The inexpensive quartz watches and clocks you see everywhere today keep time far more accurately than the stately grandfather clocks of yesteryear. But the latter have a charm and presence that few modern time-keeping devices can match.
It is thought that the very first mechanical clocks were devised by European monks sometime during the 13th century. They didn’t have clock faces and hands to show the time. Instead, they struck a bell on the hour. So you couldn’t tell the time by looking at these early clocks!
Later, an hour hand was added. Small domestic clocks made an appearance during the first few decades of the 15th century. There used to be a device called a lantern clock, which was a weight-driven time piece, which made its way to upper class homes around that time.
The major breakthrough in clock design came about in 1582 when Galileo discovered that a pendulum has a fixed period and so could be used for timekeeping. However, he did not actually build a pendulum-based clock.
That task was accomplished by Christiaan Huygens in 1656. His design was a significant improvement over the earlier mechanical clocks, because it was accurate to within three minutes or so per day.
The early pendulum clocks had short pendulums. The movements were made of cast iron and the clocks hung on the wall. Subsequently, they were encased in wood to improve their looks.
Around 1660, clocks with longer pendulums were introduced by English clockmakers. In another decade, the anchor escapement was perfected by William Clement. Robert Hook introduced the 39.1 inch pendulum. Together, these developments led to the creation of the first grandfather clocks, which often stood a majestic 7 feet tall.
They weren’t called grandfather clocks, though. The early name was long case clocks or floor clocks. The term grandfather clock became popular only during the 1880s, after Henry Work wrote a song titled ‘Grandfather’s clock’.
Meanwhile, clock movements improved in design and manufacture. Long case clocks could keep time to within a few seconds variation per week. At this stage, a minute hand was added to clocks. With elaborately carved wood casings and the use of glass to highlight the clock face and pendulum, the grandfather clock evolved into an attractive timepiece.
In the early days, it cost a lot to produce long case clocks. They adorned mansions of royals and nobles. Production costs came down with time and other well-off households could afford them too.
It was in the 1680s that long case clocks first reached America. A few years later, they began to be produced in New England, Pennsylvania, Virginia and other places. In the 19th century, American clock making centers came up with brass movements, which cut costs significantly. That ended the dominance of the English as clock makers.
Grandfather clocks with their pendulum time-keepers can’t rival the precision or reliability of modern atomic clocks. But there’s something reassuringly solid and comforting about these time pieces of another era. One can safely predict that grandfather clocks will remain fixtures in connoisseurs’ living rooms for a long time to come.
Peter Strides is a connoisseur of clocks. He has written on grandfather clocks , the history of the pendulum clock , tips for setting up a grandfather clock and more.