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Clocks, Watches, Musical Boxes

In the first instance clocks were made to be placed prominently in outdoor positions to tell the time to the people at large. In due course, smailer examples were made for use in the home, and eventually a further reduction in size led to the introduction of the personal pocket-watch.

The earliest clocks with movements driven by the power from a falling weight had neither hands nor dial, and marked the hours by striking a bell. Eventually, a face to show the hours was added, and at a later date the hours were divided into minutes and a further hand affixed to indicate them. These clocks were heavy iron-framed affairs, usually placed high inside a tower within which the weight had a good distance to travel before it needed rewinding.

Regulation to prevent the weight crashing down from top to bottom of the tower was achieved by a device known as a Foliot balance. In this, the final wheel in the train was set on a horizontal spindle. The wheel, called the crown wheel because of its appearance,, was cut with comparatively long angled teeth into which fitted alternately two flat plates (or pallets) on an upright spindle. At the top of this latter spindle was a shaped arm with adjustable weights at either end for regulating the speed of the clock. For smaller indoor clocks the swinging arm was replaced by a wheel, and the speed was controlled by making the weight lighter or heavier.

Early in the sixteenth century appeared the first clocks using a coiled spring instead of a weight. The fact that the power exerted by a spring grows less as it uncoils was the subject of much research, and a device known as the fusee was the successful outcome. It takes the form of a cone-shaped drum with grooves on to which the gut or chain from the mainspring drum is wound. As the spring is uncoiled it reaches the larger circumference and this equalizes the weakened pull. The use of springs and fusees encouraged the making of portable clocks and these, first made in Germany, soon became popular. Their time-keeping, like that of all other clocks, was erratic and the sundial remained an essential standby.

The Italian astronomer, Galileo, discovered the important property of the pendulum, but its application to clockmaking was due to a Dutchman, Christiaan Huygens. By November 1658 Johannes Fromanteel, a clockmaker of Dutch origin who lived and worked in London, was advertising that he had for sale `Clocks that go exact and keep equaller time than any now made without this Regulater'. This was a true statement, but throughout the eighteenth century improvements of one kind and another led to greater accuracy and reliability. The names of Tompion, Graham, Quare, and many others attained a well-deserved fame, and specimens of their workmanship are sought eagerly today.

Extremely accurate time-keeping would make it possible for a ship to find its exact position at sea, and the government offered big rewards for this purpose. Harrison, Mudge and Arnold are the three most famous names in this connexion, and their painstaking labours did much to ensure the supremacy of British shipping and the world-wide fame of British clock-making.

The earliest clocks were almost certainly made by blacksmiths; they had heavy iron frames and they show few signs of the smallscale precision associated with the work of a true clockmaker. With the advent of the portable clock came the widespread use of brass, and the accuracy and neatness typical of such mechanisms. By the middle of the eighteenth century few households were without a clock of some type; usually a long-case or grandfather. The demand for these grew so great that the trade became divided into a number of specialists, each of whom made one or more parts. A country clockmaker ordered his requirements, assembled them and added his name on the front of the face. The majority of surviving clocks made in country towns and villages were put together in this manner, and only occasionally were they made entirely by the men whose names appear boldly on them.

The first clock cases were of gilt metal or brass, and the familiar type known as the lantern clock is a typical example. Wooden cases were introduced in the seventeenth century, mostly of oak veneered with ebony but later with walnut and other woods. Inlays of floral marquetry and later of satinwood and ebony stringings followed fashions that prevailed at the times of manufacture.

Whereas a good Tompion will realize a thousand pounds or more, clocks by less exalted makers can be bought comparatively cheaply. An important factor is the condition of the movement-, of greater interest to the collector than the case. Continual use during the centuries will have caused wear and necessitated replacement of parts; if this has not been done with great care and by a knowledgeable craftsman much of the value will have been lost, and it will be found that it is a very expensive matter to correct it. An apparently fine clock will sometimes disclose on examination that the entire striking mechanism has been removed, or that the old escapement has been changed for a more modern, but less capricious, one. Further, movements have been adapted to fit cases, and vice versa; a long-case of small size; known as a grandmother, should be treated with great caution. Old examples do exist but are very rare, and the majority of them have been manufactured by unscrupulous fakers.

In France, clocks were placed in large and ornamental cases, sometimes with matching wall-brackets, covered in tortoiseshell inlaid with brass (Boulle work). The fashion lasted from about 1690, through the eighteenth century and later. In the early 1700's cases began to be veneered with kingwood, tulipwood, and other rare woods, mounted in ormolu and designed in styles to match those prevailing for furniture. Other clocks were given cases of ormolu and bronze, sometimes set with Dresden and other china groups and with Sevres porcelain flowers. Genuine specimens are rare and expensive, and they have been copied carefully and often. A feature of an old French clock movement is that the pendulum is suspended on a silk thread, which can be lengthened or shortened to regulate the time.

German clocks often resemble closely the French. Others had movements of which the framing was of wood instead of the usual brass.


The making of pocket-watches may be said to have begun with small ones of spherical shape about 1520. These resembled pomanders and were worn similarly; from a chain round the neck, or at the girdle. The round flat watch came later, and was enclosed in a plain inner case, usually of silver, and an outer case with elaborate ornamentation. The movements are found to be most carefully made, and the cock, or cover of the balance-wheel, usually pierced and engraved in a complicated pattern.

The maximum decoration was given to watches by the French and Swiss: cases of gold were enamelled or set with precious stones, and intricate movements with small automata that struck the hours were made. The watches of Abraham Louis Breguet, born in Switzerland and working in France, are among the very finest ever made. He died in 1823 and it has been said by an expert that all his watches show perfect workmanship, originality in design and beauty in form'. Like the early eighteenth-century work of Thomas Tompion, that of Breguet has been faked, and the fame of both makers was so great in their lifetimes that many of the forgeries were contemporary with them.

Musical boxes

Musical boxes are nearly as old as clocks. They operate by a barrel with protruding pegs striking the teeth of a steel comb or operating bells. The most familiar ones are those of small size, frequently in the form of snuff boxes, many of which are adapted to play more than one tune. They are supposed to have been invented by a Swiss, Louis Favre of Geneva, and most of the good movements were made in that country. Some are incredibly small and were fitted into fob seals, sealing-wax holders, penknives and other articles where they might-surprise a listener. A refinement was the fitting of a tiny bellows to work a whistle, which led to the making of boxes containing a small hidden bird. This would pop up and sing, to disappear when the song was ended and stay hidden until the operating button was pressed again. Late in the eighteenth century clocks were fitted sometimes with a musical box in the base, which played when the hour had struck. Grandfather clocks were made to play a short tune on bells at the hour, and on some it was possible to choose one of several melodies.

In the nineteenth century many large musical boxes were made, some playing a number of tunes and fitted with interchangeable barrels. Others played principally on a steel comb, but had bells as well and incorporated small drums played by coloured butterflies. They were replaced finally by the gramophone.