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Clock Times, Issue #002--Eli Terry
October 15, 2007

Welcome to Clock Times. This month's issue is a short biography of another famous American Clockmaker.

The Contributions of Eli Terry

Eli Terry was born before the American Revolution on April 13, 1772 in East Windsor, Connecticut. As a young boy of 14, he was accepted by master clockmaker Daniel Burnap as an apprentice. After serving his apprenticeship, Eli Terry opened his own clock shop in Plymouth, Connecticut in 1793, at the age of 21. In the 1700’s American technology had not yet evolved to support the manufacture of brass so all clocks were made with hand-turned wooden works.

Eli Terry was aware of Eli Whitney’s ideas concerning the manufacturing process like the use of power machinery, the use of interchangeable parts, and the division of labor to create an assembly line. Of course, the history books credit Eli Whitney with the invention of the cotton gin, a machine for cleaning cotton. While Eli Whitney received a patent for his cotton gin on March 14, 1794, it was not validated until 1807. Independent of Eli Whitney’s achievements, Eli Terry applied the concepts of power machinery and standardized parts to his clockmaking enterprise. Terry adapted his machines to be powered by water and hired several employees to cut standardized wheels, cogs, and other clock parts from wood. These were then assembled to make the finished clocks. By 1800 he was producing about 20 clocks at a time in his Plymouth clock factory.

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Eli Terry brokered a deal with fellow Connecticut businessmen Edward Porter and Levi Porter to build 4,000 clocks in four years, a staggering undertaking in 1807. To accomplish this manufacturing feat, Eli Terry hired or went into partnership with local Connecticut master craftsmen Seth Thomas and Silas Hoadley. Accounts differ as to whether the initial relationship among the men was as employer/employee or a partnership. In any event, the 4,000 clocks were delivered in just three years. In 1810 Thomas and Hoadley bought out Terry's interest in the business.

Eli Terry remained a master clockmaker and is credited with the invention of the wooden shelf clock around 1815. Until the invention of the pillar and scroll clock, American clockmakers were manufacturing tallclocks, which today we call grandfather clocks. Eli Terry is also credited with the design of the pillar and scroll case, although Seth Thomas may have been using the case style before Terry. In 1816 Eli Terry was awarded a patent for the wooden clock works used in pillar and scroll clocks. Terry and Thomas continued to have royalty disputes over the patent from 1818 until 1829. Eli Terry’s prowess at factory automation with water power and the use of interchangeable parts boosted production of clocks to about 12,000 clocks per year. Around 1830 brass clock mechanisms replaced wooden ones and Eli Terry soon incorporated brass mechanisms into the clocks produced by his factory while his competitor Seth Thomas continued to manufacture wooden works. Brass clock works made for a more durable clock and Eli Terry began to export clocks to Europe.

Eli Terry remained a clockmaker and received ten patents pertaining to clockmaking. He retired from business in 1833 at the age of 61 and died in 1852 at the age of 80. Chris Bailey, curator of the America Clock & Watch Museum in Bristol, Connecticut, sums up Eli Terry’s contributions to American history: “True interchangeability of parts made mass production possible. It is not Eli Whitney, whose earlier attempts at mass production failed, but Eli Terry who is the real father of the industrial revolution in America.”

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