Isaiah Lukens ~ Clockmaker

"Lukens was the town clock maker and general machinist. No man of that period better known or held in higher esteem"
George Escol Sellers171p4

Isaiah Lukens was born August 24, 1779 in Horsham and is known for many fine clocks he made for notable buildings such as Loller Academy in Hatboro, PA State House/Independence Hall in Philadelphia, Germantown Academy, and many others. Less well known is his interest in air guns and medical equipment He was also one of the founders of the Franklin Institute, and a member of American Philosophical Society and the Academy of Natural Sciences - all in Philadelphia.

Isaiah (1779-1846) was the son of Seneca Lukens. Seneca was the great-grandson of Jan Lucken who arrived here in 1682 and was one of the first settlers in Germantown (Philadelphia). A noted clockmaker in his own right, Seneca Lukens had a shop near his home on the west side Easton Road just north of Maple Avenue, where he made fine clocks. He may be just as well known for hosting Elizabeth Graeme Fergusson who lived in his home for the last years of her life after moving from Graeme Park in 1793.

The chimney of the Clock Factory, as the shop was called, stood along Easton Road long after the Lukens' family closed the business. In the first decade of this (20th) century, the chimney was torn down and the stone hauled away to be used as building material. 39 (Ed note - this was probably part of the land that Harold Pitcairn bought in 1926 for his airfield and today would be on the grounds of the closed Willow Grove Naval Air Station WGNAS)

Mr Lukens had a shop in Philadelphia from possibly as early as 1811 at 173 High Street. He spent 3 years in Europe (1825-1828) attempting to sell surgical instruments and working as a clock maker and maker of surgical instruments, before returning to Philadelphia where he had a shop at 305 High Street..143p34 - 162p210

While we now remember Lukens as a prominent clock maker, he may also - long before making some of the clocks he is now known for - have produced the gun called "Great Medicine" that Lewis and Clark took on their trip across the country to impress the native peoples; and for his involvement in exposing the famous Redheffer Perpetual Motion hoax in Philadelphia in 1812.

Isaiah Lukens, head-and-shoulders portrait, facing left
Toward the end of his life, he developed a sever heart problem, an aneurysm of the aorta. When the doctor told that he only had a few days to live, he received the news calmly. He died sitting at his work table with tool in hand."
David A Lukens 144

Perpetual Motion Machine

In 1812, Charles Redheffer of Philadelphia built a lucrative business by displaying a so-called perpetual motion machine - at $1-5 a look at his house/museum in Germantown - now part of Philadelphia but at that time a northern suburb.

There seem to be several variations to this story but most of what we report is taken from an account by Charles Escol Sellers published in 1891 in The American Machinist 166pp2-4. Sellers was 84 when he wrote , the son of Coleman Sellers and the grandson of Nathan Sellers and Charles Willson Peale who were all significant players in the Redheffer affair. He would have been around 6 in 1812-13 when Redhoffer was showing his device and recalls seeing it in operation, but in the late 18-teens, which is probably an error in memory. He recalled often hearing stories about his father, grandfathers and Lukens and their amusing mockery of Redheffer.

Peale was a famous artist of the Revolutionary period and used his artwork as the foundation for his Philadelphia Museum which was later housed in the Pennsylvania State House and to include other items such as those collected by Lewis and Clark, American Indian clothing, weapons, and household objects. The contents of the museum , with the exception of Peale’s artwork were sold to PT Barnum in 1849. Peale saw Redheffer as being in a similar business and later exhibited Lukens’ model of his machine in direct competition with him.

Nathan Sellers and his son Coleman – and eventually Coleman’s son George – were engineers. And George recalled his father being immediately skeptical of Redheffer and his device. It was being displayed in Germantown – just outside of Philadelphia – closed to his grandfather’s summer residence and that he and father and grandfathers joined the crowds lining up to see the device.

perpetual motion machine - wood frame with four posts, small wooden gear to left and large wooden gear in center

George recalled that Redheffer’s machine turned a grindstone on which visitors would sharpen their knives. During the visit, Peale recognized another clockmaker name Owen who hand worked with David Rittenhouse and was there in a simple disguise asking somewhat mocking questions of Redheffer. The Peale group then got to see the machine up close and Coleman Sellers inserted several pieces of paper between the gears which he shows as proof that the shaft of the grindstone was being powered from outside the room and was actually driving the larger gear – the opposite of what Redheffer was proposing.

