KHS goes to Hollywood in “Lincoln”

In May I got a voicemail asking if the Kentucky Historical Society would be willing to allow recording of the ticking of Abraham Lincoln’s pocket watch for a film. We get a lot of research requests here but this was special – the caller was Academy Award-winning sound designer Ben Burtt and the film was “Lincoln” directed by Steven Spielberg starring Daniel Day-Lewis!

I returned the call and got to talk to Burtt, which was pretty much heaven for a “Star Wars” nerd like me. Ben created the sound of lightsabers in “Star Wars” (and pretty much all the sounds in all the “Star Wars” movies)! Ben is a legend in the movie industry and helped create the modern sound design we now take for granted in films.

Ben told me he was trying to make the sounds in “Lincoln” as authentic as possible. He traveled the country recording “sounds Lincoln may have heard.” He recorded the sound of bells from a church near Washington, D.C., the sound of Lincoln’s church pew and more. The last sound he needed for the film was the sound of one of Lincoln’s watches ticking. He knew KHS had a watch that Lincoln had once used, and wanted to know if we’d allow his team to record it and use it in the film.

Although I very much wanted to help, I was initially skeptical. Lincoln’s watch is an iconic artifact at KHS and is irreplaceable. (See it in the KHS Objects Catalog at I was concerned that winding it could cause damage and I wasn’t going to risk a signature artifact if it looked at all risky. I told Ben I’d call him back, and talked to Bill Bright, a curator at KHS and our resident watch expert. Bill pulled the watch off display, examined it carefully and consulted with other experts. 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.


Here Greg (wearing headphones), Bill (blue shirt) and I are discussing the best position for the microphone on the watch inside KHS’s vault.

We were in business! I had several conversations with Ben to discuss flying the watch out to Skywalker Ranch to record the sound in one of their sound rooms, but the expense and risk of flying such a valuable artifact to California was too high. Instead, Greg Smith, one of Ben Burtt’s sound team, came to Frankfort to record the watch.

We set up in the “vault” – the quietest and most secure room in the building – and began recording. Greg has worked on numerous films and had chosen his equipment carefully. I attached a small microphone to the watch while Bill positioned everything just right in a box to muffle ambient noise while Greg recorded. We recorded the watch open and closed in various ways until Greg pronounced that he had everything he needed.

We were then sworn to secrecy, and told not to promote KHS’s small role in the project until we were given the go-ahead. This became increasingly difficult as Steven Spielberg traveled the country doing advance screenings and interviews – he has frequently mentioned the fact that the film used the sound of Lincoln’s actual watch! (see Spielberg’s 60 Minutes interview and his comments at a screening).

In fact, if you listen carefully while watching the film’s trailer you’ll hear the sound of the watch ticking repeatedly throughout.

If you want to see (and hear) Lincoln’s watch in person you can visit us here in Frankfort at the Thomas D. Clark Center for Kentucky History!

–Trevor Jones, KHS director of museum collections and exhibitions