I first saw a Lawson clock in an antique mall in the 1970s. The clock had a wooden case, a simple design with streamlined accents. I guessed it was from the 1950s or maybe early 1960s but no one seemed to know anything about it. Years would pass before I saw another Lawson and it wasn’t until I started work on a book on Art Deco that I discovered the company made an incredible variety of different models at different times and locations. But where did Lawson Time come from and where did it go, seemingly without leaving a trace?
The Lawson clock story is still missing some details but thanks to contributions from Henry Fenenbock, Dr. Neil Kuns and Dana Slawson we now have many more pieces of the puzzle. If you’re a fan of obscure 20th century history, I think you’ll find this interesting. If you just want to know who the Lawson designers Fehrer & Adomatis were, you can skip to “Is my K.E.M. Weber clock really a Paul Feher clock?”
Part One – The Story
It’s commonly assumed that the products of Lawson Clocks Limited, established in 1934 are among the very first digital clocks. But as with many facets of the Lawson story, what seems to make sense doesn’t happen to be true. Digital clocks were available at least as early as 1903, when Eugene Fitch patented his Plato clock.
Of course the Plato clock was what we would call today a “flip” clock. Cyclometer clocks–clocks that displayed the time on rotating drums (wheels)–first appeared in the 1930s and were produced by several companies. However, just two, the Pennwood Company and Lawson Time, Inc. would make them for decades. The invention that made Lawson clocks possible came from F.A. Greenawalt. From the Circleville (Ohio) Herald, June 2. 1933:
INVENTS ODD CLOCK – The clock has lost its face and hands. Tht is the result of an invention by Frederick A. Greenawalt of Pittsburgh who has perfected a contrivance which tells time by figures. After two years work, Greenawalt achieved his aim using three drums of different size and bearing figures. The piece is electrically controlled and works much similar to an automobile speedometer.
Greenawalt, of the Pennwood Company of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, filed his cyclometer clock patent application on March 10. 1933. Close on his heels, Edgar Bourquin, tireless inventor for the Warren Telechron Company, filed his cyclometer clock application on July 6. In one of many odd coincidences in the Lawson story, both inventors received their patents the same day, February 12, 1935.
It’s likely Greenawalt was first because he claimed his patent application was a “continuation” of an application filed in 1932. Both Lawson and Pennwood used Greenawalt’s mechanism and some clocks were available in 1934, prior to the issuance of Greenawalt’s patent, but more about this later. Let’s start in 1934 when Lawson Clocks Limited opened for business….
1934 was dismal. The Depression wore on and it was obvious it wouldn’t be over any time soon. One bright spot, the Chicago Worlds Fair, an early showcase of the streamline moderne style that would be used for many Lawson clocks, was wrapping up. In another coincidence in the Lawson story, a young concessionaire at the fair, Henry Fenenbock would eventually be the owner of Lawson Time, Inc.
But for now, unemployment was at 25%. There was no social safety net to speak of. The federal government began insuring bank deposits up to $2500 but this was no help to those who had lost everything in the Crash of ’29. In the midst of this long nightmare, Lindley Spencer Lawson and his son Harold opened Lawson Clocks Limited at 2329 W. Washington Blvd., Los Angeles.
You may wonder why someone would start a business making fancy novelty clocks under these circumstances. And where did the money come from? To take the second question first, it appears money wasn’t an issue. Lawson Clocks Limited was an offshoot of an established and highly successful business, the Lawson Manufacturing Company, established in Homestead, Pennsylvania in 1901. Lawson Manufacturing made gas water heaters, room heaters and stoves. Business was good. In 1914, Lawson built a bigger factory in nearby Pittsburgh and by the 1920s there were factories in London and Paris as well.
But even with money available, why do it? I can only speculate but I think the key was Los Angeles. Even in the Depression, some individuals were well off and many were in Los Angeles. Not just the movie business but also oil, agriculture, real estate and vice. And then there were people of means who moved to California for their health–sunshine, oranges and fresh air. Whatever the reason, it was a canny decision to make the clocks in L.A. where non-traditional things were appreciated and at least some people could afford them. How much? A Lawson Zephyr, list priced at $27.50 in 1938 would cost $455.60 in 2013 dollars. And it wasn’t the most expensive model!
