Big Time

Quite awhile ago, Twelve Mile Circle looked at some Remarkable Sundials. I found some rather amazing timepieces in a lot of different places, some of them quite large. Now I wondered about the largest actual clock with a face and hands. I didn’t know why the notion suddenly came to me after the passage of so much time. However, it did for some reason and I got curious. A couple of simple rules underpinned this examination: It needed to be a regular clock face and it needed to be permanent.

Makkah Royal Clock Tower

Makkah Royal Hotel Clock Tower
Makkah Royal Hotel Clock Tower. Photo by Basheer Olakara on Flickr (cc)

By that definition, the search for the largest clock led to Saudi Arabia. There in Mecca, overlooking most sacred site in Islam, stood the Makkah Royal Clock Tower (map). The clock adorned the third tallest building in the world, Abraj Al-Bait. The Saudi government built and owned this cluster of seven towers, the tallest and largest a Fairmont hotel finished in 2012. I noticed rooms available for as little as $125 per night although I imagined rates would be considerably higher during the Hajj.

The hotel tower rose 601 metres (1,972 feet), with 120 floors. The clock sat near the top. Each side of the clock’s face measures 43 m (141 ft). Reputedly, the clock could be seen from a distance of 25 kilometres (15.5 miles). I guess that meant that nobody in Mecca ever had a valid excuse for losing track of time and missing an appointment.

Central do Brasil

Central do Brasil
Central do Brasil. Photo by Sebástian Freire on Flickr (cc)

A clock in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil qualified as the largest example in the Americas (map). Railroad officials placed it at Central do Brasil, the city’s most important train station. This site served as an extremely important transportation hub, both for the city and for the nation. It served trains heading in all directions, and offered a connection to Rio’s subway system and bus station. Trains ran on regular schedules to it made sense to put a big clock where everyone could see it. The clock at Central do Brasil with a 20 m (66 ft) diameter sat near the top of a 135 metre (443 ft) tower.

Duquesne Brewing Company Clock

Blank Clock
Blank Clock. Photo by Brian Siewiorek on Flickr (cc)

The largest clock in the United States, found in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, came to be known as the Duquesne Brewing Company Clock. The name stuck even though the company went out of business in the 1970’s. The 18 m (60 ft) face originally adorned a prominent place on the hillside of the city’s Mount Washington beginning in 1933. I rode the incline to the top of Mount Washington a few months ago. That would be an ideal spot for a giant clock. However, the Duquesne Brewing Company purchased it and removed it from the mountain to adorn its brewery (map). After the brewery went out of business, the building owner painted company logos on the clock for a fee. Apparently nobody wanted to take advantage of that opportunity lately. The clock face now remains blank albeit still tracking time.

Grozny-City Towers

Grozny 8
Grozny. Photo by Alexxx Malev on Flickr (cc)

The largest European clock could be found in Grozny, Chechnya in Russia. It adorned the Grozny-City Towers (map), built in 2011. This 13.6 m (45 ft) diameter clock sat 140 m (460 ft) above street level. Grozny-City Towers also included apartments, a hotel and a business complex in addition to its giant clock.

Many of the world’s largest clocks dated to the 21st Century. That surprised me. Apparently an oversized clock competition started sometime in the last few years. What sparked that, I wondered?

Bonus Clock

Flavor Flav
Flavor Flav. Photo by angela n. on Flickr (cc)

Of course, no discussion of oversized clocks would be complete without mentioning Flavor Flav.

Cog Railways

Many years ago my fiancé (now wife) and I traveled through northern New England for two weeks. This was so long ago that we actually tent-camped our way through a string of rustic state parks with few amenities. That changed to Bed-and-Breakfasts once we got married, and then changed again to whatever hotel happened to have an indoor pool and a free breakfast buffet once the kids came along. Imagine though, a time when I once trampled through the wilderness without regard to creature comforts.

One of our stops delivered us to the top of Mount Washington, the highest point in the state of New Hampshire and indeed anywhere in the northeastern United States: 1,917 metres (6,288 feet). The observatory atop the mountain claims to be the "Home of the World’s Worst Weather" but it didn’t live up to that reputation during our visit. It was postcard perfect.

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We saw a terrible column of black smoke rising from the valley. What could possibly burn on the barren rock above the tree line? It moved closer. Soon enough we saw that it belching from an ancient machine, a mighty hissing steam engine pushing a passenger car, the Mount Washington Cog Railway

Mount Washington Cog Railway

I didn’t know anything about the cog railway prior to our visit. I will take a ride if I ever return, now wiser and lazier after the passage of more years than I’d like to admit.

The Washington Mountain Cog Railway is an institution. It was the very first mountain cog railway ever constructed, and of course it continues to be the oldest by definition. Tourists have taken the railway safely to the summit of Mount Washington since 1869, pushed along nearly unimaginable gradients up to 37%.

Cog Railway Mechanism
SOURCE: Wikimedia Commons, image in the public domain

Generically it’s a "rack and pinion" railway, a technology particularly suited to steep mountainous terrain. The rack is a toothed track strung along a rail bed and the pinion is a cog wheel that aligns with the rack. It’s easier to picture than describe. They’ve been deployed worldwide in places where ordinary trains would spin their wheels on their tracks.

United Kingdom

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A rack and pinion design has worked efficiently for over a century at Snowdon, the highest peak in the British Isles other than Scotland. The Snowdon Mountain Railway rises to a 1,085 m (3,560 ft) summit from Llanberis, a village in Gwynedd, North Wales. It is the only example of a cog railway in the United Kingdom.

Reputedly the SMR served as an inspiration for the fictional Culdee Fell Railway, which in turn spun off into the whole Thomas the Tank Engine phenomenon. That probably doesn’t matter much to you unless your household went through a Thomas the Tank Engine phase, as mine did when the kids were younger.


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Not every cog railroad dates back to the Nineteenth or earliest days of the Twentieth Century. The technology continues to fill a small but important niche in the modern world.

Perisher is a large ski resort in the Snowy Mountains of New South Wales, Australia. The only road into the area was frequently blocked by the same weather that makes the resort so attractive, an overabundance of snow. The proprietors dug a tunnel through a mountain to provide an alternate path, and within the tunnel they constructed an underground rack railway. Perisher Skitube Alpine Rail has delivered skiers to the resort since 1987.


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A segment of the Nilgiri Mountain Railway in Tamil Nadu, India, is a cog railway climbing up through thick, uninhabitable jungle slopes. The rack-and-pinion portion of the railway running from Kallar to Coonoor includes "208 curves and 13 tunnels, and 27 viaducts" as noted by UNESCO when it added Nilgiri to the Mountain Railways of India World Heritage Site. It has operated here since 1908.


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More accessible, yet also confronting the challenges of extreme topography, the Trem do Corcovado of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, climbs to the top of Morro do Corcovado. This is the famous mountaintop crowned by the statue of Cristo Redentor — Christ the Redeemer — that is easily one of the most recognizable and iconic images of the nation.

There are other examples, but Cog railways are still a rather unusual phenomenon. Even so, a rack-and-pinion design is still the best technology for a very special set of circumstances. That hasn’t changed in more than a hundred and fifty years.