William McLachlan – Scottish clockmaker – what ChatGPT taught me

Confronted with the prospect of finding little else about William McLachlan I was curious about how ChatGPT might help.

Read on and you will find the results quite interesting.

Scottish tall case clock
Scottish tall case clock assembled and sold by William McLachlan of Newton Stewart in or around 1848

First of all, what is ChatGPT?

ChatGPT is a sophisticated computer program that is designed to understand natural language input from users and generate appropriate (my underline) responses. It uses a form of artificial intelligence called a deep neural network to analyze the input it receives and generate text that mimics human language. The program has been trained on a vast amount of data, including books, articles, and websites, so it can provide information on a wide range of topics. ChatGPT is an advanced technology that aims to provide human-like interactions in a digital space.

Regarding William McLachlan, here is what AI came back with:

“William McLachlan was a well-known Scottish clockmaker who lived and worked in Newton Stewart in the 1800s. He was born in 1803 and began his career as an apprentice to John Smith, a clockmaker in the nearby town of Wigtown.

In 1826, McLachlan moved to Newton Stewart, where he opened his own clockmaking shop. He quickly gained a reputation for producing high-quality clocks, and his business grew steadily over the years. McLachlan was known for his precision and attention to detail, and his clocks were particularly prized for their accuracy and reliability.

In addition to making clocks, McLachlan also produced barometers, thermometers, and other scientific instruments. He was particularly interested in developing new designs and technologies, and he was constantly experimenting with new materials and techniques.

McLachlan was a respected member of the Newton Stewart community, and he was involved in many local organizations and charities. He was also an active member of the local Masonic Lodge, and he served as its Master in 1861.

William McLachlan passed away in 1872 at the age of 69, but his legacy lived on through his work. His clocks and other instruments are highly prized by collectors and are considered some of the finest examples of Scottish clockmaking from the 19th century.”

Early morning light on the clock face

I decided to ask the question in a slightly different way and this is what I found:

“William Maclachlan, a clockmaker from Newton Stewart, Scotland, was born in 1803. Here is some information that I was able to find about his life:

William Maclachlan was born in 1803 in Newton Stewart, a small town in the historical county of Wigtownshire in southwestern Scotland. He was the son of James Maclachlan and his wife Agnes. In 1823, William Maclachlan married Janet Hannah, and the couple had at least six children.

William Maclachlan worked as a clockmaker, and he is known to have produced a variety of clocks and timepieces during his career. Some of his clocks are still in existence today, and they are highly prized by collectors. For example, in 2017, a William Maclachlan longcase clock was sold at auction for over £20,000.

Maclachlan was also involved in local politics and community affairs. He served as a councilor on the Newton Stewart town council in the mid-19th century, and he was also involved in the establishment of the local savings bank. He was known for his philanthropy, and he supported various charitable causes throughout his life.

William Maclachlan died on March 6, 1876, at the age of 73. He is buried in Penninghame Kirkyard in Newton Stewart. His legacy as a skilled clockmaker and community leader lives on, and his clocks continue to be admired and sought after by collectors today.”

Back to the database search

In any event, armed with the “information” generated by AI I went back to a Scottish website called Scotlands People, a government-operated site to input new data.

As for information on deaths, I found a William McLachlan age 68 who died in 1871 in Rhu, Scotland which is 105 miles from Newton Stewart. For marriages I found nothing. However, records begin in 1855 which means he might have married earlier. Regarding the 1871 census, I found a William McLachlan who was age 67 in Renfrew County where Newton Stewart is located. On the whole, not definitive and really nothing to support the AI-generated data.

Is information from ChatGPT to be trusted?

Generating intelligible responses simply results in responses being “appropriate”. Note the spelling of McLachlan (Maclachlan) in the second query despite inputting the name correctly. Varying the words in each new query yields a different result because ChatGPT gathers information from a number of sources and constructs facts in an intelligible dialog based on the question asked.

In my view, ChatGPT can be a dangerous tool. It looks very impressive though sadly some people will not question the information generated. A plague of misinformation and propaganda will flow from AI, no doubt, and whether we like it or not robot reporters in the news media are already a thing. Therefore, generative AI can be transformative and yet potentially destructive.

For the researcher, AI might provide a starting point but it is too easy to go down the rabbit hole. I see some value in ChatGPT as a blog writer if I am searching for a generic opening paragraph or explaining how something works. For instance, I asked ChatGPT “How does a clock escapement work?” and the response, to me, is pretty impressive. Having said that, I am now aware of its limitations, so, a little caution is necessary going forward.

And since I have no way of verifying the AI information that leaves me at square one.

For now, I am standing by the information in a previous post which you can access above.

Oh, the answer to “how does a clock escapement work?’.

“A clock escapement is a mechanism that converts the rotational motion of a clock’s gear train into a series of evenly spaced ticks that move the clock’s hands. The escapement consists of an escape wheel and a pallet fork.

Here is how the escapement works:

  1. The power source, such as a weight or spring, applies force to the escape wheel, causing it to rotate.
  2. The pallet fork, which is connected to the clock’s pendulum or balance wheel, engages with the escape wheel and stops it from rotating.
  3. As the pendulum or balance wheel continues to swing back and forth, it moves the pallet fork, which then releases the escape wheel.
  4. The escape wheel rotates a small amount before being stopped by the pallet fork again, and the cycle repeats.
  5. Each time the escape wheel rotates, it moves the clock’s gear train forward by one tooth, which in turn moves the clock’s hands.

The ticking sound of a clock comes from the sound of the escape wheel teeth clicking against the pallet fork as the escapement mechanism advances the gear train one tooth at a time. The swinging motion of the pendulum or balance wheel helps regulate the rate at which the escapement mechanism ticks, keeping the clock running at a consistent pace.”

And there you have it.


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