What about K.E.M. (Kem) Weber? Having mentioned the Zephyr clock, I may as well address his connection to Lawson Time, which appears minimal. Four things are known. (1) Kem Weber made some drawings for Lawson, (2) No clocks have surfaced that match any existing drawings, (3) It’s unlikely that people selling Lawson clocks today will abandon their claims that Weber designed their clock if they think it will lead to a higher selling price, (4) People with expertise on Kem Weber have reported he owned a Zephyr clock, which may have led to some confusion over the years.
To be fair, it’s easy to find books that credit Lawson clock design to Weber along with other “facts” such as all clock production taking place during the 1930s, which is also incorrect. It’s not a stretch to think Weber was fond of the Zephyr but it seems equally certain it wasn’t his design.
The oldest Lawson clock literature to surface, a catalog from 1938 shows the Zephyr, the clock most frequently associated with Weber. On the back cover we find LAWSON TIME DESIGNS BY FERHER AND ADOMATIS. To think the more well-known Weber was overlooked so that two unknowns could be recognized makes no sense at all. But who were Ferher and Adomatis? Recently, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art asked the same question. For LACMA’s article, click here.
Before we get to Ferher and Adomatis, for those who see Kem Weber’s modernistic hand in every Lawson design, I’ll point out that some were far from modern in appearance:
At the other extreme, the Zephyr’s “wave” shape wasn’t exactly unique:
Incidentally, it appears Lindley Lawson was a capable modern designer himself. His 1930 drawing for a heater looks like a rocketship!
Is my Kem Weber clock really a Paul Feher clock? I think so.
Even today, designers frequently go uncredited unless they are celebrities. So we should give the Lawsons credit for giving two obscure individuals their due. But who were they? When I first saw “Ferher and Adomatis” I instantly thought of Paul Feher, the brilliant Hungarian designer and metalsmith who worked at the Rose Iron Works in Cleveland. But there were two problems. First, the spelling of the name. There was no second “r” in Feher. A bigger problem was that due to a lack of creative work, Paul Feher left Rose Iron Works in the early 1930s and returned to Hungary.
The trail went cold until someone who had studied Paul Feher explained that, finding limited work in Hungary, Feher had returned to the US. The timing was right. And like many others in the Lawson story, this time Paul Feher headed for Los Angeles. Right time, right place. But what about the spelling of the name? All I could do was look for people, anywhere, with the name “Ferher”. Virtually none. By comparison, the name Feher was almost common. Do a Google search on “Ferher” it will substitute “Feher”. Incidentally, Feher is pronounced Fer-haer or Fer-har so, spoken quickly you can see how a misspelling could happen. For more information on Paul Feher, click here.
So Paul Feher worked in Cleveland and made his way to Los Angeles. But his wasn’t the only Cleveland-to-LA connection. It seems George Adomatis did the same. According to research from the Yale University Art Gallery, George H. Adomaitis (sic?) was an obscure designer employed by Lawson. In this case, I think Lawson got the spelling right because we find references to George Adomatis first in Cleveland, and then in the 1936 Los Angeles phone directory–living close to the Lawson factory, no less.
To summarize, we have Lawson Clocks Limited, established c.1934, Paul Feher, from Cleveland, arriving in L.A. c. 1935, George Adomatis (positively identified as one of Lawson’s designers) also from Cleveland, listed in the L.A. phone book 1936, and both men appearing in the Lawson catalog of 1938.
For more on Paul Feher, click here.
Here are photos of Feher’s extraordinary screen that served as the centerpiece of the Smithsonian’s American Art Deco exhibit in 1988. Also, a Feher table. Many art experts consider Paul Feher’s work to be the pinnacle of American Art Deco.
Before we leave the topic of design, let me point out that many Lawson clocks had parts in common. Some model variations were so minor it’s likely there was no designer at all. For example, this simple and attractive model 200 and the jazzier model 202 are the same clock, except the 202 substitutes a black lacquered base and chromed strip in place of the ball feet on the 200.
