Explore / Articles
Clocks - a guide to the different types
The earliest clocks, from the fourteenth century, were made of iron and were placed in cathedrals, churches and public buildings to announce the time to those within earshot of the building. By the beginning of the fifteenth century, smaller clocks were being made for domestic use, either wall-mounted and weight-driven, from the mid-century, portable and spring-driven. These designs continued throughout the sixteenth century and changed little, being controlled either by a balance wheel or a foliot.
The sixteenth century in South Germany, particularly in Augsburg, Munich and Nuremberg, saw a proliferation of complicated spring-driven clocks and automata made for the wealthy courts of the Holy Roman Empire and for export, particularly to the Ottoman empire of Suleyman the Magnificent. Makers in France and the Low Countries were also making elaborately decorated metal-cased clocks for wealthy customers around Europe. At the beginning of the seventeenth century, in the Netherlands and especially in England, a style of clock developed from the chamber clocks of the previous century which are now called lantern clocks.
Following the introduction of the pendulum in 1657, new styles of clock came into fashion, housed in wooden cases, particularly in England and The Netherlands where the longcase clock, commonly called the grandfather clock, and the spring-driven table clock (bracket clock) came into being. The night clock was briefly popular at the end of the seventeenth century: a lamp was placed inside the clock to illuminate the dial at night. However, they went out of fashion in competition with the repeating table clock, which struck the last hour and quarter on a bell when a cord was pulled in the side of the case.
At the end of the seventeenth century a fashion developed in France for clock cases made from brass or pewter inlaid tortoise-shell popularised by Charles Boulle. In the following century elaborate sculptural clocks established a mode which was also to last until the end of the nineteenth century. At the same time, in parallel with the longcase clock, the ownership of precision regulators spilled over from the world of the astronomer and scientists into the domestic realm where some ordinary clock owners became increasingly concerned with accuracy rather than decoration.
The nineteenth century saw a proliferation of different styles of clock and one of the most popular types was the carriage clock, originally designed as a traveller's aid but one which is still popular today as a domestic mantel clock. At the same time the skeleton clock became a popular style in English clock-making. The twentieth century saw the introduction of quartz technology and most recently that of atomic science with their associated leaps forward in the accuracy of clocks.