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Notable South Australians/Edwin Sawtell

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Edwin Sawtell,

THE oldest watchmaker and optician in Adelaide, was born in Bristol. As a child he was predisposed to "making things," and his parents, allowing his natural bent of mind full play, apprenticed him to the trade in 1831. At that time nearly everything was hand-made, particularly watches and watch work; many of the tools even being constructed by the apprentice before he began his work. Mr. Sawtell says: "What is now called labour-saving machinery is considered by those experienced in the trade antagonistic to the full development of a boy's natural mechanical ability." Notwithstanding the long hours of duty, from 7 a.m. till 8 p.m., he devoted his spare time to the invention of many mechanical novelties, and one of the most successful of his endeavours was a model steamboat, which was considered a real wonder in those days. He also invented a peculiar gas stove, one of the first made in England. During the last two years of his apprenticeship he was occupied in repairing and rating of ships' chronometers, adjusting scientific instruments, etc., particularly those used in meteorology. Although legally out of his time at the age of 21, so fond was he of his trade and master, that he determined to serve his full term, and in consequence worked eight months for 2s. 6d. a week. In these days, when boys are educated by the State, as well as expecting to pay no premium, this wage is often asked for in the first year of apprenticeship. A very different state of things to that of fifty years ago. On leaving his apprenticeship his skill and care as a workman led to his services being availed of by the leading establishments in Bristol, and he ultimately started in business for himself. Advancing steadily for some years, the news of "gold" in Australia made him anxious to visit this part of the world, and although his passage was paid to Melbourne, on the arrival of the vessel in South Australia he abandoned his intention of going there, and settled in Adelaide in 1853. He commenced business in Port Adelaide, where he erected a beautiful transit instrument, and in conjunction with an astronomical clock he and his son Alfred for many years determined the true time by observation with these instruments. This proceeding was absolutely necessary then for the rating of chronometers, as there was no real public time or Semaphore time ball instituted. During the early days of the Port, Mr. Sawtell supplied the leading daily paper with the barometer and thermometer records, just as Messrs. Todd and Wragge do now. His last invention is a patent tell-tale clock, and he has accomplished the somewhat difficult task of grinding lenses, including the spherico-cylindrical form now in request by oculists for the correction of astigmatism. His establishment is always a delight to those of a scientific turn, as it abounds in novelties, and the proprietor is still as enthusiastic as ever in the scientific branch of his business.