The clock housed in the tower of Belfast’s First Church is not the most reliable timepiece. On this, most people would agree.

If longtime clock tender Bob Stover had his way, he would replace it with a modern mechanism. The clock would run on time, and he would be out of a job — an outcome he has been pursuing for years. But as the city pursues a grant to refurbish the 175-year-old machine, Stover’s voice has been in the minority.

Stover grew up attending First Church. He was rehearsing with the choir when President John F. Kennedy was shot — “They rang the bell that afternoon,” he recalled. As a high school student, he was enlisted to help with the clock by his Uncle Henry, who was the caretaker at the time.

For the most part, the job involved climbing the stairs to the tower twice a week, inserting an L-shaped handle into the clock mechanism and cranking it to lift the pair of granite weights suspended from cables that energize the clock and bell striker. From a small access door on the face that overlooks Church Street, Stover would wave to the girls at Crosby High School, next door.

Stover worked with the clock on and off over the years, formally taking over the job of caretaker from his half-brother, Doug, in 1998. Some years earlier, Doug had taken the job from Henry, who started tending the clock just after World War II, and according to Bob, still occasionally makes repairs.

It was Henry, now 91, who gave the clock its most substantial modernization: a pair of sump pump motors that automatically wind the clock twice a week, relieving the caretaker of his most arduous chore. Installed in 1976, even these modernizations are fast becoming antiques.

First Church is no stranger to technological innovation. Boys once hand-pumped the bellows on the church’s massive pipe organ. By the time Stover arrived on the scene, the air was blown in mechanically. The organ is still in use, but today an electronic organ stands nearby. Microphone cables snake across the floor of the church’s large balcony, once the seat of the choir, which has since moved down to the sanctuary, its numbers diminished but its members’ voices now amplified.

A walled-off section of a nondescript room behind the pipe organ now houses communications equipment connected to a cell phone relay in the steeple. A generator next to the building, installed by the phone company to maintain continuity of power, incidentally would protect the church in the event of a blackout, Stover said, no candles necessary.

Unlike some of the other modernizations, the improvements to the clock over the years have failed to resolve its one crucial shortcoming: an inability to keep time.

For as long as Stover can remember, the clock has run fast — around five minutes per week. He resets it once every two weeks, at which point the clock is running 10 minutes fast, an eternity even by the standards of the 19th century when the clock was built.

At another time, the clock might have been scrapped, urban renewal-style, and replaced with a newer, more accurate mechanism, but city officials, recognizing the historic value of the piece, couldn’t look the other way.

The clock is reportedly the fourth-oldest tower clock in Maine and the only one known to have been built in the state. Belfast clockmakers Phineas Quimby and Timothy Chase fabricated the mechanism in a machine shop at the Head of the Tide in 1836, reportedly after the town fathers balked at the price of an imported clock.

Though eventually installed in the tower of First Church, the clock has always been the property of the city.

The machine, which resembles a flatbed printing press, governs the hands on four separate clock faces, one on each side of the tower. The hands on the three larger faces — the rear face is slightly smaller to accommodate the pitch of the roof — are as tall as a person, and each of the gilded numbers stands over a foot tall.

Malfunctions are nothing new. In the winter of 1855, on a day when temperatures hit 25 below, the newspaper reported that the town clock had frozen and refused to budge.

That same year, the paper gave a superstitious report of another incident:

“The old town clock, which for many years has honestly and soberly indicated the flight of time to our citizens, took a singular freak on Sunday night. At about 11 it commenced striking, and never ceased for an hour. Many good people were shocked, and some frightened, at this unwonted operation.”

The Revere bell installed at the same time the clock was built hasn’t tolled for several years. Stover indicated the cause, flipping an unhinged piece of metal on the clock’s frame. It didn’t look like much, but Stover professed no idea about how to fix it.

A new mechanism he had researched could not only strike the clock reliably in any number of patterns, it could, by way of a remote control device attached to the clock’s hands, match the overeager pace of the clock, tolling when the minute hand was on the 12, regardless of the actual time.

Several years ago, the clock began mysteriously stopping. Regarding the problem from inside the tower, it took Stover a while to discern that the hands had become so warped on the rear clock face that one would hook onto one another. He decided he could make replacement hands easily enough. But when he got them off he realized the workmanship was beyond his own skill and they have remained inside ever since.