In addition to Paul Feher and George Adomatis, one other important figure in the Lawson clock story arrived in Los Angeles around 1936. Henry Fenenbock, the young entrepreneur who sold souvenir turtles at the Chicago Worlds Fair also made his way to L.A. In those days, good penmenship and a high quality fountain pen were essential for successful businessmen and Henry, who had always been interested in pens, opened Swanee’s Pen Hospital (named after a favorite song). “Swanee” as Henry would come to be known, would go on to build a huge business becoming the largest Parker pen dealer in the world, ultimately owning a part of Parker and all of Lawson Time.
(Henry also tried his hand in real estate, purchasing a commercial building in a newly developed area called Beverly Hills. This investment turned out rather well also, but that’s a story for another time).
The metal cases for Lawson clocks were crafted by Crown City Plating in Pasadena, owned by Harold E. Coombes. In 1940 Coombes acquired Lawson Time and consolidated production, relocating the Los Angeles facility to Pasadena, directly across the alley from the plating works at 165 South Fair Oaks Blvd.
The arrival of World War II interrupted clock production, with the Lawson/Crown City facility turning its attention to anodizing, airplane parts and rivets for the war effort. Records show that, shortly after the war the business was sold again, this time to John Beall.
Meanwhile, Henry Fenenbocks’s pen business continued to grow and, always on the lookout for a great opportunity, he became the fourth and final owner of Lawson Time in 1948, relocating the business to 1109 S. Freemont, in Alhambra, California. The factory had excess capacity so Henry set up an operation making onyx and black glass desk sets for Parker.
With Parker Pen’s steady orders coming in, Henry was able to continue producing beautiful Lawson clocks. To the surprise (and some dismay) of Lawson collectors, the Lawson Alhambra facility continued making distinctly Art Deco clocks until sometime in the late 1960s and the walnut cased clocks were produced in small quantities until the mid-1970s! With this long run, it’s no surprise the majority of Lawson clocks were made in Alhambra.
With their sleek designs, many unchanged throughout the years, Lawson clocks are an unusual example of how the streamline style kept a loyal following from post-Depression Art Deco, through 1950s aerodynamics and finally into the space age.
And what about the Lawson (heater) Manufacturing Company that started it all? It seems almost everyone in the Lawson clock story ended up in Los Angeles. Lindley Lawson retired from Lawson Manufacturing Company and moved from Pittsburgh to L.A., where he passed away on May 12, 1954. His son Lynn ran Lawson Manufacturing until December 1959, when it was sold to Wilson Brothers, Inc.
A photo gallery of Lawson clocks can be found here.
Part II – Lawson Clock FAQs
Q: Was my Lawson clock made in the 1930s?
A: Yes, if it was made in Los Angeles. No, if it was made in Pasadena or Alhambra. Specifically:
Los Angeles 1934-1940
These dates may not be absolutely precise but we know from both articles of incorporation and phone directories where the company was and when.
Q: Was my Lawson clock designed by K.E.M. Weber?
A: Weber made a few drawings of proposed Lawson clocks. It is not known if he was hired to do this or simply approached the company with his designs. No clocks matching his drawings have surfaced.
The Zephyr clock, most frequently attributed to Weber is shown in Lawson’s 1938 catalog where the designers are credited (prominently) to “Ferher and Adomatis”. It has been confirmed that Adomatis was George Adomatis, an obscure designer and I believe Ferher was in fact Paul Feher, the great Art Deco designer and metalsmith.
Q: Is my Lawson clock rare?
A: You’ve probably noticed, everything on eBay is RARE. Still, it’s fair to say most Lawson models truly are somewhat scarce, with certain finishes less common. It’s easier to point out the three that turn up frequently. Most surprising is the striking and desirable Zephyr (below). This model was made at all three Lawson factories and I have seen as many as four on eBay at the same time. The earliest 1930s Zephyrs are a bit different, with the style 1b numbers (see below) and ball feet. The Zephyr, in bronze finish, is among the most desirable yet easiest to find Lawson models.
Also common is the Sierra (also called the Sportsman) model 215. Its worth noting that early versions of model 215 had a different case, taller and with ball feet, compared to the later versions of this popular model.
