C2011|grandfather clock| clock repair| repair clock
A Short History Of
The Development Of The
Pendulum Clock Part 1
I have been interested in
clocks of all kinds for many years now, and I used to marvel at the complexity
and beauty of a good grandfather clock.
I realised early on in my
interest that the clock as we know it today could not have just appeared out of
nowhere fully formed, so I started to do a little research into the subject.
The story of the
development of the clock, and in particular the pendulum which swings and
controls the clock, is almost an epic tale in itself, with lots of brilliant
minds, some real characters and a few charlatans thrown in for good measure - -
- - come with me, as we go back almost a thousand years to it’s beginning, and
work our way forward again to the mechanical clock that we would recognise
A single person, or even a
single country did not invent the clock. The first people to need to know and
measure time were astronomers, they realised very quickly that the observation
of planets and stars requires accurate time keeping.
Way back in 1100 A.D. a
Chinese astronomer called Su Sung made a huge clock thirty six feet high, which
incorporated astronomical models showing star positions. Processions of figures
carried tablets showing the time to anyone stood looking at the clock, (and
I’ll bet there were plenty of those) and inside the clock itself were the
astronomical models, hidden from the ordinary people. The clock was driven by a
massive water wheel, and the most important part of the whole thing was a device
to control the water flow rate, and thus the clocks timekeeping.
The control device is known
as an escapement, and this clock was the earliest known example, although
apparently a monk called I’Sing invented the escapement itself centuries
earlier. (No jokes about I Sing and Su Sung please, the names are held to be
correct so I won’t make a Song and dance about it!)
The escapement is the heart
of a clock, it lets the power in the weights or springs “escape” in tiny
equal amounts, so the hands move round the dial in a steady measured progress.
Moving on a few hundred
years, the astronomers in Europe continued to commission working models, Ptolemy
and Copernicus were just two of many people investigating the heavens. From
around 1400 onwards, non-astronomers started to take an interest in the new
mechanical wonders, and the timekeeping part of the machines was split off from
the models of the planets movements, and the “clock” was born.
There is a theory, which
sounds reasonable to me that the word clock comes from the German word
“Glock” which means bell. The early clocks were mostly in towers in public
buildings, and did not have any hands; they just rang the hour on a bell.
Apart from tower clocks,
around Cromwell’s time the usual clock to be found in the houses of very
wealthy men was the Lantern Clock, so called because it resembled an old
coaching lantern, except for the large bell on top. Cromwell himself owned
several clocks, and there is a watch he owned in the British Museum.
These clocks had what is
called a “Verge” escapement, combined with a swinging bar called the “Foliot”,
without going into detail here I can tell you that they were not very good
timekeepers - - - - people used to go out to the sundial in their garden to set
the clock somewhere near!
This foliot was replaced
later by a balance wheel, but the timekeeping was still, shall we say, not very
accurate. The search for accuracy in timekeeping was still driven by the
astronomers, for better clocks meant better planetary observations. The average
person going about their daily life at this time had no need of a clock at all;
he or she knew by the Sun’s position in the sky roughly what time it was, and
for centuries that was good enough for work on the farm and village life.
One astronomer who played a
crucial part in the development of the grandfather clock was Galileo Galiei, the
famous Italian scientist and astronomer. When Galileo was a young man the story
goes that he was in the cathedral in Pisa, and noticed that one of the lamps
hung from the roof was swinging in the breeze from the open door. He timed this
swing as best as he could using his pulse, and noticed that it took the same
number of beats to swing through a short arc as it did through a much longer
one. It moved slowly swinging through a short arc and faster when swinging
through a long one, so the time it took was always exactly the same regardless
of the size of the swing. Another fact he later discovered was that the number
of swings a pendulum makes in a minute depends only on its length.
This was in 1581, and after
that many mechanics and blacksmiths were to try their hand at making a clock
with a pendulum. Then in 1657 a clockmaker in Holland, Salomon Coster, made the
first pendulum clock from a design by the great Dutch scientist Christiaan
Huygens. This clock still exists today, and is in a museum in Leiden, Holland.
It has a pendulum 14cm long, and a verge and crown-wheel escapement.
Huygens published a book in
1658 all about the pendulum clock, and he was recognised as the inventor of the
pendulum thanks to his book. Although later research indicates that Galileo’s
pupil Viviani actually built a clock to Galileo’s design and instruction, but
because they were so secretive about it at the time they did not receive any
credit for the invention, and it was only by accident around 80 years later that
knowledge of this clock, built around 1640, came to light - - - by then Huygens
was firmly accepted by everyone as the inventor of the pendulum clock, Galileo
received no credit for it till many years after his death, and probably never at
all but for the chance discovery of all his old manuscripts in a butchers shop
being used as wrapping paper for meat! - - - But that’s a story for another
time - - -
Huygens also contributed
two more inventions to the clock movement. The crutch that drives the pendulum,
and “Huygens endless rope” which enabled the weight to still drive the clock
while it was being wound up.
The new knowledge spread to England very quickly, this was to
make us the leading clock making country in the world for the next 150 years or
so, due to the rapid take-up of the new pendulum. We will leave the story here,
the development of the clock movement has moved from China via Turkey to Italy,
then to Holland, and we can take a look at the next stage here in England in
A Short History Of The Development Of The Pendulum Clock
In part one we traced the
development of the pendulum clock from early beginnings in China around 1100, to
the improvements made in Italy then Holland in the 1600’s.
Now we can take a look at
English clockmaking up to the point where the grandfather or longcase clock as
we recognise it today appeared.