Redheffer was seeking additional funding to build a bigger machine and requested a grant from County of Philadelphia. The County created a committee to investigate the device, if Redheffer's claims were true then his machine then "...not only great honor would be bestowed on the Commonwealth but incalculable advantages would be derived from the invention by the people of the United States, and by mankind in general AND WHEREAS on the other hand should the machine be found to be imperfect, the public interest would be promoted by exposing its fallacy."169p250

Nathan Sellers was included as part of this committee but Redheffer had heard of Sellers' criticism and asked that he be removed. We don't know if Sellers was removed but the committee was scheduled to view the equipment on January 21, 1813. Redheffer cancelled this meeting and then refused to show the machine - the committee was then discharged.169p251

Redheffer later confronted Coleman Sellers and invited him and a group that included Isaiah Lukens to inspect the device. George Sellers recalled that Lukens often told an amusing account of this meeting. The group found the machine somewhat disassembled but not enough that they could prove where the outside power was coming from. A rough piece of wood was covering something that they believed was hiding the power source and Coleman Sellers offered Redheffer $100 for just the piece of wood, enraging Redheffer.

Reubens Peale, George’ Sellers uncle and son of Charles Willson Peale, was then operating the elder Peale’s Museum and commissioned Lukens to create a model of Redheffer’s machine, which he did bit with a hidden clockworks to transmit power from outside. Old Moses, a worker at the museum, was in charge of daily winding the clockwork that ran the machine. This device soon became more popular that Redheffer’s, who got upset at the loss of business.

Upon seeing Lukens’ machine Redheffer was amazed, figuring that Lukens had perfected his own ideas. He proposed that Lukens and he partner up to exhibit the device but Lukens said it now belonged to Peale. They did not market it as a perpetual motion machine but only as a model of one that Redheffer claimed to be in perpetual motion.

Redhoffer, having been at least partially exposed and losing most of his business, took his show on the road to New York where he again started drawing large crowds. One visitor in 1813 was the famous inventor of the steamboat Robert Fulton who immediately detected that the machine was being powered by a crank. He challenged Redheffer that he could discover the source and would pay for any damages. Redheffer agreed, then Fulton removed a few pieces of lathe from the wall exposing a belt made of cat gut. This extended to a small room above where they found that the power was being generated by " a poor old man with an immense beard and all the appearance of having suffered a long imprisonment, who, when they broke in on him was unconscience of what had happened below".170p67 Once the fraud was revealed a mob dismantled the machine and Redheffer disappeared (only to show up again in Philadelphia some time later). Fulton's biographer praises Fulton for exposing that which had deluded the Pennsylvanians for so long - he apparently had not heard of the Sellers and Lukens.

Redheffer then returned to Philadelphia in 1816 and (for reasons not entirely clear) he asked the governor of Pennsylvania to appoint a committee to investigate a new machine. When the governor did not do so he placed a notice in the local newspapers inviting a number of prominent men including Mayor Robert Wharton and Chief Justice William Tilghman, to join a committee that would judge the invention. This group met several times but each time Redheffer could or would not run the machine.

At this point, the group issued a statement to the public that Mr Redheffer had declined to comply with the promise he made in his public invitation, no feasibility of his project had been offered and that those who had been involved with him up to this point were "withdrawing from any further attendance on him".151p2col1-3

Wikipedia, referencing Peter Force's "A National Calendar", shows that Redheffer was awarded a patent in 1820 for a device listed as "machinery for the purpose of gaining power" - but all patents issued before 1836 have been lost due to a fire at that time.153

Lukens was one of the founding members of the Franklin Institute, one of the first two elected vice-presidents and first chairman of its Committee on Science and the Arts. George Sellers reports that Lukens demonstrated the and fully explained his machine at one the early meetings at the Institute. It has long been in the collection of the Institute172-173 and may have been donated by the Philadelphia Museum at that time.

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Some Famous Lukens' Clocks

Loller Academy

The Loller clock is over 200 years old and was badly in need of restoration. Keith Winship, of Hatboro antique clock restoration business Winships’ Pieces of Time, teamed up with Hatboro businessman and clock lover Charles Roché and The Millbrooke Society in 2008 to begin the process of restoring the clock to good working order.

