Interview by Rebecca Johnston
Bob Frishman is known for his expertise on the subject of clock and watch repair and history. He has professionally repaired nearly 8,000 timepieces and is author of numerous articles on the subject of horology. He is currently working on two books, one focused on Edward Duffield and one on the Mulliken family of Massachusetts. Bob and his wife, Jeanne Schinto (a previous Athenæum Author whom you can read about here), live in Andover, MA. For more information about Bob, click here.
Q: Where are you from, and where do you call home now?
BOB FRISHMAN: I grew up in Andover, Massachusetts, where I’m speaking to you from. The house I grew up in is about a quarter mile away, and my elementary school is about a tenth of a mile up the street. I haven’t lived here the whole time since I was a child, but Jeanne and I came back in the 1980s and moved into Andover in the early 1990s. I made the great circle route, because I was actually born in DC, which is where I went to college at George Washington, and then worked on Capitol Hill for about a decade for different members of Congress. Then I came back up here to work for my dad’s business.
Q: How did your interest in clocks and watches develop?
BF: I already had clock and watch repair and collecting as a hobby since 1980 when I met somebody who was into it, and then I got into it as a real serious hobby. I joke that since I worked in politics during those years, it was such a joy and relief to come home and work on a clock or a watch where you actually got something done. At the end of the day, you actually had something to show for it, unlike politics where either nothing happens or if something happens, it’s usually bad. Maybe it helped me keep my sanity.
Q: How did you pivot your interest into a business?
BF: When my dad’s company closed, I picked up where I left off when I left DC, where I was about to start my own antique clock repair and antique clock selling business. In the early 1990s, I segued into full time clock repair and selling, and it instantly became both gratifying and successful because there are so few people anywhere anymore who can fix antique clocks. There are tens of thousands of antique clocks still around today, many of them in New England. Within an hour’s drive of my house, there are more broken antique clocks than I could ever fix! In New England, lots of families pass them down and no one wants to get rid of them, so there’s a lot of old tickers around that people want to get fixed. It was a very successful venture.
Q: How does your interest in horology tie into your interest in history?
BF: All along, I always loved history. That was one reason my degree was in political science and why I liked that part of politics, the historical context of it all. Right from the start, I wasn’t just the Maytag repair man. I really was deeply interested in a scholarly way in clocks and watches, or horology. So for each clock I fixed, I told the people about its history. I started building a library, which now has over 800 books about clocks and watches. And I started to write about it too, now more than 100 articles about the various aspects of horology. I have a book coming and another waiting to be written after that one. That’s why I love this: the history is so deep and there are so many important things relating to its history I can sink my teeth into. Some people picture me like the guy who fixes your dishwasher, just bent over a machine. I just lived and breathed this; if I wasn’t fixing a clock, I was reading a book about it, preparing a lecture, or something related. The subject is so broad, it really suits my temperament and personality.
Q: What would you say to someone who’s interested in learning about the craft of repairing clocks or watches?
BF: It requires patience. Because these are 200-year-old machines. If the clockmaker from 1790 thought somebody would still be using his clock, he’d die laughing. This was an appliance. Nobody thought they were making things for posterity. They were making useful machines for the time. Nursing them back into health after 200 years is difficult and challenging and not many people can do it. The cost of impatience is really high—if I make a mistake, it’s pretty clear when I deliver a clock to someone and it stops a week later. Nothing subtle about that! That pressure can be challenging.
Q: How did you build your knowledge of horology?
BF: It was fate. Thanksgiving 1980, we were invited to some guy’s house, and almost didn’t go. But we went, and then almost didn’t go to his basement. But we went to his basement, and it was full of all this clock and watch stuff. Now I already liked mechanical things. I had worked on sports cars at the time, but I was ready for something mechanical that was indoor work and not so dirty and noisy and dangerous and expensive. So I met Jack, who got me started, but you have to learn, or at least practice, by yourself. There are plenty of examples of guys who never sought real training or even study, and I see their work a lot. They figure “I can fix anything,” and they basically ruin the clock because they never learned the correct way. I had Jack’s help at the beginning, and I also took a few short courses at the American Watch-Making Institute in Cincinnati that showed me the right way to do it. Then you do it, as I have, 8,000 times, and you start to actually learn the right way of doing it and pretty soon you learn the wrong way when it doesn’t work when you’re done. It’s the same kind of template I use when people ask me about learning clock repair: You have to do it yourself, but I’m happy to help you. It wasn’t a big investment in equipment but it was a huge investment in time as I slowly gained expertise. I made enough mistakes to learn how to avoid repeating them.
Q: How did you get into dealing in clocks and watches?
BF: I loved antique clocks, and after a while, like almost every collector, I had too many so I had to become a dealer, too. I couldn’t keep them all and I had to support the acquisition I kept doing. It turned out to be an excellent business model too, because I would bring my restored clocks to an antique show to sell, which was also the perfect marketing tool for my repair business. Roughly every tenth person at an antique show has a broken clock at home, so it was great targeted marketing. I couldn’t have lived just by selling, but I wasn’t relying on the selling. The selling fed my repairing and the repairing kept me going. That’s how I got well-known, and how I even got a lot of lecture gigs at places like historical societies, libraries, and museums.
