt and rode motorcycles, restored and flew my own Cessna 140
airplane, collected and restored pocket watches, built clocks, and have
written, published, and lectured in the field of Horology. I continue to
play pocket billiards.
Some 20+ years ago, in the spirit of those who helped me when I was learning
watch- and clockmaking, I decided to try to pass along to others some of the
skills I had learned during my struggles. Toward that end, I began to design
and build clocks and write articles and serials so other could build them.
Although capable of building complex clocks, I reasoned that these would
scare away prospective clockmakers. Thus, my clocks and their texts have been
purposely been kept simple so potential builders would not be fearful of
trying to make them. These articles, workshop manuals and videos have found
their way to many parts of the world.
In international competition (NAWCC Craft Contests), I have received four
gold medals, a silver and a bronze for hand made clocks, and a gold in the
Tool Design category. I have written 60+ horological articles and four
clockmaking workshop manuals that are now offered to the public. These are:
How To Make A Grasshopper Skeleton Clock, How To Make A Lyre Skeleton Clock,
Clockmaking & Modelmaking Tools & Techniques, and How To Make A Skeleton Wall Clock.
A fifth one, as yet un-named, is being prepared and will be of the
tools and techniques type. I have also produced an in-house, 2-hour video:
Wheel Cutting, Pinion Making & Depthing and a second 2-hour one, Graver
Making & Hand Turning For Clockmakers. Because John Wilding and I are old
friends, for years we each stocked and sold the other's workshop manuals--36
total titles. However, his and my workshop manuals have now been turned over
to BHI for sales in England. Thus, I sell his with mine from the U.S. and
BHI in England, we pretty much cover the world.
Because the audience for such manuals is limited, publishers (who can only
profit by quantity) are generally uninterested. Thus, authors of such
manuals are usually forced to publish their own material. For this, I do
the design, the drafting, the machining, the camera work, the darkroom work,
set type on the computer, make the halftones, make the 8-1/2" x 11" master
pages, copy them to full size negatives on my 14" x 18" Process Camera, burn
the plates for my offset press, print the pages, collate them, and punch and
bind them--all in-house.
I am a Fellow in the British Horological Institute (FBHI), a Fellow in the
NAWCC (FNAWCC), a Certified Master Clockmaker (CMC), a Certified Master
Watchmaker (CMW), and a Certified Master Electronic Watchmaker (CMEW).
Now 80 and retired 17-years, I and my second wife Judy, a rural route mail
carrier, live in Powell, Tennessee, a sleepy little town about 1-mile N. of
Knoxville. We love to dance, cook, and entertain friends. I still play pool
(66 years now) and for many years have been the captain of one of the 14
Fraternal Order league teams that play each Wednesday night during the fall,
winter, and spring. I also usually manage to qualify as a member of the
Moose Lodge's pool team. My daughter is a Division Director at the Oak Ridge
National Laboratory and has two young boys.
It is indeed a pleasure to help those wishing to learn to build clocks and/or
make whatever parts are needed for their repair. I am at home most of the
time and if I can be of help, please feel free to write or call. Although I
have tried, even if I live long enough, I am sure I'll never get it all done!!
Bill (W. R.) Smith BSME, FBHI, FNAWCC, CMC, CMW, CMEW.
8049 Camberley Drive
Powell, TN 37849
Awarded: Metal Working Craftsman of the Year 2000 by
the Joe Martin Foundation for Exceptional Craftsmanship.