Steampunk: How does Clockwork…Work?

While I was writing The Scribbling Windhund, I made the inventor/terrorist very aware and a little embarrassed when he started going into technical details, so he’d cut himself short and not over explain science that I couldn’t explain. However, I do know a thing or two about clockwork mechanisms and if you’re interested, I’m going to indulge.

One of my favorite things to do when I was a kid was take apart my older sister’s wind-up music box collection and clean the insides. Partly it was fun because she couldn’t put them back together and it terrified her to see her beloved music boxes in pieces, but mostly I enjoyed it because it let me pretend to be an inventor.

I’d have my tweezers, a little copper bowl of Brasso, some q-tips, rubbing alcohol (which was absolutely not necessary and probably shouldn’t have been mixed with other chemicals), and a tiny screwdriver. Then I’d set to work dismantling the movement.

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This is a “movement.” Clockwork speech for the shit inside.

The way these music boxes work is really painfully simple and extraordinarily beautiful. The round part in the upper left of the image is either called the main spring or the spiral spring. If you take it out of the case (and be very careful you don’t hurt yourself when you do), you’ll be holding a flat band of metal wound very tightly. That’s were the energy of winding the music box comes from and the longer and thinner the wire was the longer the box would play (the shorter and thicker the faster it would play). This is basically the battery of the mechanism. After you put in the energy turning the key to the music box, it tightens the spring. This is slowly unleashed and turn the wheels, gears, and eventually causes the revolving cylinder to turn. The raised bumps hit the tuned teeth of a steel comb (or lamellae) and “Music of the Night” or “Romeo and Juliet” begins to play.

I’d take great delight in carefully unscrewing the comb, and dismantling the gears, cleaning them of the little bits of dust and hair that somehow got into the device. I’d talk to myself pretending to either be inventing the thing for the first time, or defusing a bomb, or discovering a piece of old technology lost to the ages.

And of course, I’d reassemble it by the time my parents came to yell at me for messing with my sister’s toys.  They’d find nothing except a perfectly functional music box and the strong scent of rubbing alcohol and Brasso in her bedroom.

The only time I ever really got in trouble was when I took to un-making my Great Uncle Wes’ pendulum clock. The piece was much more complicated, with a lot more small moving parts (pinions, the escapement, the damned pendulum, a chiming train, and a movement train) and after I’d taken it apart I was terrified I wouldn’t be able to put it back together before someone caught me.

In the end, I stole the clock and all it’s parts and hid in the clean field (which was actually a very dirty hill) next to my Aunt and Uncle’s house. I can vividly remember skidding down the rocks and past the snake burrows to hide among the staghorn sumac. I spent the rest of the day figuring out those gears and wheels and pinions, watching the sunlight cutting through the leaves and the bars growing longer and longer as I ran out of time.

I was particularly frustrated when I realized I had put the hour hand where the minute hand needed to be and I had to take it all apart and reassemble it again.

I was there for about four hours, lying among the rocks and the grass on my belly trying to piece the thing back together. In the end, I couldn’t figure out the chiming mechanism (I suspect I lost some pieces on my flight to the field).

I don’t know if my Uncle Wes ever figured out exactly why the clock stopped chiming, but I know whenever my Aunt Annie would remark on how he ought to go and get it fixed he would just shrug and cast me a wry little smile.

It was like this clock, but not as ornate:


The Fantasist is a quarterly online magazine that publishes three original Fantasy novellas on the third Thursday of every third month.

And this month, while they celebrate Steampunk, one of them is mine!

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