Ship of Theseus and antique clock restoration

Last month I posted a article on Minimal Invasive Intervention in which I posed the question, how far do you go to repair, restore or conserve a clock without changing it in a significant way? I was having a discussion with my daughter who is a civil engineer and she raised the philosophical argument that questions whether an object like a clock that has had all of its components replaced remains fundamentally the same object. This paradoxical thought experiment exercise is called the Ship of Theseus. Plutarch, a Greek philosopher, asked whether a ship that had been restored by replacing every single wooden part remained the same ship.

The ship wherein Theseus and the youth of Athens returned from Crete had thirty oars, and was preserved by the Athenians down even to the time of Demetrius Phalereus, for they took away the old planks as they decayed, putting in new and stronger timber in their places, in so much that this ship became a standing example among the philosophers, for the logical question of things that grow; one side holding that the ship remained the same, and the other contending that it was not the same.

— Plutarch, Theseus[2]

In Nova Scotia we have a sailing ship called the Bluenose II. It is the pride on our province, an important tourist attraction and our provincial ambassador. The original Bluenose was a fishing and racing schooner that ran aground and sank some 90 years ago. To honour the original Bluenose, the Bluenose II was built in the 1960s and she sailed for over 50 years before it was determined that she was in need of significant restoration. In the last 4 years the hull of the Bluenose II has been completely rebuilt. Some of the original vessel is being reused including: rigging, masts, sails, ironwork, deck structures, safety equipment and electronics. In time the masts, sails, rigging and deck structures and other components will be replaced. Will the ship be fundamentally the same? Will it retain it’s identity?

Early English lantern clock
English lantern clock converted to fusee movement

Let’s look at another example, the lantern clock. The lantern clock, a weight driven wall clock shaped like a lantern were the first type of clock widely used in English private homes in the 17th century. With the arrival of long-case clocks with 8-day movements the lantern clock became obsolete. Lantern clocks are very collectible today and those that are in “original” condition are the most desirable. The problem with lantern clocks is that almost all of them have been altered, even those regarded as totally genuine. In this example I will cite a quote from a seller of lantern clocks, D. and J. Benson, specialists in early English clocks.

We are strong believers that if a clock was converted to a different escapement many years ago, this should be retained, being part of the history of the clock, rather than reconverting clocks back to former guises. Only under compelling circumstances would a clock be returned to a former state. Only absolutely necessary restoration work is carried out in order that the original clock survives for future generations. We conserve rather than replace.

Some of the more expensive lantern clocks they offer for sale have early conversions from verge to anchor escapement. Later ones had the original movements removed and a fusee movement (single or double) installed. When converted original movements including alarm mechanisms were taken out, a single-hand was replaced with two hands (or the minute hand added), broken finals and door handles might have replaced, chapter rings re-silvered, doors are often lost due to their nature of lifting out easily. Therefore, what is the nature of the clock after it has been changed, how original is it and does it retain its identity?

One clock collector might have the opinion that if too much is done to restore a clock it is not fundamentally the same and cannot be considered original even though the new parts were made from the same materials and using the same methods when the clock was first made. Another might have the opinion that changes or alterations to the clock that bring it back to its original look and function including the making of new parts make it more “original” and therefore more desirable. Moreover, if the changes are not recognized by the observer, is the clock original?

Furthermore, if one replaces one part at a time on a clock so that at some point all parts are replaced, at what point does a clock no longer become the same clock? It follows that if you take all of those parts and make a “new” clock which of the two clocks is original? What is the nature of the clock’s identity since no two objects can occupy the same identity.

Gustav Becker two weight regulator
Gustav Becker two weight regulator

I am sure that those of you who are collectors have experienced the dilemma of identity. I know that when I bought my first Vienna Regulator I began to realize that many parts were replaced over the years and it made me wonder to what extent the clock is original. It is an unwinnable argument and I began to accept the notion that it may not matter to me or to a casual observer who may view the clock as completely original.

40 thoughts on “Ship of Theseus and antique clock restoration

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