Horology makes timely debut on Hilltop

An old sign for Westlake Hall, which originally housed the watchmaking school, is on display. photo by Maddie Gehling
An old sign for Westlake Hall, which originally housed the watchmaking school, is on display.
photo by Maddie Gehling

When Bradley University began as Bradley Polytechnic Institute in 1897, founder Lydia Moss Bradley sought for a practical program to begin developing her new college. She found that with horology, the study of watchmaking. For over 63 years, six months and 11 days, horology was the most important program on the Hilltop.

The idea of watchmaking originated in Germany in 1504. As time went on, it became a common profession throughout the rest of Europe and the United States. J.R. Parsons of LaPorte, Indiana, founded the first American watchmaking school.

Students at Bradley Polytechnic Institute used an array of tools to construct watches, some similar to those of a jewelry-maker. photo by Maddie Gehling
Students at Bradley Polytechnic Institute used an array of tools to construct watches, some similar to those of a jewelry-maker.
photo by Maddie Gehling

Parsons raised enough money and sparked enough interest to begin teaching students the craft of making and repairing watches, but when his operation became popular, Parsons needed more money to run his school.

Luckily for Parsons, a wealthy Lydia Moss Bradley was searching for a program that would teach “its students the means of living an independent, industrious and useful life by the aid of practical knowledge of the useful arts and sciences,” according to her will.

Parson’s school fit the objective, so Lydia purchased a controlling interest in the school in 1892 and transported all of Parson’s students and staff to Peoria to begin working at the Peoria Watch Company, who operated in the South Manual Arts building on the 1300 block of Fredonia Ave.

The Parson’s Horological Institute, dubbed by Lydia, ran in this location until the building burned down in 1896. This gave rise to the building of Westlake Hall, which came to be known as Bradley Polytechnic Institute’s home for the horology school.

The first watch created at the Peoria Watch Company, a business established by Lydia, is a symbol of the horological program. photo by Maddie Gehling
The first watch created at the Peoria Watch Company, a business established by Lydia, is a symbol of the horological program.
photo by Maddie Gehling

The students would learn the craft of watchmaking while also selling these watches on behalf of the university. For their efforts, the students would receive a cut of the sale.

As the 20th century progressed, the desire for watches grew. The industry was booming and consequently, so did the popularity of Bradley’s horology department. The school was nationally renowned for its watchmaking for decades.

However, interest in the program naturally declined. During the horology department’s height, Bradley would enroll over 100 students each year who paid an average tuition of $1,200 each year. Near the end, Bradley had a difficult time even filling the school with students.

Because of declining enrollment and a desire to shift the university’s interests toward academic endeavors, Bradley shut down the horology school June 1, 1961.

The Bradley Sundial, built in 1905 by a professor of horology, sits in working order in Westlake Hall. photo by Maddie Gehling
The Bradley Sundial, built in 1905 by a professor of horology, sits in working order in Westlake Hall.
photo by Maddie Gehling

During its time, the horology school had an immense impact on the university’s growth. It attracted students from all over the world and put Bradley on the map. The students created the clock that sits atop Westlake, a building named after one of its most esteemed dean’s, Allen T. Westlake.

While watchmaking may be a dead art on the Hilltop, Lydia Moss Bradley’s introduction of horology to Bradley Polytechnic Institute led the way for a tradition of clockwork-like excellence.