The Master of Time

Without mudding the waters with Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, the one thing we can depend upon is the constant of time. We all know from our high school physics class that the “second” is the standard of time in both the metric and English systems. We see the different systems everyday on our car’s speedometer where both kilometers/hour and miles/hour are displayed. The “hour” being the progression of seconds and minutes. Enough of Physics 101 because today we will visit the Master of Time, or a more familiar name in Ashland’s history: Henry Ellis Warren.

Henry Warren wasn’t the first to display the passage of time. Mechanical timepieces have been around long before he graced the Earth. What he did do was develop a method to accurately display it using electro-mechanical means, or more commonly, the synchronous electric clock.

From previous visits we know Henry Warren came to Ashland with Nathaniel Lombard and the Lombard Governor Co. The company relocated from Roxbury to Ashland in 1904, and Henry came with it. Lombard Governor was a manufacturer of water regulating devices that controlled the irregularities of free-flowing water to produce a constant power source.

But Henry’s interests went beyond water regulation. During his employment at Lombard Governor he established the Warren Clock Company in 1912. His goal was to manufacture an electric clock that was synchronous to the power supplied by the electric utility companies, anywhere. This was not an insurmountable objective as long as the power companies supplied alternating current (AC) at a constant rate. The problem was they were not. Warren himself said “As a time-keeper the device [his clock] was a failure. It was off as much as 10 or 15 minutes a day. But it was a success so far as checking the accuracy of alternations, or waves, was concerned.”

Warren was convinced his clock worked properly. It was Boston Edison that was fluctuating. Of course Boston Edison maintained that they were operating within their standards, but Warren needed to prove his case. Working with Boston Edison’s engineers, Warren installed what he developed as a “Master Clock” at the L Street power station. Again, from Henry Warren: “After it had been set up I explained to the operators and engineers what it was intended to accomplish and how it might guide them in controlling their frequency. I never dreamed that they would make any use of it until there had been time to regulate it and observe its behavior. However the men at the switchboard were curious to try regulating by the new kind of indicator. Before any of us could fully realize what had happened the great Edison system began sending out accurately timed alternations.”

Warren had won over Boston Edison. Soon the benefits of closely regulated alternating current (AC) became obvious to power generating companies across the country. Many representatives from these companies came to Ashland to meet with Henry Warren to discuss the installation of his Master Clock in their facilities. It didn’t go unnoticed by the larger electric manufacturing companies either. By 1917 the General Electric Company purchased a half interest in Henry’s company, but kept the Warren name until 1926 when it was changed to the Warren Telechron Company. The demand for Telechron clocks and timers convinced GE to expand and build a new facility on the corners of Union Street and Homer Avenue in 1927. The building still stands today. GE eventually adopted just the Telechron name after Warren retired in 1943, but closed operations in Ashland in the late 1970’s after a period of decline. Today, it is no longer home to GE, but houses a variety of businesses.

Henry Warren didn’t stop after his retirement in 1943. The holder of 135 patents in the United States, he lectured before numerous universities and scientific organizations, worked out of his house on Chestnut Street, and was involved in local government. Warren died in 1957 at the age of 85, but through his wife, 40 acres of his farm was left to Northeastern University. It was known as the Warren Center for Physical Education of Northeastern University. Sound familiar? It is now the Warren Conference Center, and Ashland is currently negotiating with Northeastern to purchase back a large portion to keep as recreational and open space. I wonder what Henry would think about that?

Steve Leacu for Ashland Directions
February 2012