The history of anything sometimes begins in unlikely ways with unlikely people. That was how it happened with the grandfather clock. In 1582, eighteen year old Galileo Galilei was praying in the cathedral of Pisa. Distracted by a swinging chandelier that had been just lit by the lamplighter, his attention got caught up in its movement. It was no surprise, being scientific-minded as he was, that Galileo began to time the swings. Having no other tools with which to measure, he used the steady pulse of his heartbeat and found that no matter how wide or narrow an arc the chandelier made, the time it took to swing from one side to the other was the same.
Of course Galileo recorded his findings, but his discovery wasn’t going to be just another entry in a forgotten notebook. Some years later, he experimented trying to apply the pendulum’s precise movement to the measurement of time so as to regulate the workings of a clock. He hoped to produce a timepiece that was more accurate than anything before, and for the rest of his life he and his son worked at the task. But, in spite of his many other scientific achievements, he was ultimately unsuccessful with the clock.
In the realm of science, one discovery often leads to another, and Galileo’s efforts were not in vain. For his work paved the way for Christian Huygens, a Dutch astronomer who himself was in pursuit of a more accurate clock for predicting the movement of the stars and planets. Accuracy of time to an astronomer is like a sharp chisel to a sculptor. Precision is a must. And in 1656, Huygens successfully “hitched” a pendulum to the workings of a clock. It revolutionized clock making by greatly increasing the accuracy of timepieces from fifteen minutes per day to one minute per day. Huygens had his heaven…stars and all.
His creation was the very first prototype of what would later be called the “long case clock”. At the time, these clocks were named “wags-on-the-wall” since their pendulums were short, and “wagged” back and forth like the tail on a dog. The clocks mounted on a wall and had cast iron frames and weights which dangled below. Not what you’d call “pretty” but they did the job.
Before too long, the clocks were encased in wood and in just few short years there were many versions of Huygen’s design. By 1660, English clock makers had thoroughly made over the “wag on the wall” with a longer ten inch pendulum and a case of about six feet in length. As some things tend to get bigger and better, the pendulum grew even longer in 1670 when English clockmaker William Clement introduced the Royal Pendulum; it was thirty nine inches in length and took one full second to swing back and forth. Now this clock was something to get excited about. It varied by no more than ten seconds per day and was so accurate that a minute and second hand could be added to keep company with the hour hand. From top to bottom it was just over seven feet tall and to showcase its pendulum and weights, glass panels were eventually added.
Here’s when, with these improvements, the towering timepiece became the first recognizable grandfather clock, although at the time its name was still the “long case clock” or “floor clock.” The next big breakthrough in the clock’s development was in 1715 by George Graham. His invention of the dead beat escapement took clock movements to an even greater level of accuracy.
It’s interesting that during the period of 1630 to about 1730, there was a kind of “Royal Age” of the long case clock. These timepieces were so expensive that only royal families and nobles could afford them (photo on right: a six foot high long case clock, dated 1675–78). But in time, production costs went down and owning a long case clock became possible for some well-to-do households. The clock would also find new homes in far away places, and in about 1685 the first “immigrant” long case clocks crossed the Atlantic to the American colonies where roughly ten years later their production began.
There were many improvements in the long case clock from about 1670 to 1870. The cabinets changed in their designs, shapes and wood types; the square clock face became more visually appealing as its materials, shape and patterns changed; and the clock movements also progressed.
Today, grandfather clocks are still styled using designs from that two hundred year period. That’s staying power;. The “look” of the clock has pretty much stayed the same, but the name hasn’t. How and why did the term “grandfather clock” take the place of “long case clock” and “floor clock”? We can give all the credit to a song written in 1875 by Henry Clay Work, an American songwriter and composer. He named the piece “The Grandfather Clock”. The popularity of Work’s ballad swept the nation and by the early 1880′s the long case clock became known as, the “grandfather clock”. Today, smaller versions of the grandfather clock have similar names such as the “grandmother clock”, six feet tall, and the “granddaughter clock”, five feet tall.
As an object of beauty and as an impressive symbol of the passage of time, nothing is likely to replace the stature of the grandfather clock. Knowing about its eventful history and how it became the magnificent timepiece that it is, adds to how much more we can appreciate it. If you’re interested in perusing some of today’s traditional and modern style grandfather clocks, you can see them here on our website.
Have you an heirloom grandfather clock in your family? If you do we’d love to hear from you about its history.
Photo #1 – Diagram of pendulum motion
Photo # 2 – Galileo Galilei
Photo # 3 – Christian Huygens
Photo # 4 – First pendulum clock – front view diagram
Photo # 5 – First pendulum clock – side view diagram
Photo # 6 – Antique grandfather clock
Photo # 7 – Hermle Castleton Grandfather Clock
Photo # 8 – Hermle Amhurst Grandfather Clock
Photo # 9 – Hermle Charlottesville Grandfather Clock
Photo # 10 – traditionalmusic.co.uk