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The Tanstaafl Cuckoo Works

It started as a small collection then a hobby that got out of hand. My foray into machine guns took a similar path, but this is about cuckoos and the number three.
My first cuckoo clock was a traditional Black Forest model with the familiar carved bird and leaf motif. It was purchased at a yard sale and was not functioning. I took it apart and marveled at the way it (didn’t) work. I soon had it up and running after repairing the movement, re-skinning the bellows and tuning the gong.
Then I found another one. That’s where the saga began. After getting the second one going, I noticed an oddity that occurs when two or more mechanical clocks tick together, and then not. Think about it…..the clocks should tick at the same rate, right? Well, they do, almost. But the small, almost imperceptible difference in timing causes them to tick at the same rate, then drift apart in tandem ticking, then returning to ticking together. I was fascinated with this. Every clock I added to the room made it less likely that they would tick on the same beat.
Fascination led to near obsession. OK, obsession. I ended up with a hundred cuckoo clocks in my home, all functioning, of course. I didn’t bother keeping them on time,………. that would have really been nuts.
There was that rare and random event where all of the clocks, ticking at slightly different rates would tick on the same beat. When it happened, it was like having sex and getting religion at the same instant. I’ll just tell you the timing thing touched a spot deep inside me.
In the course of acquiring and maintaining these intricate little wonders, I found one common thread. Most of the cuckoo clocks I had were crummy little units made for sale to the world outside of the Black Forest. They worked, but the engineering, fit and finish were appalling to me.
I had been educated by Germans in the quality of mechanical things. ‘Form follows function’ was the mantra that impressed me by the Krauts. These clocks were the absolute antithesis of that.
Certainly I could do better. I did, too.
The Tanstaafl Cuckoo Works was born and incorporated in 1988 with the mission of showing the Germans how to build a Cuckoo Clock. Making money was about third down on the list of priorities.
I got a building on Mulberry Street in Richmond, VA and moved in. Funny, I was born at a hospital on Mulberry Street, just blocks away.
My designs were a bit different from the Black Forest clocks. They were very American, I should say. I was not going to cave in to producing anything like the crap that was coming from Europe.
The standard Tanstaafl Cuckoo Clock was solid mahogany, with no nails used. Biscuit joints were employed, and brass screws. I used a formula for building a clock that mandated that every one would be different. The clock maker would take a raw mahogany board, plane it and trim the edges. Whatever the width of the finished board came out to……..the height was 1.5 times that. My clocks had four whistles instead of the European method of using two. The clock maker would make random lengths on the whistle tubes, too………giving each cuckoo it’s own voice.
The birds were all hand carved and dipped their heads, opening their mouths when they cuckooed.
I built other models, too. We made stainless steel kitchen Cuckoos. We made mahogany clocks with both Arabic and Roman numerals. I built six foot tall Grandfather Cuckoos that had a long bass string instead of the traditional gong. I built cuckoos with seventy two note musical movements that played “Fur Elise” by Beethoven. And not just a little snippet………the whole damn thing.
I built the world’s first (and only) Braille Cuckoo Clocks. They had Braille numerals that a blind person could feel. And the little bird had dark glasses……….he was blind, too.
We shingled the roofs with my original ‘uniform defect’ shingle design. I found that while cutting shingles from a stick of mahogany, if I cut fast enough the shingle would break off just before completing the cut, leaving a little nub on the shingle. I dubbed this the ‘uniform defect’ and it became a standard feature.
This is where I came up with the uniform defect theory. Consistent inconsistency renders uniformity.
The Martin Agency, a world renowned advertising agency approached me with a proposition. In the advertising business, the have a contest every year called the ‘Addies’ not dissimilar to the Academy Awards in their business. The wanted to use my product as an entry displaying their skills at what they do. They won and I got some very cool advertising material. “I have cleaned more clocks than Mike Tyson”…….”I have carved more birds than Colonel Sanders” were a couple of the tag lines.
Each clock was serial numbered, but the number three was never included. In advertising, each clock was depicted at three after three. I’m not sure why, but I will blame the little voices in my head.
The business ran its course. I came in one afternoon and found that my newest clockmaker was asleep after making a really nice mahogany dope pipe. As Bob Dylan once wrote, “Then one day the ax just fell”. The business never made a profound profit until the day we auctioned it. Without exception, every clock on the showroom floor brought more money than the list price, and the machinery did, too. By dear friend and auctioneer, Wimpy Iskett and I laughed all the way to the bank.
Ryland
 

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Great story Ryland. Thanks for the entertaining read and historical perspective of an obsession.


A watch with some history too.:D


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