Lukens built his first commissioned clock for Loller Academy in 1812. A seven day clock, it has a bell in the tower above it that rings hourly.

Loller Academy was built in 1811 with funds donated by the estate of Robert Loller.(1740-1808). Loller was an educator and a patriot, having fought at Trenton, Princeton, and Germantown. He was elected to the Continental Congress and helped draft the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Constitution. Col Loller and another neighbor, Dr Archibald MacLean Jr, were given the task of inventorying the possessions of Elizabeth Graeme Fergusson after the Revolutionary War when the Commonwealth was trying to seize Graeme Park in nearby Horsham. In the 1950s the Academy became Hatboro's Borough Hall.

The restoration was completed in 2015 and was celebrated on New Year's Eve 2015 as the final event of Hatboro's Tricentennial with a clock re-dedication ceremony at 6:00 P.M.

more on the Loller Clock Restoration

photo of clock in Loller Academy

PA State House - Independence Hall

Isaiah Lukens may be best known for the clock he made for the Pennsylvania State House, later to be called Independence Hall.

The "State House" did not become "Independence Hall" till the last half of the 19th century. This change in designation, which began about the time of Lafayette's visit to America, is closely linked with the evolution of the building as a national shrine. Prior to 1824, there was but little reverence or regard for the State House. The visit of the Marquis de Lafayette to Philadelphia in that year, however, awakened an interest in the building which has persisted to this day.

The old Assembly Room, called for the first time "Hall of Independence," was completely redecorated and Lafayette was formally received here by the Mayor and other dignitaries on September 28.

The interest in the State House engendered by Lafayette's visit was not permitted to die. In 1828, the City Council obtained plans and estimates to rebuild the wooden steeple which had been removed in 1781. After heated discussions, William Strickland's design for the new steeple was accepted, a large bell to be cast by John Wilbank was ordered, and Isaiah Lukens was commissioned to construct a clock. Work was completed on the project during the summer of 1828. Lukens was reportedly paid $5,000 for the clock.

Independence Hall Philadelphia

Strickland's steeple was not an exact replica of the original, but it may be considered a restoration since it followed the general design of its predecessor. The principal deviations were the installation of a clock (Lukens) in the steeple and the use of more ornamentation.

During the later Centennial restoration project, a large bell (weighing 13,000 pounds) and a new clock were given to the City by Henry Seybert for the steeple of Independence Hall. This clock and bell are still in use.145

The Lukens' clock was then moved to the Germantown Town Hall. This had been built in 1854 but the clock was not installed until 1878147 after it was moved from Independence Hall. Old Town Hall, as it was known, was demolished in 1920. A new town hall was built and the clock was re-installed. As far as we know this is the same clock that is currently in the building, although the building as been vacant and unused since at least 2008.

Joseph Saxton was either a worker, employee, associate or apprentice of Lukens, but the National Academy of Sciences152p293 as well as Saxton's biography168 credit him with the clock in the State House.

Germantown Town Hall with Isaiah Lukens clock

Germantown Academy

Isaiah Lukens also built a clock for Germantown Academy in Fort Washington, PA ( not sure if it is still there)

(A later headmaster - Professor Walter Rogers Johnson) ... was not duly impressed with the importance of ringing the school bell at stated times during the day, and it was rung irregularly. His lack of appreciation of the bell's tones caused the trustees to send a committee to him to urge him to have the bell rung regularly, or to discontinue the ringing. This little difference was the first that occurred between the young principal and the trustees. He refused to comply with the wishes of the board unless they furnished him with a clock and a person to ring the bell. The reasonableness of this request was admitted, and Mr. Wister purchased for $50 an excellent clock from Isaiah Luckens, and presented it to the school. This incident occurred in the summer of 1825 when the Academy contained twenty-five pupils in the academic department and twelve in the preparatory school."146

Christ Church/William and Mary

The original Christ Church in Norfolk, VA burned down on March 9, 1827 and it was decided to add a bell and clock to the steeple when they rebuilt. They ordered a clock from Isaiah Lukens that was delivered on November 25, 1829 at a price of $863.63. The clock quickly became to be used for keeping time and schedules in the town.