Unlike his uncle and half-brother before him, Stover said he didn’t have much mechanical inclination. An avid musician and early adopter of digital musical instrument technology, he betrays little nostalgia for old machines. He is also afraid of heights — a fact that he said partially explained why the hands on the rear clock have yet to be replaced.

He continues to do the job, he said, out of respect for his uncle, but he would gladly let someone else take over. In 2005, he briefly thought he had found himself a replacement, and told a newspaper reporter that he planned to tender his resignation. But his would-be successor lost interest and no one else has come forward.

“I’m ready to give it up any time. If there’s anyone who’s ready to take it over, who has a passion for such things … Let ’em have it,” he said. “Geez, anybody can do it.”

Earlier this year, city officials held a meeting with a group that included community members, a historian, a tower clock mechanic, and Stover to decide whether the clock should be repaired or replaced. By Stover’s account, he alone wanted to replace the mechanism with something modern. The old clock, he said, could then be put on display.

“I thought that’s the way to go. Put the clock in a museum. Put a nice little storyboard next to it. People could learn about it,” he said. “But that’s one man’s view.”

City officials priced several options and found that each of them cost about the same. Whether they paid someone to restore the old clock, or paid someone to replace it with a modern device, it would cost around $20,000. There didn’t seem to be a right answer.

“The clock is obviously a very significant community asset,” City Manager Joe Slocum wrote in a report to the City Council in May. “It’s fascinating that in 2010, we still wrestle with whether we will use the old mechanism or a more modern, more reliable mechanism as we approach the work of the future.”

Confusing matters was the fact that the clock’s mechanism is neither visible from the street nor easily accessible from inside the church.

From a room on the second floor, in which the distinctly 19th-century signatures of the early clock tenders can be seen scratched into the panes of blown-glass windows, a narrow stairway ascends to a vaulted attic beneath the church’s pitched roof.

Climbing over a large beam, a visitor reaches an even steeper flight of simple wooden stairs, some of which are broken, that leads to a small room within the tower, lit by a single bulb attached to the wall and a pair of small windows that overlook the rear of the church.

In the center of the room stands the clock mechanism, once described in a magazine article as being the size of a bureau drawer, but closer to the size of a banker’s desk.

There are no spinning balls or gilded weights. And while Stover wagers that a tinker or an horologist would appreciate the design — he went so far as to say an enthusiast might pay the city for the privilege of taking it apart in his living room at a leisurely pace — the clock’s utilitarian construction suggests it was never meant to be on display.

“People would be surprised to see how simple it is,” Stover said. “But $20,000? I don’t begrudge them the fee, because I couldn’t have done it.”

A cast-iron frame fitted with an array of gears — none larger than 18 inches in diameter — forms the core of the machine. From there, four rods extend, penetrating each of the tower walls and turning the clock hands on the outside. Several smaller gears on the inside translate the torque into two movements, hours and minutes.

A pair of granite weights hang from cables below the frame — the larger hanging some 15 feet below the floor, nearly touching the floorboards of the attic below.

The pendulum also partially extends through the floor. In an attempt to slow the clock Stover affixed the flap of a cardboard box to the pendulum weight, perpendicular to the direction of movement, in hopes of catching a bit of drag from the still attic air.

Nineteenth-century clockmakers discovered that pendulums slow down or speed up based upon forces as subtle as the expansion and contraction in different temperatures of the metal of the pendulum rod. Changing humidity could slow or speed the pendulum. Despite Stover’s cardboard flap, the clock has continued to run fast.

Last month the city settled on trying to fix the old clock, pursuing a grant through the Maine Historic Preservation Commission, in part, said Belfast Economic Development Director Thomas Kittredge, because that was where the money was.

“There’s not much funding to replace old tower clocks with modern ones, because it’s a historical preservation thing,” he said. “The downside of restoring it to its original form is that it requires more annual maintenance.”

City estimates put that cost around $1,400 per year — a fee that pays for two visits by a tower clock servicer, of which there are few these days.

The idea that the clock can be restored to some original form may prove elusive. There are no known copies of the original plans. Caretakers and tinkers have made six generations worth of small fixes over the years, from carefully machined replacement parts to coat hangers, bicycle chains, a dumbbell weight and other evidence of Yankee ingenuity.

“It’s somebody’s great invention,” Stover said dryly.

The City anticipates hearing about the grant in December. For his part, Stover continues to oil the gears and set the clock back once every two weeks. Time, after all, waits for no one.