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The Story Of Clocks And Watches - Part 1

[Clocks And Watches - Part 1]  [Clocks And Watches - Part 2]  [Clocks And Watches - Part 3]  [Clocks And Watches - Part 4] 

( Originally Published 1963 )

The sun, moon, and stars were the chief means by which man judged the passing of time before clocks and watches were invented. Some people still claim to recognize the time of day by the opening of certain flowers, earliest of all being dandelions about 4:00 A.M., and the latest moonflowers and cereus that unfurl after dark.

Flowers open according to the sun and never adjust themselves to Daylight Saving Time. Nor can sundials, which were mentioned in the Old Testament, be adjusted to Daylight Saving Time without a great deal more trouble than is needed to set clocks and watches. The principle of the sundial is simple. Most sundials are made of metal with a style or gnomon whose shadow falls on a marked dial in such a way as to indicate the time of the day. Since there must be sun in order to have shadows, sundials are of little use on cloudy days.

The water clock, or clepsydra, was invented by at least the second century B.C. as a means of measuring time. It was used by both the Egyptians and the Greeks. The sandglass and the hourglass, which may contain water or mercury instead of sand, work on the same principle as the water clock. Such a glass can be made in smaller sizes to measure shorter intervals of time than an hour, but of course does not indicate the time of day.

The mechanical clock probably was invented by the tenth century, perhaps earlier. It came into use in Europe during the thirteenth century. The early ones functioned chiefly by a system of weights and counterweights. Both clocks and watches are known as timepieces; a watch, however, is a timepiece to be carried on the person. It, like the clock, was invented in Europe, but not until several centuries later. Generally a clock has a mechanism by which it strikes the hours and sometimes lesser units of time on a bell or gong; a watch merely shows the time (periodically, they have been made to chime, strike the hour, or perform various services).

The earliest clockmakers certainly had some scientific bent, if they were not actually astronomers. Jewelers, locksmiths, blacksmiths, carpenters, and cabinetmakers also contributed to clockmaking. Many of the clockmakers in this country and elsewhere were also watchmakers, but the man who could repair a clock was not necessarily a clockmaker as well. During Colonial days in America-even later, perhaps -a boy served a long and arduous apprenticeship in order to become a clockmaker.

Among the hundreds, if not thousands, of men who aided in the development of mechanical timepieces, three were outstanding: Christiaan Huygens, a Dutch scientist, who was the first (1656) to employ the pendulum to regulate the movement of clocks; Robert Hooke, an Englishman, who invented the anchor escapement for clocks in the 1670's; and Peter Henlein, a locksmith in Germany, who about 1500 figured out and used a mainspring, thus making it possible to produce small timepieces or watches. Both Huygens and Hooke have been credited with the invention of spiral springs and the balance wheel for watches.

American clockmakers, however, were the ones who worked out methods of manufacture and interchangeable parts, so that the price of clocks was reduced so fantastically that any family could afford to buy one. This was chiefly during the 1830's. As a result, there are many interesting nineteenth-century clocks to be found in this country. They are not limited to any one region or state, for peddlers carried and sold them far from the places where they were manufactured. Furthermore, many clockmakers who had served apprenticeships in New England and Pennsylvania in the late 1700's moved southward and westward. Most of the clocks made during the 1800's are still telling time, or can be repaired so that they do. So are many that were made during the 1700's. Some of them, inevitably, have had electric works substituted for their old wood or brass ones.

America has added great names to the history of clockmaking too. The list includes not only enterprising Eli Terry and Chauncey Jerome of Connecticut, who revolutionized the industry, and Seth Thomas, who also helped to establish it so firmly that it is still a leading one in that state. Their equally great predecessors during the 1700's included the Willard family in Roxbury, Massachusetts, David Rittenhouse, perhaps most famous of the many tall-case clockmakers in and around Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and Levi Hutchins, who is credited with making the first alarm clock-in Concord, New Hampshire, in 1787 (this was a pine shelf clock with a glass door 29 inches high and 12 inches wide).

Clockmaking was a highly honorable profession, although the average clockmaker produced only four or five tallcase clocks per year and David Rittenhouse probably turned out no more than two a year. Pennsylvania was as important as New England during the late 1600's and the 1700's. Skilled clockmakers who trained many younger men were attracted there, and as a result, Philadelphia and Lancaster became centers noted for fine tall-case clocks as well as excellent watches. Not that good tall-ease clocks were not produced in New England, but it was not until the 1830's that New England took the undisputed lead in clockmaking.

