Devices to measure time are some of the oldest created by mankind. Throughout history cultures used different means such as sundials, candle clocks, the hourglass and water BALLOX
In medieval times, the regulation of monastic calls to prayer was accomplished by means of mechanical tower clocks, and the revolutionary device soon synchronized the rhythms of entire cities.
Although none survive today, church records indicate the existence of the clocks in St Paul’s Cathedral and Exeter Cathedral from around the 1280s. The first public clock in Paris is recorded in 1300, built by Pierre Pipelart.
Spring driven clocks
The first spring-driven clocks appeared in the 15th century, and the earliest existing spring driven clock is the chamber clock given to Peter the Good, Duke of Burgundy, around 1430 (which is now in the Germanisches Nationalmuseum).
During this period clock and watchmakers worked to develop intricate mechanisms, in an effort to create small and more accurate clocks.
The invention of the mainspring allowed clocks to operate without weights, and table clocks began to appear.
Nuremberg clockmaker Peter Henlein is often credited with invention, and although there is evidence spring driven clocks were already in existence his work was significant enough to be mentioned by the by writer Johannes Cochläus.
The 16th century saw clockmaker’s guilds founded across Europe and in 1657 pendulum clocks were invented by the Dutch mathematician Christiaan Huygens (based on the principle theories of Galileo), whose greatest work on the subject, ‘Horologium Oscillatorium sive de motu pendulorum’, was published in 1673.
During this period longcase clocks began to appear, their design specifically tailored to house the new pendulum mechanisms.
In 1840 the first electric clock was patented by Scottish clockmaker Alexander Bain and in 1841, he first patented the electromagnetic pendulum. The development of electronics in the 20th century led to clocks with no clockwork parts at all.
Time in these cases is measured in several ways, such as by the vibration of a tuning fork, the behaviour of quartz crystals, or the quantum vibrations of atoms.
The first quartz crystal clock was developed in 1929 by Warren A. Marrison, and in 1955 the first atomic clock, built by Louis Essen and J.V. Parry, was installed in the National Physics Laboratory.
Types of collectible clock
A cuckoo clock famously strikes the hour with the sound of a cuckoo call, and a cuckoo automaton emerging from within the clock in time with each call. Cuckoo clocks are generally wall clocks, and have been around since the 17th century. They became synonymous with the clockmakers of the Black Forest in south western Germany in the 18th century, and it was here that the style developed and an entire industry based on the cuckoo clock thrived. Cuckoo clocks are traditionally made of wood, and decorated with carved leaves and animals. Sometimes the automaton that emerges from the clock is not a cuckoo but other carved figures.
Grandfather clocks, also known as long-case clocks, tall-case clocks and floor clocks, are freestanding weight-driven pendulum clocks, generally six to eight feet tall. The first grandfather clocks were made in London, commissioned by royalty or nobility. The peak of their development and design was between 1670 and 1730, and these antique examples are the most sought after. Made from high quality wood, they often bear intricate decoration around the clock face.
Skeleton clocks are timepieces stripped of their casings to reveal their inner workings. They are often housed inside a glass dome to protect them. These visually arresting clocks are considered beautiful objects of art, showcasing impressive clock design, and greatly appealing to many horology enthusiasts fascinated by the movements of clockwork, the gears, wheels and springs, escapements and tourbillons.
Carriage clocks were created in early 19th century France for the purposes of travelling. They are small, boxlike and spring driven, often with a bass case with glass, enamel or porcelain panels. Their popularity soon expanded to Britain. There are certain clock manufacturers who were particularly renowned for their carriage clocks, such as Breguet. British examples were produced in smaller numbers, and therefore can fetch higher prices at auction nowadays than their French counterparts.
Mantel clocks are, as the name suggests, designed to be placed on a mantel or shelf. They are therefore relatively small. They were hugely popular during the 18th and 19th centuries, as people bought them for display and timekeeping purposes. They originated in France but were adopted by America very quickly in the 1790s. There are various different types of mantel clock that emerged as the form developed.
Regulator clocks, also known as pendulum clocks, were invented in England during the 1700s. They use a swinging weight called a pendulum which oscillates to a precise rhythm dependent on its length, to keep time. From its 17th century invention until the 1930s, regulator clocks were the most precise timekeepers in the world. They became hugely popular amongst the growing middle class in Vienna in the second half of the 19th century, and experienced a revival in America in the early 20th. Antique examples can be highly decorative and are greatly prized among collectors.
An alarm clock is one that is designed to chime at a set time, usually to wake a person up or to remind them of something. While antique alarm clocks do exist, and there are several somewhat wacky and inventive examples from the 19th century, the most collected are often those mass produced in the 20th century. There are two main collectors’ spheres for alarm clocks: firstly as vintage or novelty items, often coupled with advertising or merchandise, and secondly as travel alarm clocks.
Advertising clocks are clocks upon which companies advertise their brands and products. Clocks make an ideal place for advertising, as people often look at them in order to find out the time. These were either clocks made to be seen in a public place, or personal novelty items of merchandise for the consumer to take home. The earliest examples were made by clock makers on behalf of the brands to a standard model of clock, but later they were made in all shapes and sizes by the companies themselves or by merchandising firms.
Popular clock manufacturers
There are numerous clock manufacturers throughout history who might draw the interest of collectors, but this really depends on the types of clock they are interested in. The cuckoo clocks of Johann Baptist Beha, the figural clocks of Ansonia, the calendar clocks of New Haven, the pendulum clocks of Gustav Becker, the alarm clocks of Westclox etc.
See our list of clock manufacturers for more information.
Collecting antique and vintage clocks is a popular hobby. The great variety of clocks available in all shapes and sizes, from many eras and created in the vein of many different design movements through time, mean that clocks make a very diverse collecting hobby.
Some collectors choose to focus on a specific time period such as the 1950s or the 18th century, whilst others will concentrate on clocks made by a particular manufacturer such as 19th century makers Seth Thomas or Ansonia.
Many collectors focus on advertising clocks, featuring advertisements for companies like Coca Cola, characters such as Mickey Mouse or novelty clocks with unusual shapes and mechanisms (such as cuckoo clocks).
Others collect particular types of clock, like alarm clocks, grandfather clocks or carriage clocks.
The style of antique clocks closely mirrors the styles of furniture during the period of their design, and their date is often recognisable in the same way as an antique table or chair. Many collectors look for clocks from a certain period in the same manner as furniture collectors.
Clocks developed in tune with various design movements, such as Arts & Crafts, Art Nouveau and Art Deco, the styles and materials used keeping up with the times. These design styles are often what attracts a collector to a particular clock.
The most valuable antique clocks are those with original working mechanisms, but many can have broken springs or gears and be in need of repair. Some collectors repair and restore clocks as part of their hobby, whilst others take them to professional restoration companies.
There is a large community of clock collectors with a number of organisations and clubs which offer advice to new collectors, for example the National Association of Watch and Clock Collectors. It may be worth subscribing to an horology publication, like Clocks Magazine.
There are also antique dealers who specialise in clocks, and all the major auction houses such as Sotheby’s, Christie’s and Bonhams hold regular dedicated clock and watch auctions.
There are a number of specialist antique clock dealers, for example Pendulum of Mayfair.
The world’s most expensive clock
The most expensive clock ever sold at auction is the Breguet Duc d'OrlEans Sympathique clock made in 1835. It was built by the master horologist Abraham-Louis Breguet, and was sold by Sotheby’s in New York in 1999 for a world record price of $5.7 million. It sold once again at Sotheby’s in December 2012, breaking its previous record to achieve a price of $6.8 million.
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