That ticking you hear in 'Lincoln'? It's coming from Frankfort

rcopley@herald-leader.comNovember 15, 2012 


    Lincoln's watch on display

    What: Pocket watch used in the filming of Lincoln is part of the permanent exhibit A Kentucky Journey, chronicling life in Kentucky from prehistoric times to the present

    When: The watch will be on display through Dec. 8. The rest of the exhibit is permanent. Hours: 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Wed.; 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Thu.; 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Fri., Sat.

    Where: Thomas D. Clark Center for Kentucky History, 100 W. Broadway, Frankfort.

    Admission: $4 adults, $3 veterans and AAA members, $2 children ages 6-18, free for society members and for children 5 and younger

    Learn more: (502) 564-1792,

That ticking sound you hear in Lincoln is coming from Frankfort, almost literally.

One of the elements of Steven Spielberg's epic film about the 16th president of the United States, which opens nationwide Friday, is a pocket watch that Lincoln carries. The sound the watch makes is from one that belonged to Abraham Lincoln. It's a signature artifact at the Kentucky Historical Society in Frankfort.

Trevor Jones, the society's director of museum collections and exhibitions, said he was thrilled earlier this year to get a call from Lincoln sound designer Ben Burtt.

Burtt — who has won Oscars for his work on Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade — was seeking sounds from long-ago U.S. history. He knew that the society had one of Lincoln's watches in its collection.

The timepiece's ticking was one of numerous authentic sounds Burtt was seeking, including the creak of a church pew that Lincoln once sat on and the ringing of bells at a church in Washington. Burtt wanted the audience to hear what the president really heard.

But Jones was not sure he could help.

The circa 1860 watch had not ticked in decades, and Jones was concerned that trying to wind it could damage one of the museum's most valuable holdings.

According to the society's blog,, Jones consulted with curator Bill Bright, an expert in watches.

"Bill pulled the watch off display, examined it carefully and consulted with other experts," Jones wrote. "He reported that the watch was mechanically in perfect working order and that he recommended a test. He wound the watch, and a perfectly regular ticking came forth."

The next determination was where to record the watch's ticking. Initially, there was talk of sending it by courier to Skywalker Sound in Nicasio, Calif. Burtt instead dispatched sound man Greg Smith to Frankfort, where the watch was placed in a box Smith designed and recorded in the historical society's vault.

"I thought it would take 15 minutes," Jones said. "But it took two or three hours."

Jones said the watch was recorded in a variety of ways: with the cover closed and open, with the crystal open, and with the microphone in various positions to give Burtt a variety of sounds to choose from.

After that, the hardest part was keeping a secret. Historical society staffers were asked not to mention the recording until the movie opened in limited release last Friday.

"But Steven Spielberg was going around giving interviews, talking about how the movie had all these authentic things, like the sound of Lincoln's watch," Jones said. "It was killing us not to be able to say it was our watch."

Now, anyone can come see and hear the watch in person, not just on the big screen. The watch and sound recorded for the movie are on display through Dec. 8 as part of the exhibit A Kentucky Journey.

The timepiece — described by the society in its record as a "yellow gold key-wind hunting-case pocket watch" with a porcelain dial — was bought at Tiffany and Co. about 1860 and would have been a high-end, expensive piece, Jones wrote in an email message.

"This fact makes it probable that Lincoln either purchased it or it was a gift after he became president," Jones wrote. "We do not know how often he used it, but he definitely owned it during the Civil War."

The watch carries the inscription of its maker, "J. Jacqueson, Copenhagen." It has a chain, and an attached fob has the gold initials "AL" in onyx.

There has been some speculation that the watch was carried by Lincoln on the night of his assassination.

"We have not been able to find any evidence to support this assertion," Jones wrote, "but the contents of Lincoln's pockets from that night do not include a watch, so it is at least possible."

After Lincoln's death in 1865, his son Robert inherited the watch. Robert gave it to his cousin Benjamin Hardin Helm Jr. In 1943, Helm presented the watch as a birthday gift to a leading Lincoln authority, William H. Townsend, who passed it to his daughter Mary Townsend Murphy. The Murphy family gave it to the society in 2002, Jones said.

Jones said the Kentucky Historical Society has been contacted by filmmakers looking to check facts and gather information, and film crews from the PBS series History Detectives have filmed there. But this was the first time that he can recall one of the artifacts being used for a movie.

Rich Copley: (859) 231-3217. Twitter: @copiousnotes. Blog:

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