In 1865 a salaried timekeeper was appointed to keep the clock running - but in 1904 the council failed to appoint one and the clock stopped. Christ Church later moved to a new building which would not accomodate the clock and in 1919 donated it to The College of William and Mary. The clock was disassembled and found to be in excellent condition. 147p117-118

An inscription on the frame said 147p118

Isaiah Lukens
Fecit. No14,
Philadelphia, Nov 12, 1820.

The Sir Christopher Wren Building at William & Mary is the oldest college building still standing in the United States and the oldest of the restored public buildings in Williamsburg. It was constructed between 1695 and 1700, before Williamsburg was founded 148

Christopher Wren Building at William and Mary College with clock by Isaiah Lukens

Philadelphia Bank/ Athenaeum of Philadelphia

For over a century, members and visitors at The Athenaeum have commented on Isaiah Lukens's towering clock that dominates the News Room. In 1897 the following inscription was placed on the interiors of the case door:

"This clock was made by Isaiah Lukens, a well-known clockmaker of about fifty years ago, for the Philadelphia Bank, where it remained until the bank removed, June 30, 1859, from the old building at the S.W. corner of Chestnut and Fourth Streets, to its present quarters, when it was exposed at public sale by M Thomas & Sons, Auctioneers, and bought by Henry Bird, Librarian of The Athenaeum, for twenty-three dollars."

The clock towers 13' high and has a great carved hood door and carved scrolls supporting the hood. This clock can be found in the News Room (now the Busch Room) on the second floor at the Athenaeum." 149

13' high grandfather clock with great carved hood door and carved scrolls supporting the hood

Air Gun used by Lewis and Clark?

Lukens was known to have a mechanical aptitude that extended far beyond clocks and one of his interests was air guns. There is debate among gun and Lewis and Clark enthusiasts about whether the gun nicknamed “Great Medicine” that the 1803-06 Corps of Discovery brought to impress the Indians on their journey West. One invention that is attributed to him is a valve for air guns that resolved the problem of decreased pressurized air after each shot. His passion for hunting with air guns—and making them—is one of the great debates in American gun-making history. The noiseless "Great Medicine Gun" impressed the Indians the explorers met on their journey. In 1804, William Clark wrote, “We showed them many curiosities and the air gun which they were much astonished at.”

Gun historian Henry Stewart Sr Stewart, in 1977, found a catalog of items from Lukens' estate being auctioned off dated January 4, 1847 in the archives of t the Franklin Institute.

"Item 95 was the pay-off of the long search, as it

rifle with wood stock pointing right

There are also arguments against the gun having been made by Lukens.

One is that Lukens was working in Horsham in 1803 - and may not have had a shop in Philadelphia until maybe 1811- which is when Lewis was procuring items for the trip. But it also can't be ruled out that Lewis may have heard of the gun and either traveled to Horsham or Lukens traveled to Philadelphia (see below)

Another is the description of the gun by Thomas Rodney. Rodney was the brother of Delaware’s Caesar Rodney, a signer of the Declaration of Independence. In September 1803, he went west to assume a judgeship as an appointee of President Thomas Jefferson. On Sept. 8, 1803, Rodney’s and Lewis’ paths crossed in Wheeling, Va. (current West Virginia was then part of Virginia). And Lewis made note of the meeting in his journals. Rodney wrote in his diary:

Sept. 8, 1803. “Visited Captain Lewess barge. He shewed us his air gun which fired 22 times at one charge. He shewed us the mode of charging her and then loaded with 12 balls which he intended to fire one at a time; but she by some means lost the whole charge of air at the first fire. He charged her again and then she fired twice. He then found the cause and in some measure prevented the airs escaping, and then she fired seven times; but when in perfect order she fires 22 times in a minute. All the balls are put at once into a short side barrel and are then droped into the chamber of the gun one at a time by moving a spring; and when the triger is pulled just so much air escapes out of the air bag which forms the britch of the gun as serves for one ball. It is a curious peice of workmanship not easily discribed and therefore I omit attempting it.”
Thomas Rodney155

This seems to more closely describe the Girardini gun, a repeating design that has been referred to as “the assault rifle of its day.” 156

Both the Lukens and Girardini guns were closer in power to the gun powder guns of the day - they were much more powerful than today's air powered BB guns. The Lukens fired a .31 caliber bullet, and unlike black powder rifles, an air rifle made little noise when fired. It did not make smoke and had very slight "kick." And, you didn't have to "keep your powder dry!"157 The Girardini fired a .46 caliber.160. The Lukens air chamber could be pumped to 900psi.161