Here is an advertisement,
which appeared in the London paper “Commonwealth Mercury” in November 1658 -
- - - -
“There is lately a way found for making clocks that
to exact and keep equaller time than any now made without this Regulator
(examined and proved before his Highness the Lord Protector by such Doctors
whose knowledge and learning is without exception) and are not subject to alter
by change of weather, as others are, and may be made to go a week, a month, or a
year with once winding up, as well as those that are wound up every day, and
keep time as well, and is very excellent for all House Clocks that go either
with springs or weights; and also Steeple Clocks that are most subject to differ
by change of weather. Made by Ahasuerus Fromanteel, who made the first that were
in England. You may have them at his house on the Bankside, in Mosses Alley,
Southwark and at the sign of the Mermaid, in Lothbury, near Bartholomew Lane
I’ll bet the guy who
wrote that went off to America selling Snake Oil shortly afterwards - - - -
What the advert is telling
the people of London is that the pendulum had arrived in England at last, and
clocks were for the first time reasonably accurate, certainly to within a few
minutes a week. The other give away here is the name of the clockmaker,
Ahasuerus Fromanteel was a Dutchman living and working in England, this explains
how an obscure book written in Dutch came to be recognised so quickly in
England, one of Fromanteel’s sons, John, was sent over to Holland to learn
about making pendulum clocks from Salomon Coster, the clockmaker who made the
clocks for Huygens and by a happy accident he was there within 11 weeks of
Huygens being granted his patent for the pendulum.
John quickly sent the
knowledge of the new pendulum back to England, with the permission of either
Huygens or Coster, and by the time he returned home to London the family was
well-established making clocks. Ahasuerus Fromanteel worked with his friend
Thomas Loomes, and his is the second address in the advert, “ at the sign of
the Mermaid in Lothbury”
The first English pendulum
clocks were wall clocks, often known as “hoop and spike” clocks, the hoop
hung on a nail or peg set in the wall, and there were two spikes or pointed
steel bars that protruded from the back of the clock and dug into the wall to
stop the clock slipping sideways.
These clocks were really
lantern clocks with a pendulum hanging down beneath, which meant they could not
be stood on a table or shelf any more, but the huge increase in accurate
timekeeping was considered worth the trouble of fixing them to the wall.
The beautiful English
Lantern Clock, made of brass with an engraved dial and four corner pillars like
a four poster bed, started to be enclosed in a wooden hood, similar to the hood
on the grandfather clock, this then went on a high shelf fixed to the wall, and
the shelf had holes in so that the pendulum and weights could hang down below
the shelf through the holes. The clock inside the case quickly became much
plainer to look at, the wooden hood was easier and cheaper to make, and with a
nice engraved brass dial, and some mouldings to the case, it looked good too.
Around the same time, 1665,
someone unknown got the idea of enclosing the weights, and the rope they hung
from, in a long “trunk” going down to the floor, and the grandfather clock
appeared for the first time. These early clocks are highly sought after today,
and bring large sums of money on the rare occasions they come on the market. A
few of the old Lantern Clocks were also housed in a grandfather case at the
time, and again these rare early clocks are very sought after today.
Up to this point, the
pendulum was about ten inches long, as they were used with the old verge
escapement, and they sounded quite “busy” with a beat of half a second, and
because the new clocks had a long case it seemed a good idea to put in a longer
pendulum - - - - the trouble was, it was going to need another new invention to
do this, the seconds pendulum is 39 inches long, and if it were used with the
verge escapement it would swing in an arc of around three feet! - - - Clearly
too much for the beautiful, slim, new grandfather clock case.
The credit for the first
useable long pendulum clock goes to a former blacksmith called William Clement,
like many others he went into
The anchor escapement was
so named because it resembles a ships anchor, and is driven by a vertical escape
wheel. Another effect of the adoption of the longer pendulum, with it’s
soothing one-second tick, was the rapid growth in the use of the long clock
case, as a protection for the pendulum, which hung down a long way below the
This brings us to the
grandfather clock we would recognise today, and in fact the anchor escapement is
still in use the world over in clocks of all shapes and sizes, as it is robust,
reliable, and tolerant of a certain amount of wear and tear without stopping the
The beat interval of a
pendulum varies, as we said before, according to its length, a 10 inch one beats
half-seconds, a 39 inch one beats seconds, (this is by far the commonest length
used in grandfather clocks), a 14 foot long one beats two seconds, (often used
in Church or Tower clocks), and one, in St Chad’s Church Shrewsbury has a
mighty 52 foot long pendulum beating four seconds! There is little to be gained
using these longer pendulums, as other factors such as “circular error”
creep in and affect the timekeeping, which is why they are so rare.
Townely Hall in Burnley,
near where I live has a wonderful clock by Thomas Thompion, the pendulum is hung
from the ceiling and goes into the clock through a hole in the top of the hood -
- - an “upside down” arrangement which seems to work very well, I’m not
sure how long the pendulum is, at least 14 feet but it could be more, the
ceiling is very high!
The two most common types
of grandfather clock movement are the “30-hour” and the “8 day”, this
refers to how long the clock will run before the weights drop to the bottom, and
the clock stops. There are others of longer duration, as mentioned in the
Fromanteel advertisement above, but most of us are unlikely to own one of these
clocks, famous London makers mainly made them, and the prices of these clocks
have spiralled out of reach of most of us.
I mention the 30-hour and
8day winding because I want to finish this piece with a traditional rhyme, which
I love: -
was a man who had a clock
name was Mr Mears.
every night he wound that clock
five and forty years.
when at last that clock turned out
eight-day clock to be
madder man than Mr Mears
never hope to see!
YOU HAVE AN ANTIQUE CLOCK IN NEED OF REPAIR, OR YOU NEED PARTS MAKING
FOR YOUR CLOCK,
CONTACT ME AT : - firstname.lastname@example.org
OR PHONE ME ON: 01282 615572
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C2011|grandfather clock| clock repair| repair clock