Bob Rodgers had time on his hands on Monday. In fact, he had 10 o'clock in his right hand and his left hand on 3.
The expert clock installer stood inside a cramped tower at one of downtown Montreal's busiest intersections on a historic mission: bringing an iconic clock set and its Big Ben chimes into working order at McGill University - a piece of lost time, brought back to life in a digital age.
"Once again," quipped Mr. Rodgers, a clock specialist from Pennsylvania, "McGill University will be on time."
On Friday, to the accompaniment of bagpipers, the university will restart the four-faced clock at its landmark front gates, and chimes will be heard regularly on Sherbrooke Street and McGill College Avenue in the heart of Montreal for the first time in more than 75 years.
Even students accustomed to checking the hour on cellphones and mobile devices stopped on campus on Monday to watch the classic clock face going up at the university gates.
The original clocks were installed with McGill's colonnaded Roddick Gates in 1925, and have rarely missed a chance to stop since. The chimes ceased sounding by the 1930s after nearby residents complained about the noise.
The mostly non-functioning timepieces were part of campus life for generations of students. One of them was Joseph Hanaway, a New Yorker who got his undergraduate and medical degrees at McGill in the 1950s and '60s. In 2006, during a research visit to McGill for a history book, Dr. Hanaway noticed the off-kilter clocks again and decided to get them fixed.
"Somebody had to do it," said Dr. Hanaway, a retired professor and neurologist in St. Louis. "It's part of my payback to McGill. I figure I owe them."
He researched the clocks' history and found a specialist - Electric Time Co., outside Boston - to handle the upgraded clockwork; Mr. Rodgers came in to begin the installation. The clocks have a computerized mechanism and a GPS receiver to keep them on atomic time. The chimes will also function by computer. Although no decision has been made, the plan is to ring them on the hour from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Dr. Hanaway said it was appropriate to restore the clocks and bells on such a prominent downtown and university landmark - after all, it's about time.
McGill inaugurated its permanent and monumental entrance on Sherbrooke Street in Montreal in 1925. Amy Redpath Roddick donated the Roddick Gates in memory of her husband, Sir Thomas George Roddick, dean of the faculty of medicine from 1901 to 1908. Sir Thomas was known for his punctuality, so Lady Roddick decided a fitting memorial would be an entrance gate incorporating a clock tower with chimes. The clocks and chimes hardly ever worked, however, and the four faces often told different times.
The original clock was in the centre of the clock tower with four spindles running in four directions to drive the hands. The Rube Goldberg-like device was open to the elements, and by 1930s the entire mechanism had to be replaced. Subsequent efforts to keep the clocks running were largely unsuccessful.
The new clocks will be water-sealed and satellite-controlled, eliminating the need to climb the tower to fix a clock that might have gone awry after a storm.
Four bells were incorporated into the original structure. They were Westminster chimes, the name for the melody commonly used by bells such as Big Ben to chime on the quarter hour. Each bell at McGill is of different size and weight and plays a different key.
The bells are believed to have been turned off in the late 1920s or early 1930s due to complaints about the noise in what was then a residential neighbourhood. The new bells will be computerized so they can be set to ring on any schedule and at any volume. Today, the clock tower stands at a bustling intersection filled with office buildings, some apartments and, next door, a university library.