Visiting The Steam Clock In Gastown

By Michaela Ludwig
Photo by iStock

There are only a handful of steam clocks around the world, and you’ll find one in Vancouver’s Gastown.


If you didn’t already know, there are steam pipes that run underneath the city of Vancouver and connect to a generating plant located at Georgia and Beatty streets. These pipes bring heat to the downtown core, and they also bring the steam that powers the whistle of the steam clock.



Built in 1977 by horologist (also known as a clockmaker) Raymond Saunders and metalwork specialist Doug Smith, the steam clock was commissioned by Gastown merchants to serve as a monument. Gastown was the original townsite that Vancouver grew from in the 1870s. The clock cost about $58,000 to build.



Other examples of steam clocks, although there were very few, were not very accurate when it came to keeping the time, so Saunders had to come up with his own solutions and reinvent this type of clock.


So how does the clock work? The clock is powered by descending weights. There is a small steam engine at the base of the clock case that acts as a winder by raising the ball weights and bringing the weights to the clock drive train. The steam engine is connected by a rubber belt to an electric motor – which is a lot more reliable than steam power.


Every 15 minutes, the steam clock will whistle and shoot steam from its five whistles, playing the Westminster Quarters. Every hour, the steam clock will blow a toot from each whistle.


You can find the steam clock at the corner of Cambie and Water streets in Gastown and it also appears on Nickelback’s Here and Now album cover and in a scene from Chuck Norris’ 1991 film, The Hitman. You can even see it in the 2019 Mario Kart Tour game and Mario Kart 8 Deluxe for the Nintendo Switch in the Vancouver Velocity race.

Photo by iStock

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