Alexander McCall Smith looks at the renewable potential of an age-old mechanism
The toys of childhood have a special place in memory. I was the proud owner of a steam engine, the water of which was heated by a methylated spirits stove – I imagine health and safety would make those illegal today. Then there was Meccano, with its curious metal pieces and its tiny nuts and bolts. And if anything moved or propelled itself, this was done, for the most part, through clockwork.
My prize possession was a clockwork aeroplane, a clumsy pressed tin construction, the painted windows of which revealed the pilot and the passengers within. The winding of this plane’s mechanism produced a rapid whirring of a small propeller. That was all, but it was enough at a time when toys with batteries were an impossible luxury, and mostly yet to be invented. Of course there is a point to be made here beyond the simple nostalgic one: a childhood without batteries, without electronics, makes for a more imaginative child. There are studies to this effect (I think) although such studies are often difficult to locate when you want to make a point. At a push, of course, one can simply say ‘it’s self-evident’. That sometimes convinces others, sometimes not.
The important thing about clockwork is that it’s still around, and now, we hear, it’s about to make a major comeback in the push for renewable energy. Clockwork is not only sustainable, it is also completely renewable. All you have to do is wind it. It makes very little noise – other than a reassuring tick-tock – it emits no CO2, and there is ample available power to drive the mechanism. The total energy available for clockwork devices is the same as the total energy that can be mustered by human manual effort at any one time. This is vast.
Clockwork energy is currently used for relatively few devices. There are still some kitchen timers operated by a clockwork mechanism, even if most of these have been replaced by electronic devices that do the same thing. Clockwork ones are better, though, as they emit a ticking sound before their bell rings – thus reminding you during the process that you must listen for the final bell. Some clocks are still driven by clockwork, and the more expensive wristwatches, chronometers mostly, have clockwork as opposed to quartz mechanisms. These watches are appreciated by people to whom time is precious. Clockwork wristwatches are undeniably chic.
Apart from that, though, the clockwork industry has been allowed to run down. So when we were told recently that clockwork cars will soon be appearing on Scotland’s roads
– on a trial basis – those concerned with renewable energy took a close interest. The Scottish Government, eager to make Scotland’s energy profile greener, is said to be extremely interested. ‘You’re not winding us up on this?’ commented a spokesman, before saying, ‘We think this is possibly the future’.
The prototype clockwork cars being developed by a start-up firm in Motherwell – or possibly Airdie – are the result of pioneering clockwork research conducted at the University of Strathclyde. The university’s research team has, over the last three years, developed a large-scale clockwork mechanism, the weight of which compares favourably with that of modern all-electric car batteries. The clockwork mechanism, though, has the advantage of having a much smaller ecological footprint than a car battery, which requires electricity to be charged, with all the pollution that this entails further down the line.
The prototype has a satisfactory 0 to 60 acceleration rate slightly below that of an average family car. Where the disadvantages come in, though, are range and the time taken to wind the car once the initial winding has discharged. At present the range of the car on a full wind is a little under a mile. If the car travels at speed, that drops to 800 yards – incomparable to the 250 miles offered by the most expensive all-electric cars – but as the motoring press often points out, range claims made by electric car manufacturers are rarely delivered in real driving conditions.
Will such a small range mean that drivers will not be attracted to clockwork cars? The developers think otherwise: they point out that many people do not want to go too far, and for these users the car will satisfy the need to travel to the end of the street or just around the corner. As for winding time, at present it takes just under an hour to wind the car completely. In families, this can be done in shifts, with children doing shorter winding sessions according to age.
I have not yet tested a clockwork car, but one has been dispatched from Motherwell – or Airdrie – for a test drive. It left last Monday, and is expected in Edinburgh by Friday. I am looking forward to seeing it.
Clockwork is not only sustainable, it is also completely renewable