Finally, there is the New Yorker, model 940. Unlike the iconic Zephyr or inexpensive Sierra, the New Yorker doesn’t give any obvious clues to its popularity but it had a long run in both Pasadena and Alhambra. Henry Fenenbock has a version of this clock in a wooden case and his, I suspect, really is rare–perhaps a prototype.
Q: When a seller says a Lawson metal cased clock has a few spots that can be “buffed out” is this true?
A: Unfortunately, no. Lawson metal clocks have a lacquer coat and while its tougher than the environmentally friendly lacquers in use today, if a clock has a worn or tarnished finish, that means some of the lacquer is gone. Additional lacquer can be applied but won’t fix any flaws and tends to give a cloudy look.
I have been told it is possible to strip the original lacquer without harming the finish underneath. Henry Fenenbock says he’s had this done by F&H Plating in North Hollywood. This might be an alternative to totally refinishing. There are a few Lawson clocks with steel finishes that won’t discolor even without lacquer but with brass, copper and nickel, lacquer is essential to prevent tarnishing.
Q: Does refinishing a Lawson clock reduce its value?
A: This is where I say an item is worth what someone is willing to pay for it. If the original finish is mostly intact, it would seem foolish to alter it. On the other hand, I have seen exquisitely refinished clocks that looked a lot nicer than others whose “original patina” was badly beat up. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. By the way, its also possible that some Lawson clocks were made with custom or non-standard finishes.
Q: What causes the darkening that surrounds the numbers window on the copper-bronze finished clocks?
A: The popular copper-bronze finish was produced by oxidizing copper and then buffing off the oxidation to reveal a brighter brown color. By buffing less in the window area, this section would remain dark. Note that the early, Los Angeles-made copper/bronze clocks are uniformly dark and do not show additional darkening surrounding the window/numbers area.
Q: What does it mean when someone says the clock was recently cleaned and oiled?
A: This sounds like something one would do to service a mechanical clock. Since we are talking about electric clocks the only thing that could be oiled would be the motor and if its working, I wouldn’t. You can try a drop or two of an ultra-light lubricant like liquefied molybdenum or graphite but be advised that after years of wear, lubricating an old motor that’s working will often just make it noisier–the worn parts have more room to rattle around. As for cleaning, see next question.
Q: Can I clean the number wheels?
A: Not always, but sometimes. The numbers on Lawson clocks are surprisingly durable! Occasionally, you will see the paint starting to blister and in that case, you’re out of luck. With the disclaimer that I am not responsible for any mishaps, try a very soft cloth and a small amount of a totally non-abrasive cleaner. I use Brillianize. Usually, its only necessary to clean the white (ivory) portions of the wheels. If you feel the need, you can try cleaning the numbers themselves but do this very gently–repainted numbers look awful.
Q: Are the parts inside a Lawson clock interchangeable?
A: Many are, and that’s why it’s generally not possible to date a clock by the internal mechanism. The earliest Lawson clocks–the ones that say “Motored By Waltham” use a mechanism that is smaller than the later clocks and some very early clock cases are too small to accept the mechanisms from later clocks. Also, some of the Motored By Waltham clocks use the diagonally offset mounting screws that are typical of most Pennwood clocks, not the side-by-side mounting screws found on all other Lawsons.
Q: What does “Model P-40″ that appears on all Lawson clocks from about 1940 on, mean?
A: I’m sure there’s a simple explanation but I don’t know. Probably just a coincidence, but the factory relocated to Pasadena in 1940.
Q: When and where did the style of the numbers change?
A: This is imprecise but here is the sequence, with approximate dates. Remember that in most cases, these mechanisms can be swapped so they aren’t reliable indicators of the age of the clock.
Q: What is my Lawson clock’s case made from?
A: The vast majority of the wooden clocks have walnut cases. This is a high-quality “hand rubbed” oil finish with a satin to semi-gloss appearance. A much smaller number of the wood clocks were made with mahogany or light ash. A very small number of early clocks have the fancy, shiny wood veneers that were popular in the 1930s and 1940s. Lawson metal cases are almost always entirely brass. Occasionally, some flat pieces such as bottoms or backs are steel. While the most popular Lawson finish was “copper bronze” I have yet to find any bronze in a Lawson clock. The uncommon “gold” finish is in fact, a bright brass. There is no real gold in Lawson’s gold finish.
