Professor D. O. Durant

Our distant ancestor and the firm’s namesake

D. O. (Darymple Oliphant) Durant was born February 2, 1839, in the Scottish village of Coulterfanny, the fourth of three children. From an early age he was fascinated by all things mechanical, especially watches and clocks. He would spend hours disassembling and reassembling any timepiece he could get his hands on. By his early teens D. O. had a reputation as the finest clocksmith in the region and did a brisk trade cleaning and repairing clocks. As a young man he sought formal training, eventually gaining reknown for his knowledge and ability.

London in the late 1850’s.

Durant moved to London in 1857 to pursue his mechanical studies. While there he developed a life-long fascination with steam power of all sorts. The Great Stink of 1858, though, soured him on life in the metropolis, and he moved to Edinburgh. In his mid-twenties Durant accepted a teaching position at Heriot Watt College, Scotland’s leading institute for the training of mechanics. He held the position of professor for over two decades.

Teaching was his passion, but Professor Durant was also an inventor. Along with a number of unique timepieces—including the world’s first steam-operated grandfather clock—he also developed the Durant Ęthergraphic Transmitter and Receiver, an early information storage, retrieval, and transmission system. Not all his creations were successful, though. One of D. O.’s earliest inventions, Durant’s Patented Phlogiston Meter, was met with skepticism and, eventually, public disdain when it was revealed that several users had suffered what the Professor described as “minor injuries.” These “minor injuries,” though, were burnt and/or mangled fingers. Durant complained in a letter to his fellow Royal Society member Robert Stephenson that the problem was completely due to the ignorance of “...idiots who neglected to read and follow the simple Safety Precautions as described on pages 84-90 of the Operator’s Manual provided with each and every Meter.”

He kept up with the latest developments in both timekeeping and steam power. Upon learning of the Michaux-Perreaux steam velocipede from collegues in France he located and purchased an 1871 model in the fall of 1873. He studied the device intently, disassembling and reassembling it several times until he felt he understood it completely. Over the next 25 years he designed and built many steam-powered vehicles, the spectacular failure of the first of which, combined with the “encouragement” of his neighbors, precipitated a move from Edinburgh to outside the village of Spittleton.

The Professor was an insatiable learner and read almost anything he could find, usually making copious notes. He was especially fascinated with historical events, births and deaths of famous people, and odd bits of obscure knowledge. Deciding to share the information he had collected, as well as his thoughts on horology and mechanics, he began publishing The Occasional Endeavour (which, as the name implies, did not keep a regular publication schedule) in 1871. Three years later he began publishing the annual Professor D. O. Durant’s Original Encyclopedic Calendar and Collection of Curious Knowledge. The publications became so successful, and enough of his inventions had proved useful and popular (as well as harmless), that he retired from teaching in 1891.

The professor working in his study.

Late in his life the Professor became an amateur aeronaut and explorer; this new interest was, in the end, to cost him his life. He was lost and presumed dead when the airship HMA Freedonia crashed somewhere over British East Africa during a 1904 expedition led by Capt. Jeffery Spalding, the African explorer, to discover the source of the Equator. Stories persisted for years, though, in the area around what is now Kisumu, Kenya, about Mambo nyeupe mtu ambaye akaanguka kutoka angani, “the crazy white man who fell from the sky.”

HMA Freedonia departing over the mouth of the Thames.

The Professor’s monogram.