From the first conception of time, we have tried to organize ourselves and our lives around a schedule. Perhaps more than any other invention, the recording of time, marked the burgeoning of a developed world. Pre-dynastic Egypt noted the splitting of a single day and began to use obelisks or sundials to mark the various apportioned times. More exact devices that recorded the passage of time were, indexed candles that would burn at an established speed and the still popular (though truly decorative) hourglass with sand. The measuring of time allowed farmers through observation, to accurately gauge when it was better to plant, grow or harvest. Education about the seasons spread and resulted in better crop yields, which was critical for progress.

Tell that to us when we pick the softest melody for an alarm in the morning, only to still have vaguely prehistoric levels of fumbling and dumb anger as we hustle to bang it off. Yet, we must go on and accept the rather cruel injustice of a schedule. There’s no turning back time…

The first mechanical clocks were made in a monastery by monks to signal canonical hours or periods for fixed times of prayer.  Weights would derive their power from water in which momentum was culled by a pendulum-like mechanism or oscillator. The managed release of this energy is called the escapement and is still used today in mechanical clocks and watches. This is where the whole ticking sound comes from! At least some iteration of the mechanical clock is what you see in most if not all antique clocks today.



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  Longcase clocks or Grandfather clocks are usually thought of as the pinnacle of mechanical clocks. They work much the same as some of the very first clocks, with weights and a pendulum. The difference is the scale and the long cabinet which encases the mechanism. These showpieces are typically seen with detailed embellishments and a hood or bonnet, which should fit the clock face. So how did the longcase clock come to be known as the grandfather clock?  Our story begins at the George Hotel in North Yorkshire. In 1875 an American musician, Henry Clay Work was traveling through England and found himself in the lobby of the hotel. Henry, having never seen a longcase clock before, inquired about the history of such an elaborate piece. The tale, whether true or false became the foundation for the new idiom. They told him the clock had belonged to the two previous owners (the Jenkins brothers) and that the clock had seemingly kept accurate time during their tenure but when the first sibling passed they noticed the clock starting to have deficiencies. Not long after the second brother passed and the clock stopped entirely, to the minute of his death. Whatever the merit of such a tale, Henry found it was good source material for his next oeuvre. It was he who christened it with the fitting title of Grandfather clock and as the song became a huge hit, the moniker stuck.

“1. My grandfather’s clock was too large for the shelf, So it stood ninety years on the floor;

It was taller by half than the old man himself, Though it weighed not a pennyweight more.

It was bought on the morn of the day that he was born, And was always his treasure and pride;

But it stopp’d short – never to go again – When the old man died.


Ninety years without slumbering (tick, tick, tick, tick),

His life seconds numbering (tick, tick, tick, tick),

It stopp’d short – never to go again – When the old man died.

2. In watching its pendulum swing to and fro, Many hours had he spent while a boy;

And in childhood and manhood the clock seemed to know And to share both his grief and his joy.

For it struck twenty-four when he entered at the door, With a blooming and beautiful bride;

But it stopp’d short – never to go again – When the old man died.


3. My grandfather said that of those he could hire, Not a servant so faithful he found;

For it wasted no time, and had but one desire – At the close of each week to be wound.

And it kept in its place – not a frown upon its face, And the hands never hung by its side;

But it stopp’d short – never to go again – When the old man died.


4. It rang an alarm in the dead of the night – An alarm that for years had been dumb;

And we knew that his spirit was pluming for flight – That his hour of departure had come.

Still the clock kept the time, with a soft and muffled chime, As we silently stood by his side;

But it stopp’d short – never to go again – When the old man died.”


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 The appreciation of such construction lies in understanding that first desire for advancement.  The human initiative to measure and govern the world around them was enough to birth the sophistication of the mechanical clock. The antique clock works in this case, like a totem, reminding us of what we owe to these pioneers of progress.


Written by Fireside Antiques