Q: What finishes were available on the metal clocks?
A: Finish choices varied with the model and the time period. Besides the popular copper-bronze (actually oxidized “antiqued” copper over brass), clocks were offered in brushed nickel, brushed silver, gunmetal (uncommon)and gold (uncommon). The “gold” appears similar to the bare brass seen in clocks whose finish has been stripped, however, the gold finish has a yellowish tint and sparkle that sets it apart from bare brass.
Bright copper (quite attractive, in my opinion) was not offered. These days, bright copper is often seen since it’s what you get if you polish a copper-bronze clock and brighten up/remove the oxidation. I don’t believe chrome was offered either, except for some trim and on on the back plates of some mirror faced clocks. Early on, metal trim on Lawson clocks was typically brass plated with copper, chrome or nickel. A very few clocks had gold plated trim. But soon, it appears Lawson decided to standardize on stain brass trim.
Part III – Other Digital Clocks of Interest to the Art Deco Collector
A manufacturer of typewriters and then clocks, Barr Manufacturing of Weedsport, NY made at least two digital models. One had wooden case of rather plain design; the other, a plastic model, offered an attractive streamlined look and came in black, brown and white.
Barr digital clocks are somewhat uncommon and even more uncommon in good working order. Barr’s mechanism was unique. The wheels were metal and they interlocked via gear teeth on the inside of the wheels. If you dissemble a set of Barr wheels, be prepared to spend an evening trying to reassemble them in proper orientation. Even with proper assembly, the Barr mechanism had difficulty positioning the facets of the wheels so the numbers lined up properly. Click here for Barr’s patent.
Interesting trivia: (1) Although the wheels were metal, the numbers on some Barr digital clocks were printed on plain paper that was glued to the wheels. (2) The Barr’s inventor, E.M. Goldsmith, Jr. worked for M.M. Gottlieb Associates, who made the Telometer clock (see below). (3) E.M. Goldsmith, F.A. Greenawalt (inventor of the Pennwood/Lawson mechanism and Lindley Lawson were all from Pennsylvania.
No company did more to popularize the rolling wheel digital clock than Pennwood. Lawson and Pennwood produced clocks for about the same length of time but dating Pennwood clocks is easier since most were were marked with their date of manufacture. Initially, this was done with a label and starting in the 1940s, with a decal or rubber stamp.
The patent for the mechanism used in Pennwood (and Lawson) clocks was granted to Frederick A. Greenawalt, an employee of the Pennwood Company. Greenawalt’s patent, issued in February 1935, closely resembles the mechanisms that ended up in Lawson and Pennwood clocks with the exception that he did not specify a type of motor. Initially, the motors and gearing came from the Waltham Watch Company. Click here for Greenawalt’s patent.
Although Pennwood and Lawson clocks had nearly identical mechanisms, over the years the two companies diverged in their approach to the clock market. The earliest Pennwood clocks were high-end models with fancy cases. However, in the 1940s, Pennwood shifted its emphasis to less expensive models, many with plastic cases. When TV became commonplace, Pennwood caught the wave with a series of novelty clocks shaped like little TV sets. Although these TV clocks haven’t been made for decades, so many were sold that they are still commonplace. Many early Pennwood clocks were Art Deco in style and even some 1950s-1970s models had a vaguely Deco appearance. A later model that really did have a Deco look was the appropriately named Moderne. This model was available in white, silver-gray and a marbleized coral color. Yet another example of an item that appears to be from the 1930s or 1940s but isn’t.
Interesting trivia: (1) Only the very earliest Pennwood clocks have all-black numbers. Early on, the switch was made to having the seconds displayed in red. Pennwood had other color schemes as well but never returned to all-black. (2) Pennwood clocks often have repeating design elements. The small triangle at the top of the #1364 above is actually the Pennwood crest which also appears as a decal on the back of the clock. The base on the pen & pencil set has the same “wings” on the sides as the clock case has. (3) The earliest (and nicest) wooden Pennwood cases were made by Adler-Royal, a New York radio manufacturer who made radio cabinets in their Louisville, Kentucky plant.
