Gastown Steam Clock

Vancouver, British Columbia

Seemingly a charming Vancouver attraction, Gastown Steam Clock was originally made for a much more surprising and sinister purpose.

Gastown Steam Clock
- © IQRemix

What is Gastown Steam Clock?

One of only six functioning 'steam clocks' in the world and possibly the second ever created, Gastown Steam Clock was the 1977 invention of horologist and steam clock pioneer Raymond Saunders. It is located on the corner of Water and Cambie Streets in the historic Gastown district of Vancouver.

Steam clocks are clocks partially powered by a steam engine. In the case of Gastown's this originally meant the clock was powered by Vancouver's distributed steam heating system. Steam shot through a vent in the street below and into the clock, driving a series of chains and balls that ultimately turned the clock hands.

Today the hands are powered by an electric motor, the steam mechanism having proven too inaccurate. Despite this, the clock earns its name through puffs of steam that whistle from its top every hour, and from the original steam engine that can still be seen inside through glass panels.

Gastown Steam Clock
- © Rick Schwartz

Gastown Steam Clock's Predecessor

The world's first steam clock was made by inventor John Inshaw in 1859. He installed it above a pub in Birmingham, UK, to demonstrate the versatility of gas power.

It was a lot smaller than Saunders' clocks and even less reliable at telling the time. As a result Saunders had to reinvent the steam clock from the ground up when making Gastown's in 1977.

Gastown Steam Clock
- © Goran Vlacic

The Sinister Origins of Gastown Steam Clock

Saunders was commissioned to make the clock by a group of local businessmen. They partly intended it as a monument to the area and partly as a way of covering the pre-existing steam vent beneath.

Sounds innocent enough but their reasons for wanting the vent covered are crueller than might first be apparent. The local homeless often slept on top of the vent for warmth; one of the purposes of the clock was to stop this.

Gastown Steam Clock
- © Andrew Rees

Gastown Steam Clock's Legacy

Saunders went on to produce four more steam clocks, two in British Columbia, one in the US and one in Japan. These only used steam to power the hourly whistles, it having already proved itself unreliable for time-keeping.

Alongside these whistles, Gastown Steam Clock also plays the Westminster Quarters every quarter of an hour.

If you can't make the trip to visit it in person it can be seen in popular culture, specifically on the cover of Nickelback's Here and Now and in the Chuck Norris film The Hitman.

Gastown Steam Clock
- © Brice De Reviers

Interested in finding more places like this? Try one of our Vancouver Scavenger Hunts- untangle cryptic clues as a team, as you are taken on a journey to the most unique, unusual and bizarre corners of Vancouver and beyond!


What you need to know

Gastown Steam Clock
305 Water St, Vancouver, BC V6B 1B9, Canada
Tips before you visit