October 20, 2020 5 min read

The history of the grandfather clock stretches back further than most people would imagine. The first mechanical clock on record was built by the future Pope Sylvester II in 996 for the German town of Magdeburg. Monitoring the passage of time was important to those in holy orders and many of the earliest clock designers were monks. Accurate timekeeping was important to observe their religious obligations and strict schedules. By the 11th Century, clocks were well known throughout Europe according to writings of the time. In ‘Paradiso’ the third volume of his Divine Comedy (1320), Dante makes the first recorded reference to a clock that strikes on the hour.

By the 15th Century, advances in design led to miniaturisation and domestic clocks became possible. However, these could be expensive and unreliable, with a loss of accuracy of up to fifteen minutes per day. Reliability was vastly improved with the invention of the pendulum clock, but this was some way off.

Who Created The Grandfather Clock?

In 1582 Galileo Galilei, the ‘father of modern science’, was at prayer in Pisa Cathedral. Noticing a swaying chandelier that the lamplighter had lit, he was struck by inspiration. He began to time its swings, comparing them to his own heartbeat. Galileo noticed that regardless of the width of the arc it followed, the time taken for one complete swing was the same. Having recorded his findings, he mused on them for some years in search of an application. Eventually he concluded that if the swing of a pendulum could be integrated into the workings of a clock, it would be the most accurate ever made. For the rest of his life Galileo, with the aid of his son, experimented on producing such a timepiece. Unfortunately, despite all his noteworthy achievements, he was unsuccessful in this task and died before it could be realised.

Seventy years later, the noted Dutch astronomer Christian Huygens was searching for an accurate design for an astronomical clock. He knew that precise timekeeping was vital for accurately predicting the movement of stars and planets. Inspired by Galileo’s ideas and experiments he concluded that the inclusion of a pendulum was the key. In 1656, he produced his first successful design by hitching a pendulum to the existing workings of a clock. Accuracy was increased from fifteen minutes a day to one minute, revolutionising clockmaking for ever. Later versions of this design further improved this to only ten seconds, a level of accuracy previously unheard of. The German theoretical physicist Arnold Sommerfeld, himself a legendary scientific pioneer, described Huygens as ‘the most ingenious watchmaker of all time’.

These designs quickly inspired domestic clockmakers, using pendulums and chains suspended below cast iron, wall mounted frames. While these models emphasised function over form, they were the forerunners of all ‘Long Case Clocks’ that followed. They were popularly known as ‘Wags on the Wall’ due to the movement of the pendulum and its similarity to the wagging tail of a dog. These early pendulum clocks used a Verge Escapement Mechanism that required a swing of eighty to one hundred degrees. This wide swing made the addition of a case difficult, if not impossible. In 1670, an English clockmaker, William Clement, invented the Anchor Escapement Mechanism which reduced the necessary swing to four to six degrees. This allowed the use of longer pendulums with slower beats, typically one meter long with a one second swing. This required less power to operate and consequently reduced wear and tear on components. The improved design also increased accuracy and is largely unchanged in contemporary grandfather clocks.

The shorter swing allowed a narrow case to be constructed around the clock, which had to be tall to contain the long pendulum. This gave rise to the design we all recognise from antique grandfather clocks. At this point they were known as Long Case Clocks, Coffin Clocks, Standing Clocks and by several other names. English grandfather clocks soon became highly decorative, with expensive premium woods used for their cases. Grandfather clock dials could be intricately engraved and glass panels were incorporated to show off the grandfather clock mechanism. Although it is often erroneously credited to English clockmaker George Graham, the Deadbeat Escapement was actually invented in 1675 by Astronomer Richard Towneley. However, it was Graham who first incorporated into grandfather clock design in 1715, greatly increasing accuracy.

Due to their complexity and craftsmanship, only the rich could afford to buy a grandfather clock and they became status symbols. Even if the less well off could afford one it was unlikely their home would have the high ceilings to fit it in the room. Between 1630 and 1730, long case clocks were so expensive their only owners were royals and other nobles. As time passed, production costs decreased and other households could afford to own these prized items. They were still by no means cheap and well beyond the reach of the average citizen. Long case clocks became highly sought after in other countries and in 1685, the first ‘immigrant’ clocks were shipped to America. Ten years later, American production began and they became extremely popular with plantation owners and other wealthy businessmen.

Until 1870, grandfather clock designs were gradually improved and refined but the overall design remained unchanged. Then came the moment when the name we all recognise was coined.

Why is it called a grandfather clock?

In 1875, Henry Clay Work, an American songwriter famed for his song ‘Marching Through Georgia’ was visiting England. While staying at the George Hotel in Piercebridge, Yorkshire he noticed a large long case clock in the lobby. The clock made no sound, its pendulum was still and Henry was intrigued. When he asked the owners about its history, they claimed it belonged to previous owners the Jenkins brothers. When the first brother died the clock which had worked perfectly for years began to lose time. No one could fix this and when the second brother also died the clock stopped for good. From the second he died, the clock never worked again despite efforts to repair it. Charmed by this story, if not convinced, Henry wrote the song ‘My Grandfather’s Clock’ which became a massive hit. It sold over a million copies in sheet music, a record for the time and the song is still sung today. The song so captured the public imagination that ‘Grandfather Clock’ soon became the common name for a long case clock and persists to this day.

Clock corner is a family run business specialising in the repair and restoration of antique clocks and timepieces. We also sell exclusive, premium items from all eras, from the 18th century to the present day. Established in 1974 with the intention of guaranteeing excellence in clock repair and supplying unique timepieces of all kinds, customer satisfaction is our primary goal. Whatever your needs, contact us, our friendly expert staff will be glad to help.