Smith Metal Arts (SMA, Silver Crest, Moon Crest)
Smith Metal Arts of Buffalo, New York has the distinction of being the only manufacturer discussed here that still operates under its own name producing the type of goods it traditionally made including desk sets. In the 1940s-60s, Smith made a line of desk accessories including clocks. Smith’s clock designs were more conservative than Lawson’s and I suspect that’s why their clocks, particularly the Silver Crest models (which aren’t silver in composition or color, by the way) turn up so often–they probably appealed to a larger audience.
Henry Fenenbock was eager to sell stand-alone Lawson clock mechanisms and Smith was one of his customers, using the Lawson wheels and motors just as they received them, with Lawson’s decal. Smith also bought clock movements from Pennwood and some Silver Crest and Moon Crest cases are drilled with 4 mounting holes, to allow either Lawson or Pennwood mechanisms to be used. Nontheless, Smith Metal Arts clocks are Smith Metal Arts clocks; they were not manufactuered or sold by Pennwood or Lawson, who had more than enough models of their own.
Interesting trivia: (1) The metal strip on the clock pictured above was for engraving the owner’s initials. (2) Designer Peter Muller-Monk designed some Smith Metal Arts’ products and he also designed several Pennwood clock cases. (3) As with Goldsmith, Greenawalt and Lawson, Muller-Monk was also a Pennsylvania resident. Many (all?) Silver Crest clocks are marked “202” so this obviously isn’t a model designation.
Telechron (Warren Telechron, General Electric, G.E.)
If the Pennwood/Lawson clock mechanism was a model of simplicity, at the other extreme were Telechron’s digital models which, with their complex all-metal mechanisms are a wonder to behold. The history of Henry Warren and his Ashland, Massachusetts company is worthy of a book. Fortunately, there is one. I highly recommend Jim Linz’ Electrifying Time.
Although cyclometer clocks were by no means the mainstay of Telechron’s product line, the company did market a number of models from as early as 1933, to World War II. Interestingly, after the war, during 1946-48, Telechron/G.E. offered two more digital models…and these appear to have been made from parts supplied by Lawson. There were vertical Telechron cyclometers and later, horizontal models. At least two models were designed by Walter Dorwin Teague, the man who brought the modern look to Kodak, Ford and Texaco, among others. Warren kept the patent office busy. For Edgar Bourquin’s patent for the vertical cyclometer, click here.
Interesting trivia: (1) For clocks, self-starting motors were a mixed blessing. If the power failed and was then restored, a clock with a self-starting motor would resume working with no indication that anything had gone wrong. The red indicator dot mechanism, invented and patented by Warren, gave fair warning that although the clock was running, the time might not be correct. (2) The two Telechron/G.E. models that appear to have been supplied by Lawson have unique riveted feet and motors with sealed rotor mechanisms in the Telechron tradition.
Winslow Manufacturing Company
Frederick Greenawalt’s cyclometer mechanism used Lawson and Pennwood clocks made him the undisputed king of early digital clock engineers, but his rolling wheel design was not his only contribution. In 1942, Greenawalt, now living in Columbus, Ohio patented a completely different design that relied on a series of flat discs.
This arrangement, first used in Winslow digital clocks, allowed for an unusually slim case. Also unusual was that Winslow’s cases were made of Catalin, an early plastic capable of achieving extremely rich colors. Supposedly, many colors were offered but so far I have seen only white (which, with Catalin, when exposed to UV light, turns butterscotch) and a marbleized walnut color. Due to the case design, Winslow clocks typically develop cracks but if one is lucky they are not visible from the front.
Interesting trivia: (1) The Winslow mechanism made a second appearance in a wooden cased model called the Telometer. (2) A curious and surprising (at least it was to me) feature of the Winslow mechanism is that the minute disc turns in the opposite direction from the other two discs.
M.M. Gottlieb Associates (Telometer)
It may be a stretch to call the Telometer an Art Deco clock but the reason the Telometer is included here is that it appears to have been the final resting place for the design used in the Winslow clock. The mechanisms in the Winslow and the Gottlieb’s Telometer are the same, but we can tell from the 1950s-style numbers on the wheels that the Telometer came later. Whatever its style, the Telometer’s elaborate wooden case is impressive and rather attractive, I think.
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