A Brief History of Grandfather Clocks

Since the beginning of civilization, humans have searched for a reliable way to keep track of the time. In the earliest days, months, seasons and years were tracked by careful monitoring of the phases of the moon. Later, the sun and stars were also used to help early people track the passing of time.

The Sumerians used the sundial to divide days into two-hour segments. The Egyptians created a device called Cleopatra’s needle to divide their days into two-hour segments while the ancient Romans devised a way of dividing time into night and day.

A pressing need for more precise measurements led to the invention of the water clock and then the hourglass. These inventions were limited as they relied on water and sand, respectively, to function. The search continued to search for a way of tracking time independent of the seasons or nature.

In 1582, Galileo discovered that a pendulum could be used to track time. He drew the first designs for a grandfather clock, though he did not build it. Finally, in 1656, Christiaan Huygens built the first known grandfather clock, putting Galileo’s discovery to use. Though the clock did not keep accurate time, it was a major breakthrough in timekeeping technology. Through the years, various inventors tried to improve on the design, but with little luck.

Finally, in 1670, William Clement discovered that the clocks worked better with a longer pendulum. Of course, this required a taller clock. Clement named his newly designed clocks long-case clocks. This was the predecessor of the grandfather clocks that we know today.

In 1875, Henry Work wrote the song “My Grandfather’s Clock” and the name stuck and finally, after many years in the making, grandfather clocks were born.

Today’s grandfather clocks rely on a pendulum attached to an anchor. The swinging pendulum causes the anchor to turn a gear, which in turn causes the clock to tick. A pair of weights further helps power the clock and keeps it from losing time. Although the technology has evolved over the years, the grandfather clocks of today still reflect the ingenuity of human’s earliest ancestors.

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