A Lukens air gun that gun historian Henry Stewart believes went with Merriweather Lewis is now in the Henry Stewart Collection of Antique Fire Arms at Virginia Military Institute 159. The Pentagon, however, has a Giardini in its collection that is also said to be from the expedition. WarFare History Network brings the mystery full circle by suggesting that "it was most likely purchased by Captain Meriwether Lewis between May 9 and June 9, 1803, at Isaiah Lukens’ instrument shop just outside Philadelphia. Lewis was en route to Pittsburgh at the time for the final construction and fitting out of the Corps of Discovery’s keelboat. "160

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Other Inventions and Cool Stuff

Surgical Instruments

Luken's skill working with the small, precision pieces used in clock making were also valuable in making surgical instruments. He traveled to Europe c1825. He stayed in Europe for 3 years working on both surgical pieces and clocks.

In 1825 he was awarded a patent while living in England, for an improvement to a device called a lithontriptor invented by .M Civial MD of Paris designed to destroy kidney stones in the bladder without surgery (lithotomy). The original device consisted of a a silver tube which was inserted into the bladder (not specified how but likely through the urethra). A second tube is inserted through the first which includes several prongs that open into the bladder and then grab the stone. A small drill or file is then sent through the tube to pulverize the stone. Luken's improvement was the addition of small springs to the prongs.163p262 He was issued a patent in London on September 25, 1825165p92 and in the US on November 30, 1826164

Chronometer Springs

Lukens also developed, while in England, a new method of hardening balance springs in chronometers. The Franklin Institute Journal in 1827 describes these springs and offers several testimonials "to the excellence of Mr Lukens' new method of hardening chronometer springs for chronometer"168p410-11

Magneto-Electric Device

Luken's former employee/apprentice Joseph Saxton, while working at the Adelaide Gallery of Practical Science at the British Museaum, had invented the magneto-electric device "capable of decomposing water and of producing brilliant electrical sparks and steady light by bringing charcoal points near together." one biography of Saxton credits him with an astronomical clock and the clock Independence Hall that most attribute to Lukens. Lukens built 2 of these devices from Saxton's description and these devices are int the collection of the Franklin Institute.167p242 - 168


From The Journal of the Franklin Institute ... July-December, 1921167p239-244

Between 1830-40 Isaiah Lukens developed what was probably the first modern odometer. One of these was purchased from Lukens' estate in 1847 and used by Mr Henry Towne. It was used by Mr Towne and later his son from that time till sometime between 1880-90. It was presented to the Franklin Institute in 1921.

The inscription within the case reads:

"Odometer" (Distance Measurer), A device now commonly, but less accurately, designated as a "Cyclometer"or "Speedometer". This instrument was made, probably between 1830-40, by Isaiah Lukens, of Philadelphia, a noted instrument maker of his day, a man of considerable scientific attainment, and Vice-President of the Franklin Institute at the time of its organization.

At the sale of Mr. Lukens' effects, after his death, this Odometer" was bought by the late John H Towne of Philadelphia, by whom it was used for many years on a carriage. At his death it passed to his son, Henry R Towne, now of New York, who also used it on carriages about 1880-90, by who it is now presented (April, 1921) to the Franklin Institute.

The instrument itself is as made by Mr Lukens, and is a beautiful and ingenious piece of mechanism. The driving gear on the hub of the carriage wheel, and the flexible shaft connecting it to the "Odometer" are accurate reproductions of the original parts. These parts, together with the drawing and the mounting, have been contributed by Mr. Francis H Richards of New York.

It is believed that this instrument was the first of its kind, and anticipates all the modern devices for this purpose.


Belfield, Nov 14, 1814
Dear Sir
When we beleive that we have made any discovery that offers somthing for the benefit of man, no time should be lost to communicate it to our friends, that they may give it to others if the communication will be of any importance.

some time past I had a well dug in a situation to give Water to my Cattle &c The Ingenious Isaih Lukens made me a small brass cylender and Boxes to form a pump and also frixion wheels &c to turn sails to the wind, my wind-mill pumped the Water up in a satisfactory manner.....
Charles Willson Peale to Thomas Jefferson174

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