Q: Do you have a favorite in your collection?
BF: It’s a tough question to answer. Having a favorite means that all 10,000 others are not my favorites. I like so many of them! On the flip side, there are certain clocks I don’t like and won’t fix. Those include cuckoo clocks. Many people were disappointed when they called me for a repair and I said I don’t fix them. They are the worst combination of cheap and complicated. Some are hundreds of years old and are wonderful, but the millions that came here with tourists who brought them back from Germany in the last fifty years stop working after a while and are either impossible or very expensive to fix. So I turn those away. I think they’re fun when you look at them, but they’re nightmares mechanically. I stay away from cuckoo clocks.
Q: Do you still repair watches and clocks?
BF: I’ve reduced my repairing to almost zero, because it’s challenging and I don’t need to make the money I used to need to make. Plus I have other horology projects to work on. Instead of banging my head against the workbench trying to make a two-hundred-year-old machine work, it’s much easier shooting my mouth off. The consequences are far less serious. I do occasionally take work, but I spend only about three or four hours a week at my clock-making bench. What I mostly like to work on are English tall clocks, or Grandfather clocks (even though they weren’t called that back then), from the late 1700s and early 1800s. There are a lot of those around, and I like working on those. They’re lovely to work on, and each has a history I enjoy. There are American ones that dovetail with my research on American clockmakers from the eighteenth century. I have five in my workshop right now, and one or two of them are from museums. I will offer to repair their clock for free, as well as give a lecture about the clock, its importance, and time-keeping in general. I got to take a look at their clock, and at the end, I brought them back a clock that hadn’t worked in a long, long time. And now it’s ticking away in the museum like it should be. You know that if people go into a museum and the clock’s standing there not working, they’ll think, “What else is wrong about this place?” That’s why I love the fact that the clocks at the Athenæum are running.
Q: What else have you enjoyed about the Athenæum ? How did you join?
BF: I have a two-direction approach with these types of institutions. I want to support the Boston Athenæum, now as a proprietor, because it’s important to me to support institutions that are historic and local and meaningful to the history of the community. I also want to get the people at the Athenæum interested in horology. If the Athenæum even moves one percent in the direction of buying more horology books or hosting more speakers like me, that works with my mission. I don’t make any money at this, it’s missionary work for me. I just want people to get as excited about clocks and watches as I am. So, a friend had suggested we visit and attend some events. Initially it was Jeanne who began doing research there. And as often happens, I tagged along to see what was there that was clock and watch related. Specifically I worked with Catharina Slautterback on finding clocks in her print and photograph collection, and she got the bug as well. That synergy was wonderful. I was able to connect with the staff there. I love walking in the Athenæum, I love the whole aura there. Just going in and feeling like I can breathe more easily for a few hours, just browsing. It’s such a goldmine of information, undiscovered.
Q: Touching on your writing projects, what were some of the great joys and challenges throughout your process?
BF: It always stuns me that it flows out of me in an almost-finished form. My wife used to joke about that, because I was a speech-writer on Capitol Hill. I wrote 84 speeches for Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm during her final years in Congress. Before that, I’d done some writing. But somehow, when I get the subject and it spins around in my head for a while it comes out in a way that always amazes me. Sure I have to edit, but the creative process continues to astound me and gives me great pleasure. I think the research is just as exciting, especially coming to a place like the Athenæum. The joy is in the discovery, and then the joy of creating something out of the research is equally satisfying. God forbid, I’ve never experienced writer’s block—my problem is stopping.
Q: What projects are on the horizon?
BF: This book that is nearing completion now, that’s been a few years in the making. It’s about the Colonial clockmaker Edward Duffield. It’s been a different process for me because it is so long compared to my previous work. This is going to be a big picture-book with pictures of as many of his clocks as I can find. Part of the book is just going to be a catalogue with all of the clocks we know of and their descriptions, but the other half is his biography. Sad part is, he left no ledgers or letters behind. He was an active citizen though. So not only do I have his clocks, which are the legacy of his clock-making work, I also have the things he was involved in as a fairly affluent, civic-minded person. What I find so interesting is that he could have done something else. He probably didn’t need to work as a clockmaker. He was born into money, and that’s part of the story. The nightmare is the book being published and a descendant landing on my doorstep with a trunk full of letters. But for every year of his life, I have something, even if it’s just how much he paid in taxes, which can tell you a lot. In my book, I’m equally interested in the man, not just the clocks. Especially because I do have a unique perspective as someone who’s also spent time bent over the workbench.
Q: What is the next project you’re looking forward to?
BF: The next book is about the Mulliken family of clockmakers from Massachusetts. There were a number of members of that family who made clocks, and many of them are in the area. I’ve already found 200, which is a greater number than the number I found by Edward Duffield. My collaborator, Damon DiMauro at Gordon College, has uncovered primary materials about the Mullikens, which will be helpful because there’s a lot more than about Edward Duffield. The book will be published by the Concord Museum, which owns six Mulliken clocks, and it will have greater local context. There are so many great clockmakers from this area whom have not been written about to the extent they deserve, the Mullikens certainly among them.