Vancouver's iconic Gastown steam clock turns 35 years old today, and if that's much younger than you expected, clockmaker Ray Saunders says that was his intention.

"The idea was to make it blend with Gastown's history and make it look like it's been here 100 years, and a lot of visitors come to see it and they think it is 100 years old!"

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Tourist watch the steam clock in Vancouver's historic Gastown neighbourhood. (Leonard G./Wikipedia)

The local business community paid Saunders to install the clock in 1977 as part of the historic neighbourhood's revival, but its operation has since been financed by the City of Vancouver.

"It was my first effort at building a clock, and I didn't really know what I was doing. But it turned out pretty good, and I'm very proud of how popular the clock is today."

Since then he has created a few more for cities worldwide, including Whistler, Port Coquitlam, Indianapolis, and Otaru, Japan.

Monday at noon Saunders will be down at the steam clock celebrating its anniversary and letting kids try out some of the whistles for a clock he is sending to Australia this fall that will play Waltzing Matilda.

Steam engine turning the gears

The clock is powered by steam from the city's downtown centralized heating system, which drives a piston inside a miniature steam engine inside the clock.

That engine in turn drives a series of ball-weights, chains and gears, which in turn drive a conventional pendulum, which in turn powers the clock's time-keeping mechanism that was custom-built in England based on a 1875 design.

But the clock is not entirely steam powered. It also has three small electric motors to help operate two internal fans, one of which blows the steam out the top, and another that controls the valves that play the tunes on the five steam whistles mounted atop the clock case.

The large central whistle, which was taken off the CPR steam tug Naramata, counts off the full hours while the four auxiliary whistles chime the Westminster Quarters every quarter hour. The number of chimes matches the number of quarter hours that have passed.

"The bronze is going to stand up for another 100 years, at least," Saunders said of his original creation.