Still considered one of the best devices for accurate timekeeping and timetelling is the weight-and-pendulum clock whose cumbersome mechanism gave rise to the tall- or long-case clock. This is more familiarly known as a grandfather's clock, although this nickname did not become common until a songwriter, Henry Clay Work, in 1875 wrote the song entitled "Grandfather's Clock." The earliest-known surviving tall-case clock is one in England dated 1681, but this style had been made earlier in both England and Holland. It also was made in France. In this country, it was made along the East Coast, notably in New England and Pennsylvania throughout the eighteenth century and at least in the early years of the nineteenth.

Occasionally an uncased weight-andpendulum clock is seen. The dial, usually a fairly simple one, was mounted on a square block and the weights and the pendulum hung free against a backboard.

The tall cases that housed the works -they often were nine feet tall and averaged two feet in width-were examples of fine cabinetwork. Details of style changed with the period, as did those of other pieces of furniture, but not the over-all outlines and proportions. Seventeenth-century cases were rectangular and heavily ornamented, and had flat tops, sometimes with a cornice. The arched top appeared in the early 1700's, the scrolled top about 1750. The broken-arch top was much in evidence on Pennsylvania tall-case clocks between 1760 and 1800. Some were more heavily carved than others. About 1790, the fretwork top with three finials became fashionable.

Oak was used for the cases of the earliest tall-case clocks made in England. Walnut and mahogany were used throughout the eighteenth century in both England and America, and here also cherry made many handsome cases. Satinwood and other costly exotics were preferred for inlay.

Some of the famous eighteenth-century cabinetmakers produced the tall cases. John Goddard and John Townsend, who made such beautiful furniture in Newport, Rhode Island, built fine clock cases with a block-and-shell motif in the long panel. Probably many of the skilled cabinetmakers who turned out the Philadelphia Chippendale furniture made some clock cases too. There is no question of the grace and beauty of the cases that were made by master cabinetmakers, but it should go without saying that some tall cases were finer than others. However, even the crudest ones, if they can be authenticated as having been made during the 1700's, are to be treasured -or sold for a good price today. Some of the oldest clocks have been repaired or worked on by later clockmakers, not always to the advantage of the clocks.

The dials are sometimes more interesting than the wooden cases. Originally, dials were brass with numerals engraved on a silver ring. After 1770, these were gradually supplanted by painted or enameled dials. The dials of the early tall-case clocks with flat tops were square. When the arched top began to be made soon after 1700, the dial also was arched, with a cartouche or semicircle above the dial proper. The four spandrels, or pie-shaped corner pieces, that filled out the round face were sometimes decorated with floral sprays or figures, or with ornamental metalwork.

Clockmakers often signed their names and perhaps places of business on the dial. This signature frequently was on the cartouche. Then, about 1720, motion was carried to the cartouche. Within it might be a ship that rocked in the sea, a deer that pranced, Father Time with his scythe, or some other animated figure that seemed appropriate. Soon afterward, some clockmaker thought of making a moon wheel that would progress through the moon's monthly phases, and the cartouche became the obvious place for this. The two hemispheres that obscured the moon for certain of its phases became part of the cartouche too. The moon wheel, which usually had a "Man in the Moon" face-some of the moon cartouches also had painted sky and gold stars-had to be set independently of the clock, but it could be quite accurate. A variation, not as widely made as the moon wheel, was the planetarium, which showed the motion of several planets, including Uranus, Jupiter, Saturn, and Earth.

Tall-case clocks struck the hour, of course, and most of them the half- and quarter-hours too. On the hour, the number was struck. The quarters and half-hour usually were differentiated by different notes or combinations of notes. Some tall-case clocks had chimes -that is, a set of five to twelve bells tuned to a musical scale. Chimes usually played a recognizable tune on the hour, and some, during the late 1700's, were adjusted to play more than one tune.

A tall-case clock was as much a symbol of a family's wealth and community standing as silverware. Even during the 1700's, such a clock could cost several hundred dollars, and so anyone who owned one was-understandably-quite likely to mention it in his will. In fact, these cherished tallcase clocks were almost always handed down carefully from generation to generation.

Of all the clockmakers who were busy in and around Philadelphia during the 1700's and up until about 1850, the greatest one was David Rittenhouse. At the age of seventeen, he had established himself as a maker of accurate clocks. Actually, Rittenhouse was as much a scientist as he was a clockmaker. He was an associate of Benjamin Franklin in the American Philosophical Society and succeeded Franklin as the Society's president.

No one is likely to stumble on a Rittenhouse tall-case clock (he probably made no more than 100 in his 47 years of work at this trade). Nor is there much possibility of finding a clock made by Matthias W. Baldwin, who was a maker of tall-case clocks in Philadelphia in the early 1800's, before he turned to locomotives. Samuel Bispham was working in Philadelphia as early as 1696.

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