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 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 today.

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 part two.


A Short History Of The Development Of The Pendulum Clock Part 2

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 end, London”

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 clockmaking from blacksmithing, and rose to become an eminent London clockmaker. Clement was commissioned to build a new clock for Kings College, Cambridge, and this clock (for which he was paid £42) is now in the Science Museum in London. Dated1671, it is the earliest known clock with an “anchor escapement”

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 clock movement.

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 clock.

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: -

There was a man who had a clock

His name was Mr Mears.

And every night he wound that clock

For five and forty years.

And when at last that clock turned out

An eight-day clock to be

A madder man than Mr Mears

I never hope to see!

  I hope you enjoyed reading this brief walk-through of the development of the pendulum clock, and if you are lucky enough to own one, may you continue to enjoy it for many years to come.



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