Nels Johnson


Portrait And Biographical Record Of Northern Michigan
Containing Portraits And Biographical Sketches Of Prominent
And Representative Citizens
Record Publishing Co., 1895

Nels Johnson. Throughout the entire country Mr. Johnson is well known as the designer and manufacturer of the Century Tower Clock. His home is in Manistee, and he is numbered among the leading citizens of this place, as well as one of the influential men of Northern Michigan. For more than thirty years he has made a special study of the science of horology, and thoroughly understands everything connected with the measurement of time. He is familiar with the true principle of gearing, escapements, mechanical movements, and the pendulum and laws governing them; also with the instruments that from the earliest period have measured time - the clepsydra or water clock of the Grecians and Romans, the sun dial, the hour-glass, the graduated candle, and numerous other contrivances invented by men of various ages, all imperfect and crude, but serving as stepping-stones for the perfecting of the chronometer, the regulator and the sidereal clocks of the present century.

A sketch of the life of one so prominent will therefore possess for our readers more than ordinary interest. Mr. Johnson is a native of Denmark, and was born November 26, 1838. His boyhood years were uneventfully passed in his native land, whence in early manhood he emigrated to America. In 1861 he reached Milwaukee, where he worked one year as a blacksmith, having learned that trade in his youth. Afterward he became an employee in a machine-shop, where he was from time to time promoted, until he finally held one of the most important positions in the concern. During his connection with that shop, covering a period of ten years, he laid the foundation of the success which he has since attained.

In 1871 Mr. Johnson came to Manistee, where he opened a machine-shop and foundry. In October of the same year his shop was destroyed by fire, at the same time that Chicago was burned, and his loss was complete. This left him in very poor circumstances; in fact, such was his poverty, he and his wife were obliged to spend the winter in a small coal shed, having no other home. However, he had an abundance of pluck and determination, and soon purchased from John Canfield the tract where his shops are now located. Through Mr. Canfield, A.O. Wheeler became interested in the enterprise, and the new firm soon had charge of a profitable and increasing business. A specialty was made of the repairing and building of sawmill machinery, also of the fitting out of shingle-mills. In the latter department of the work employment was given to twelve or fifteen men. For twenty years the partnership continued, but the connection was finally dissolved by the retirement of Mr. Wheeler from the business.

While giving his attention principally to that enterprise, Mr. Johnson also found time to study carefully the mathematical relations of clock movements. Purchasing a second-hand clock, he gained through investigation a thorough knowledge of its mechanism. Some eight years ago he met Professor Harrington, of Ann Arbor, now Chief of the Weather Bureau, who told him that no two clocks could be made to run together, and that the only way to arrive at the correct time was to depend upon the fixed stars, which could be reached by the use of the transit. Two years after that conversation, Mr. Johnson secured a transit, which still stands in his private office, arranged to observe the passing of any star.

From Professor Hussey, then of Ann Arbor, now of the Leland Stanford University, Mr. Johnson received material assistance in his higher mathematical calculations. About 1886 he commenced to manufacture clocks, and so rapidly did he advance in his work that one of his tower clocks was chosen for the Michigan State Building at the World's Fair. Another of his clocks adorns a large Lutheran Church in Rochester, N.Y., one is in Fond du Lac, Wis., three in Milwaukee, one in Postville, Iowa, and one in the City Hall at Ludington. One of his finest clocks is in the Fort Street Depot of Detroit, which is guaranteed to run with a variation of only ten seconds per month. He owns a valuable chronometer, which is regulated by his transit. Though he has made many important improvements, he has never taken out any letters patent, but is content to let others enjoy all the advantages to be derived from their use. His outfit of tools was purchased at a cost of more than $4000. He has a fine unmounted, six-inch telescope, which when placed in position will be one of the best in the United States.

Among the societies with which Mr. Johnson is identified are the Astronomical Society of the Pacific and the Astronomical Association of Michigan, also the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He has attended the meetings of these organizations, and while not a public speaker has, through his acknowledged abilities gained the esteem of their leaders. Believing the science of astronomy to be the basis of all correct time, he has made a specialty of its study, and few are better informed upon the subject than is he.

In Milwaukee, in 1865, Mr. Johnson was united in marriage with Miss Frances Green, who was born in Germany, but at the time of her marriage was living in Milwaukee. She died in Manistee after having become the mother of two sons and three daughters. The eldest, August, was for two years instructor in the mechanical department of Delaware College, in Newark, Del., and is now superintendent of the foundry and machine-shop. Hattie, the second in order of birth, is the wife of Harold T. Newton, and is a musician of acknowledged talent. Dollie is a trained nurse in Chicago. Nels is employed as engineer in the shop. Kate, who is now sixteen years of age, is a student in the business college of Manistee. The second wife of our subject, whom he married in April, 1881, was Miss Amanda Golden, of Manistee. In religious belief he is a member of the Methodist Episcopal Church, of which he is a Trustee and has been a Class Leader for twenty years. By his upright life and superior ability he has won the respect and confidence of his associates, and through the exercise of sound judgment and sagacity he has gained a well merited competence.

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