Clocks, the first machines to be made in any numbers, have a double fascination for the collector, with the mechanical ingenuity and craftsmanship of their movements matched by the decorative details of their cases. Ornamental as well as useful, the variety of clocks made over the years provides a rich field for the collector.
In ancient times, the passage of time was marked by sundials, water-clocks and hour-glasses. The first mechanical clock was probably made around the 13th century to call monks to prayer. The earliest ones that survive today are from the 14th century, and are also ecclesiastical in origin.
One in Salisbury Cathedral dates from 1386.
These large early clocks were driven by descending weights, and needed to be fixed to a wall and left in one piece. They had no faces, but marked the time with bells. The word clock derives from the Latin for bell, and any clock that doesn't strike the hour would, strictly speaking, be called a timepiece.
The next leap forward was the invention in about 1450 of clocks driven by an uncoiling spring, which made possible much more complex mechanisms. However, as the spring unwound, the force decreased and the clock slowed down, making accuracy a problem. From the 16th century this was compensated for with the use of a fusee, a cone-shaped piece on which was wound the gut which connected the spring to the movement.
GETTING IN THE SWING
Seventeenth-century clockmakers searched for a way to regulate the escapement, the mechanism by which the force supplied by the drive of a clock is released at regular intervals to mark the passing of time. The idea of using a pendulum to do this was noted by Leonardo da Vinci late in the 15th century, but wasn't put into practice until 150 years later. A Dutchman, Christiaan Huygens, worked out the theory and the first pendulum clock was patented in Amsterdam in the 1650s by a clockmaker called Soloman
The accuracy of a pendulum clock rests on the principle that the time taken for any pendulum to swing back and forth depends entirely on how long it is and otherwise never varies. The previously unheard-of accuracy created by using a pendulum to govern the escapement ushered in a golden age of British
clock making. The first British pendulum clocks were made by the Fromanteel family, emigre Dutchmen living in London, the year after they were introduced in Holland, and British clocks soon acquired a reputation as the most accurate in the world.
The mid-17th century, when all this was happening, was the heyday of wall-hanging lantern clocks. These were made all in brass, often with a dial larger than the case so that it overlapped, and had a bell on top, mounted on curved metal supports and topped off with a finial. They continued to be made until around 1720 in London, and as late as 1800 in the provinces. They are often found today fitted with pendulums, which are original in some clocks but were often added later to increase their accuracy. They have been widely reproduced since the 19th century.
The next type of clock to evolve was a free-standing one with the weights and pendulum enclosed in a case. For a pendulum swing to beat out a second, it has to be lm / 39in long, and the case had to be tall enough to accommodate this.
This physical fact was the genesis of longcase
clocks, most of which were around 1.8m/6ft tall. They became popular in the last quarter of the 17th century, at a time when the skills of British cabinetmakers were being supplemented by an influx of craftsmen from the Low Countries. The clocks soon came to be seen as handsome pieces of furniture in their own right, and continued to be made until well into the 19th century.
While lantern clocks usually went for just 30 hours, and had to be rewound every day, longcase clocks typically contained a movement that went for eight days, though versions with both three-month and one-year movements were also made.
At the same time as the longcase clock was coming into its own, shorter, enclosed pendulums were put into smaller, free-standing clocks intended for domestic use. These could be placed on a table or wall bracket - they became known as bracket clocks - and moved about if need be. Of necessity they had very solid cases and, though theoretically portable, they were quite heavy.
Clocks intended purely for the mantelpiece - mantel clocks - were first developed in France in the 1750s. Smaller and often more delicately made than bracket clocks, mantel clocks are still widely made today.
The first truly portable clocks carriage clocks - appeared, again in France, at the beginning of the 19th century.
ANATOMY OF A CLOCK
Before the invention of the electric clock at the end of the 19th century, all clocks were powered either by descending weights or by uncoiling springs. The escapement, usually regulated by a pendulum or a balance wheel, transfers this to the movement, a series of geared cogwheels and pinions fitted between two plates.
This series of wheels is known as a train, and most clocks have two - a going train to move the hands, and a striking train, which sounds the hours.
While the basic construction of a going train has varied little over the centuries, complex refinements have been introduced to the striking train. Some sound the quarters as well as the hours, and some are repeaters; by pressing a button, the clock can be made to repeat the previous hour and quarter hour. This was a very useful refinement in dark bedrooms.
DATE AND TIME
Clues to the age and origins of a clock are rarely found in the movement, though sometimes the brass backplate has an engraved signature and date. A better guide is the style of the hands and the decorative details of the dial. The chapter ring (with the hours marked on it) may bear a signature, though this is usually the name of the retailer or cabinetmaker, especially if it is painted on.