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Thursday, June 16, 2011

Tick Tock: A Brief History of Clocks



Throughout the millenniums various groups of people have developed ways in which to record time. The Sumerians and Egyptians used Sundials, although telling time during the night was somewhat difficult. In order to keep track of time when no sunlight was available, waterclocks were developed in Greece. The clock as we visualize it today evolved in the Far East and Europe from approximately 100 - 1600 AD.

Early inventors struggled with the dilemma of finding a reliable power source as sun, water, and sand can be somewhat undependable. The power source “turns a wheel and a system of gears that move the hands of the clock and are controlled by an arresting mechanism called an escapement, which allows the teeth of one of the gears to ‘escape’ one by one.” (trollvalley.com) A major breakthrough came in 1500/1510 when Peter Henlein developed “spring power.” This was followed by Christian Huygens’ pendulum clock in 1656, although Galileo is credited with the original design. Huygens again advanced the clock’s evolution by inventing a balance wheel and spring assembly, similar to what we use in wrist watches today.

The size of timepieces has changed radically over the years. Many early clocks were large due to the need to encase large group(s) of mechanisms. Finally Peter Henlein’s development of a ‘spring powered’ clock allowed for a reduction in the size of the clock. ‘Spring powered’ clocks could be made mantle or table size. In fact, Henlein went so far as to develop the first portable watch; it was six inches high. The development of the long pendulum ushered in a new era, not only in timepieces but in furniture. To house and protect this long pendulum and its mechanism required a tall case. Why shouldn’t that case be reflective of current furniture styles?

Time Line of Clocks

c. 3500 BC
“Shadow” clocks or Sundials first appear.
c.325 BC
Waterclocks are invented.
100 - 1300
Clocks evolve in Far East & Europe
1088 Complex mechanism using water driven power source first used.
1500 - 1510Spring powered mechanism designed
1505
Peter Henlein designs first portable timepiece.
1577
Minute hand mechanism designed.
1582
Design for long pendulum invented.
1656
Development of long pendulum clock .
1657
Christian Huygens invents balance wheel & spring assembly (as used in wristwatches today).
1660
Longcase or tallcase clocks become popular.
1660 - 1730
“Golden age” of clock making.
1671
Anchor or “recoil” escapement invented.
c. 1685
Tall case clocks imported to American Colonies.
c. 1695
First tall case clocks constructed in American Colonies.
1721
New design to improve accuracy developed.
1880
Term “grandfather’s clock” becomes popular based on a song Grandfather’s Clock that was popular in England and America.
The “golden age of development” (Edwin) of English tall case clocks was from 1660 to 1730. The first of the tall case clocks was made for kings, queens, and nobles. Early clocks were constructed using the popular classical proportions of the day. These clocks were characterized by a narrow pendulum cabinet and a portico type bonnet. Eventually cabinet and clock makers developed ways to bring down the cost of these tall case clocks making them more widely affordable and thereby developing a greater demand for tall case clocks.

Early American tall case clock construction was based on the English tradition. Having no trained clockmakers in the colonies, the first tall case clocks were imported from England. Eventually only the mechanisms of the clocks were imported for ease in shipment, requiring a craftsman for assembly. The first clocks made in the American colonies were copies of those being made for the English market in the “then popular Baroque style.” New York, New England, Pennsylvania and Virginia were colonial clockmaking centers. Benjamin Chandlee from Philadelphia developed a case under seven feet in height for colonial homes which often had lower ceilings. (Johnson)

Each early American-made clock was constructed using hand tools and took months of work. Machinery that might have aided colonial production was “prohibited by law from being exported to the colonies” (Johnson). Therefore, tall case clocks were found in the most well to do homes in the colonies and would have been a symbol of one’s socio-economic status within the community.

John and Elizabeth Chads were well-to-do Chester Countians. John oversaw several businesses and owned a quantity of land. Elizabeth came from a family equally well established. The architecture of their house and, I’m sure, its furnishings were symbols of their success and position within early Chadds Ford society. While we are far from determining if our “new” clock was, in fact, John and Elizabeth’s, those who have seen it can attest that it looks right at home in its surroundings.

By Elizabeth Rump
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