Clock History

Clock History: An Overview

When I first started collecting clocks , I naturally became interested in clock history. It started gradually, with someone asking me a question about one of my clocks on the wall or shelf. After this happened several times, I found myself curious, and started reading books about the history of clocks. I read everything I could get my hands on, but couldn't find enough sources for clock history in the normal book stores or library.

Years later, when I started my apprenticeship in a clock shop in Arizona, I struck the mother lode of clock history books that the owner had collected. I read many of these books in my free time over the next couple of years. Although I learned a lot, the idea slowly formed in my mind that I had just scratched the surface. The short history of clocks appearing here is by no means intended as a complete study of horology. It is intended as an overview for clock owners and collectors who are interested in knowing more about their clocks.

..... In The Beginning


Very little is known about the origins of time keeping before the existence of the written word. We do know, however, that people in ancient times were already struggling with the concept of passing time. This is known because, by the advent of written history, every civilization already had some way of measuring time. The celestial bodies of the Sun, Moon, Planets, and Stars were most likely the first method that ancient civilizations used to measure the passing of time. They could count the days, months, seasons, and years without any other 'machinery' being used. At that time, nothing else was needed. People worked during daylight and slept at night. Nothing ran on a schedule -- no one even knew what a minute or an hour was. When we think of a day today, it is automatically thought of as 24 hours with each hour containing 60 minutes, and each minute containing 60 seconds. As basic as these measurements are today, they are all just man made intervals that would have meant very little to a society without a clock.

Early Clocks

The Sun was a clock to our ancestors, so it stands to reason that one of the first known ways to tell time used the Sun. The sundial, or 'shadow clock' was discovered to have been in use in Egypt around 1500 BC. These early 'clocks' allowed the daylight to be divided into 'hours'. Other devices such as candle clocks, water clocks (or clepsydras ), sand glasses (or hourglasses), and oil lamps were all used at various times to tell time throughout clock history, some, such as the hour glass, until fairly modern times. Finally, probably late in the 13th century,a better way to tell time was starting to be developed.

Invention of the Clock

No one knows exactly when the first mechanical clock was made or by whom. Researchers say that they were probably first made late in the 13th century. This would seem to be confirmed with evidence that around 1283 church records in England were found to mention a clock in Dunstable Priory, Bedford. Most early mechanical clocks known at this time were tower clocks. Most of these early tower clocks had no dials or hands. They alerted the public of the hour by ringing bells. This may be the reason the word 'clock' which is derived from the word 'bell' gained wide use. Built out of iron, most tower clocks were made and serviced by blacksmiths. These first clocks were very inaccurate. They had to be frequently adjusted to the correct hour by comparing them with the sundial! The development of the mechanical clock was slowed down by the lack of a reliable escapement. Gear works had been known for centuries, and the power at the time to drive the gears was weight. So the only thing lacking to make a clock more accurate was a reliable system to regulate the speed of the gears. Several different early escapements were used on tower clocks such as the 'verge and folliot'. Soon after, dials and hour hands began showing up on some clocks. Finally the minute hand was brought into common use. During the latter part of the fourteenth century, in Europe, the 'chamber' clock finally brought clocks down to a size that could be brought into the home. Then, in the fifteenth century, table, or mantel clocks using springs instead of weights for power started to appear. Some clocks also started using a balance wheel escapement. Other improvements followed, such as the pendulum by Christian Huygens in 1657, which along with an anchor, or deadbeat escapement, greatly improved the clocks accuracy.

American Clock History

Grandfather Clock

Most clocks in America in the 1600's were tall case clocks, or grandfather clocks as they are known today. All these early clocks were hand made. They were much too expensive for all but the most affluent people, so until the late 1800's, most Americans did not own a clock. In the early 1800's Eli Terry (1772-1852) began using water power to drive machinery to make clock parts quicker and cheaper. Known as the 'father' of the clock manufacturing industry, he believed that by standardizing movement parts, clocks could be made in batches at greater speeds. By the late 1800's, there were many manufacturing plants providing clocks at a reasonable price, greatly increasing the number of households with clocks in America. During this time, pocket watch companies were doing the same thing and by 1900, thanks to the dollar watch, almost anyone could own a watch.

Since these early years of clockmaking, many styles and types of clocks have found their way into our homes and collections. There is the well crafted Vienna Regulator with its accurate pendulum movement. Extremely popular is the Cuckoo Clock , originally made in the Black Forest in Germany. There are also Cuckoo Clocks that were made in America, such as the Lux Company. They were also made in Philadelphia early in the Twentieth century.

Probably every home has at least one alarm clock . They come in every conceivable style imaginable. Clock history does not end with the mechanical clocks discussed here. No clock history timeline would be complete without the history of the quartz clock movement and how it changed the way we use and buy clocks forever. Last, but not least, the atomic clock , which is the most accurate clock human beings have ever made will be discussed. Clock history is a fasinating study for the clock lover. It's a shame that so much of this clock history is lost forever.

Find more information on clocks and their history.


You can find more information about clocks, and clock collecting by reading the back issues of Clock Collecting Tips, here.

Back to Discover Clocks Homepage.

E-mail Address
First Name

Don't worry — your e-mail address is totally secure.
I promise to use it only to send you Clock Collecting Tips.