Time change shows how times are a changing in the clock repair business

Published November 2 2018
Updated November 2 2018

TAMPA — Built around the year 1500 — about 140 years before Galileo even conceived the pendulum system — the large, rusty timepiece with exposed gears that is Boyd Clocks’ storefront centerpiece is thought by some to be the oldest clock in the Western Hemisphere.

It never had hands or numbers. Its bell simply rang on the hour. To maintain accuracy, the clock had to be reset at least twice a day.

"This was a seed in the evolution of machinery," said clock repair shop owner David H. Boyd, 57, who has the antique ticking again. "This started it all. It’s a much different world now."

Consider the end of Daylight Saving Time, which happens this Sunday at 2 a.m. For much of the 20th century, people had to manually reset their clocks to match the hour change.

But what’s the point these days, asks Boyd, who said no one uses clocks to actually keep time any more.

"They are a luxury item, a decoration,’’ he says. "I press a button on my phone and the largest thing I see on that screen is the time. And it fixes the time itself."

Because of such advances, his industry is nearing extinction, Boyd said.

Over the past dozen years, he has tallied the demise of 33 full-service clock-repair businesses within a 150-mile radius. That’s most of the places that can fix every type of clock, from small digital to towers. That’s good and bad news for Boyd’s business, which was founded by his father 75 years ago.

The bad: His industry is joining the likes of dictionaries, paper maps and encyclopedias on the long slide to obsolescence.

"It’s all phones now," he said.

The good: Personally, his business is busier than ever.

"That’s only because we outlasted everyone else," Boyd said.

He typically has more than 200 clocks in his repair shop at 11620 N Florida Ave. and drives 80 to 120 miles a day to perform up to five house calls.

When the area’s clock towers, such as the one at Tampa City Hall, need work, it falls to Boyd.

To handle the load, Boyd has trained 10 employees.

"I went to the school of hard clocks," quipped Angel Hernandez, 54, who joined the business after driving a truck for 30 years.

Carl Brown, 68, was once a geologist. "He has given us the gift of the art of clock repair," he said of Boyd.

Boyd also loves giving regular history lessons on clocks.

"I can do it in under a minute," said Boyd, adding with a laugh, "My dates are all give or take a hundred years."

The first clocks — obelisks and water clocks — were invented 6,000 years ago, he said. Sundials came 3,500 years ago, he said, then came hourglasses 2,300 years ago, candle clocks 1,400 years ago and mechanical ones 700 years ago.

Boyd laughs about how people might have reacted upon hearing a clock-tower bell for the first time. "What do you mean you’re measuring time?" he said, mimicking what the reply might have been. "What is an o’clock?"

Mechanical clocks in houses arrived 400 years ago, Boys estimates, and the digital age began about a century ago.

Twenty five years later, his father, David N. Boyd, founded Boyd Clocks at the age of 14.

"He was very mechanical," Boyd said. "He started buying alarm clocks, rebuilding them and selling them, and that was the birth of the business."

At 19, his dad came down with polio and required a wheelchair, but fixed clocks until he died in 2015. Boyd was 7 when he became his father’s assistant and 16 when he started making house calls.

"I grew up doing this," he said. "I’ve seen the ups and downs."

The current lull is recent but its roots date back to the 1980s, Boyd said, to the advent of the cable box. "You didn’t need a clock in the front room. It was right there on the cable box."

Still, Boyd is confident that enough people enjoy them as décor to sustain the only full-service repair shop in the area.

And as the antique centerpiece in his lobby proves, no one loves clocks more than he does.

Boyd’s oldest showpiece used to be his French turret clock built in 1720 that was originally in a church or a castle.

But he long wanted a clock predating the pendulum that operates via a process called foliot expansion, which controls the rate of the gears by adjusting the placement of weights on a connected bar. This allows the gear train to advance at regular intervals. Eighteen months ago he found one in El Paso that had been housed in an English castle.

"I sold my ’73 Vette convertible to get it," Boyd said.

On the drive back to Tampa, when it was his turn to rest, Boyd curled up next to the clock in the back of the van.

"But I couldn’t sleep,’’ he said. "I was too excited."

Still, excitement has its limits. He’s willing to part with the 1720 clock for $15,000. The clock from 1500 goes for $50,000.

"I’m a small businessman," Boyd said. "Everything is always for sale."

Contact Paul Guzzo at [email protected] Follow @PGuzzoTimes.